meet jfk 2.0: james felton keith, candidate for congress

September 4, 2019
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James Felton Keith is no stranger to AFROPUNK. When he attended his first Festival, in 2010, it was still kind of a fringe event. Just a cluster of people with big ideas and the need to connect — plus a single food truck, Gorilla Cheese, that could cater to the appetites worked up over the weekend.The spirit was already there though. So was the recognition of its own value, and the buzz of cultural ideas that events like AFROPUNK generate. Recognizing the merit of such ideas has been a thread throughout Keith’s career in business, editorial and politics. 

After dropping out of Harvard, JFKii (yes, he embraces it) spent an influential period of his young life working in South Africa, creating companies, observing their rises (and falls), and cultivating the space and distance to organize his thoughts. He took time to confront the disillusion he felt leaving a broken Detroit, while trying to come to terms with his sexuality, his Blackness and the economic disparities across the globe.

Now, after several successful business ventures, including the founding of a prominent LGBTQIA+-focused TV station, and a career in data science, JFKii is entering politics. He is running for congress in New York’s 13th congressional district. On September 21st, he will also be one of the leaders of the Universal Basic Income March, an initiative Keith founded through his work with the Keith Institute. Following the march, Keith will be speaking at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church. AFROPUNK caught up with him ahead of the rally, to hear his thoughts on how a universal basic income fits into his ideas of  inclusion, community, and our digital rights in 2020.

James Felton Keith II

A recent Nature Communications study highlighted how easy it is to reidentify individuals from anonymous datasets. Many politicians are calling for outright bans on forms of data collection such a facial recognition technology. How worried should we really be about this?  

Jordan Peele’s recent hit, Us, took viewers on a terrifying beach-house vacation that changes a family’s world forever. Without throwing in too many spoilers, the movie explores privilege, classism and marginalized communities through the concept of the ‘Tethered’; carbon copies of the characters that live below the surface, created in a failed attempt to control the population.

But if we come back to 2019, this idea that each of us has a ‘Tethered’ isn’t too far from the truth. Just the fact that you’re reading this article now is most likely being added to a database that makes up your ‘digital twin,’ a copy that gets more reflective of the ‘real you’ each second. All those slick adverts and personalized product pathways are crafted from the thousands of digital interactions we produce. What we read, where we go, which metro-line we take, how much we earn, how we spend it, our health, our happiness, our relationships.

The fact is, our digital lives are not separate from our lives. Events like the Cambridge Analytica scandal shone a light on all the things we, as data scientists, anticipated. The scariest example of the scandal is the realization that all that data still exists somewhere, and that no one needs to ask details of you, in order to vaguely know you in the 21st Century. Even if you wield every right to anonymization out there. Data has been forever weaponized in the post-Facebook era and we should be urgently worried about this.  

So if our current rights to anonymization are not fit for purpose, what steps can individuals take to push back? 

The way that we protect ourselves is to establish more individual data ownership rights, so that one can sue in an American court, for “harm” of their property, or more specifically, for their digital personhood. The Data Bill of Rights is a rhetorical tool to empower more endowed legislation. I would implement this through a regulation that established the six rights to:

  1. Erasure
  2. Portability
  3. Restrictive Processing
  4. Redress
  5. Education
  6. Ownership

 So how does this link back to your work on establishing a Universal Basic Income? 

The data economy is now our known reality and every digital transaction is the new measure of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Once we establish ownership and understand the intrinsic value of our data, how it’s worth more than oil, it becomes clear that we are owed for our contributions to these data lakes and the value companies extract from them. 

We’re presented with a huge opportunity to redistribute the resources more fairly. We can pay people a Baseline Income for their participation in a society by giving them a constitutional equity stake in gross productivity; a dividend for your data, everywhere it’s assumed to be used. It’s only human, but it’s also exactly what we’re owed.

How important, in your opinion, are strong communities in building this kind of fairer future for everyone?

Communities are omni-important. Yet American and global society is depressed and disconnected right now, with suicide up 25% this century alone. LGBT communities represent under 5% of the population and tend to be younger and poorer than the population at large. 27% of Gen Z identifies as Gender Non-Conforming, but more than twice as likely to have experienced psychological distress in the past. 

Although we’re becoming more accepting, we’re also more intolerant, more triggered, more reactive. Hate crimes are actually at an all-time low, but we have more evidence of what’s going on than ever before. Events are captured and sent around-the-globe in an instant, and that event lives on and replays, making the trauma for each instance higher.

We need new frameworks in place to incentivize all of the individuals to come out safely so that the community can reflect its true dynamism and we can all benefit from the value of being active in our tribes.

The data dividend is just part of the story. The reason our data has such value is because we’re part of a tribe — the American Tribe, the Queer Tribe, the Cultural Tribe, the New York Tribe – and the value of a person as a member of these tribes is exponentially higher than as an individual. Individuals are at their best when they identify with a community, and communities are only at their best when they identify all of their individuals. This is my core philosophy of inclusionism.

You’re known as an entrepreneur, economist and a writer on the culture of technology. What makes you want to go into politics? 

We’re told to be an entrepreneur or become a self-made man — but that’s bullshit. When we don’t have the dignity and freedom to develop ourselves, when the reward is a move from abject poverty into middle class poverty, when the wealth of the globe is stuck in a few hands and no-one else owns a piece of the pie. I first decided to try and run for congress in 2014, as the best way I could find to take activism to a wider platform. 

What do you hope the upcoming Universal Basic Income March will achieve? 

You shouldn’t need to earn the right to live. Until everyone knows that, we have to march. On September 21 we’re joining the Universal Basic Income March as an opportunity to solidify the sentiment of a community of activists. I hope to show that there are many types of people fighting for a UBI for different reasons. Reasons such as job automation and wage decreases, unpaid work, women’s rights, abject poverty, artistic freedom, labor slavery, but most importantly humanity.

Until this changes, we don’t have the breathing space to truly have acceptance, or to tackle the existential threats facing us — like the climate catastrophe or the overall health of humanity. Extracting our value from data and giving people the dignity of a UBI is not just a nice thing to do, it’s the first step we need to change the structures we inherited from the past century. 

We need to nail the next five years before we’re all out of hope. We need leaders as diverse as our identity labels, we need policies as transformative as UBI and mindsets as inclusive as inclusionism to get there. 

The Universal Basic Income March will take place in NYC, September 21. James will be speaking at the Convent Ave Baptist Church at the end of the march.


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