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Chelsea Manning in her first public appearance at the ICA
Chelsea Manning in conversation with James Bridle at the ICAvia Twitter (@JuliaKMichalska)

Nine key points from Chelsea Manning’s first UK appearance

The whistleblower, campaigner and technologist talks social media and AI, the prison system, and how to be a better activist

Yesterday, Chelsea Manning made her first public appearance in the UK. The whistleblower, who went to prison for leaking state secrets while in the military, spoke at length with artist and writer James Bridle, discussing surveillance, protest, trans rights, and machine learning.

Speaking at the ICA’s event at London’s Royal Institution, the former U.S soldier told the audience about her thoughts on the future of AI, social media, the police state and issues with the prison industrial complex. Manning was later honoured at the annual Friends of the ICA dinner later that evening.

She served seven years in a military prison for leaking government documents, but her 35 year sentence was commuted by then-president Obama, and she was released in 2017. Manning has been a long-standing advocate for queer and transgender rights, and a vocal campaigner on the prison system, police brutality, and the ethical use of artificial intelligence.

Here’s what went down at Chelsea’s talk: 

SHE LIKENED LIFE IN THE U.S TO PRISON 

Manning spent seven years in prison from 2010 to 2017 for violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses after disclosing military documents, first at the Quantico base in Virginia, and then in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Her sentenced was reduced by several months because of the conditions she endured in Virginia, which were denounced by the UN as a form of torture. Manning spent prolonged periods of time in solitary confinement – right now, 80,000 to 100,000 people are currently in solitary confinement conditions.

Speaking at the event, she told the audience that her idea of life outside jail was not how she expected.

“I am constantly bombarded by reminders about how different, about how drastically different the world really is,” Manning siad. “This whole notion that you get out of prison and you are free now turned out to be a bit of a downer in that sense.

“Because what happened, we really built this large, big prison, which is the United States, in the meantime – it was already happening, it really intensified.

“You think about the surveillance systems, the cameras, or the police presence, and you think about the fact that we have walls around our country, and that is very much the same thing that’s inside a prison. I see a lot of similarities between the world out here, and the world that was in there.”

SHE SPOKE ABOUT NAVIGATING THE WORLD AS A TRANS WOMAN

While she was in prison, Manning went through gender transition, and campaigned for transgender healthcare for prisoners and beyond.

“Somehow I often find myself having to debate my own existence with people. I don’t have the long-term solution, but it comes back to what local activists are doing,” she said.

“Being trans, I have an experience that a lot of people don’t have. All I expect and all I hope for is that people listen to what I have to say about that.”

When asked by an audience member about the lack of funding in the NHS for transgender people to access surgeries, she suggested people set up GoFundMe and crowdfunding campaigns to rely less on national institutions. 

Manning also addressed trans equality and how she sees things playing out. “I think there’s a misunderstanding – we may be a lot more visible, but visibility is not the same thing as equality. Just because you’re being seen, doesn’t mean you aren’t dealing with some of the same issues.” 

MANNING TALKED ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF INTERSECTIONALITY IN TIMES OF DIVISION

The activist spoke emphatically about the need for intersectionality and inclusivity, adding that the plight of many marginalized people in the United States is facilitated by the same forces. “Trans people and immigrant people have paperwork problems,” she said, “we’re affected by the same system, so there needs to be solidarity and a sense of working together.”

‘IT’S NOT A KNOWLEDGE PROBLEM, IT’S AN ACTION PROBLEM’ 

Manning asserted that the general public is pretty tuned in with regards to the issues of AI, social media, and surveillance. It’s everywhere in popular culture, of course – Ex Machina, Sophia the Robot, apps on our phone, the rants of Elon Musk on our Twitter timelines. Though we’re tuned in, what we should be doing to mitigate issues or problems isn’t so clear, according to Manning. “It’s not a knowledge problem, it’s an action problem.”

“We don’t need to have a full understanding to see this system is having a major affect.” 

ON ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND MACHINE LEARNING 

“We need to be asking the deeper, fundamental questions to see real change. Who is behind the tools? There’s someone behind the curtain with algorithms. Who interprets them? Who develops them?” Manning said.

The activist and technologist outlined that we must think about the ethical consequences of systems, and instill a sense of responsibility in the people making these programs. “In the same way a doctor has a responsibility to a patient, machine learning developers are affecting people, millions of people, in what can also be life and death situations. The constraints should be the equivalent, if not higher.”

Manning referenced the scientists from the Manhattan Project – undertaken during World War II in the U.S, UK and Canada to develop the first atomic bomb. She claimed that as many of the scientists on that project later became critics of nuclear development and technology, there should be checks and balances, safety and policy surrounding humanity-affecting tech.

On working on AI herself, she said: “I get this chilling feeling sometimes, working with algorithms…it’s an inorganic life form.”

Ultimately though, she claims that technology is “of no inherent value from a moral perspective” – technology is neither good nor bad nor neutral, it’s whatever we put into it. That’s why we need more transparency and democratized control over the future. 

ON RUNNING FOR SENATE

Back in June, Manning was defeated in the democratic primary for the Maryland senate seat. She ran in January, in a bid to become the first transgender member of Congress. “If you run for office in America you’re given a platform, a space to make debate,” she said. “A lot of the ideas I had in my campaign weren’t reall seen anywhere else – ICE, defunding police departments, universal basic income. I wanted to bring these issues out, using a traditional method to do something not traditional.”

THE COMMODIFICATION OF ACTIVISM TODAY

Manning said that the commodification of activism by corporations has been something she’s “struggled” to deal with. “There’s always a temptation to sell out,” she admitted. “But I’ve a lot of problems with the idea that an existing large company will lift you up and then expect something from you, or tone down your message.” She directly referenced the recent Nike campaign with Colin Kaepernick, the football player who knelt during the U.S national anthem in protest against police brutality. “Using a political statement or reality to sell shoes isn’t necessarily going to solve anything. It tends to water down a message.” 

ON BEING AN ACTIVIST AND INCITING CHANGE 

Manning spoke passionately about the plight of prisoners, particularly in the U.S. “Prisoners aren’t visible to everyone, and that makes it hard to do advocacy work,” she said. “I need to be a part of this conversation, as I thought I was going to be in there for the rest of my life.”

Manning also asserted that protesting, direct action and keeping in tune with current issues is made deliberately difficult by the system we live in. “You’re not supposed to see the bigger picture. It’s meant to stay large and vast… you can stay in your little reality bubble, but once something penetrates that bubble, it’s impossible to return.”

She also spoke about the multiple activists groups by students and local communities she had visited, praising them as examples of grassroots movements that are invoking real change. Manning added that activism is becoming more textured and broader, far from just signing online petitions, chants, and voting. “These communities really know what the issues are, but are largely ignored for the federal government, who are distanced from the real political conversations,” she said.

ON TAKING POWER AWAY FROM INTERNET PROVIDERS

Manning’s major lesson for the audience was to advocate for decentralising the internet – basically, taking away the power and influence of big internet providers and platforms and sharing it out. They can’t fix themselves, so we have to push back. “We must create a new structure,” she said, directly calling out Facebook, Google and Twitter as the core problem. “Decentralise it and making it more of a level playing field for folks.” 

“Reduce the role they play, and increase the role we play.”