Tech’s Silicon Tower

I was just reading Cathy O’Neil’s (@mathbabedotorg) New York Times piece on the tech industry and academia, which argues how academics have not done enough to study issues caused by recent technology, including filter bubbles and big data. Others have already critiqued some of the tone and oversights of the piece, with varying degrees of sass, but I want to look at it as a rallying cry. While I think the piece could give more credit to current researchers, it recognizes a dangerous gap between this research and the tech industry.

A few of O’Neil’s points are especially key. For one, she notes how big data is often cloistered in companies, reducing access to academics. She also notes how private companies hire academics, and she describes how funding that drives engineering and computer science programs may not include more humanities-tinged concerns for the ethical, social dimensions of technology.

More contentiously, O’Neil also says, “There is essentially no distinct field of academic study that takes seriously the responsibility of understanding and critiquing the role of technology — and specifically, the algorithms that are responsible for so many decisions — in our lives.” While a distinct field of study may be harder to name and locate, plenty of sub-fields and inter-disciplinary work hits at this exact issue. For example, in rhet-comp, Kevin Brock and Dawn Shepherd discuss algorithms and their persuasive power and Jessica Reyman has analyzed issues of authorship and copyright with big data. Beyond rhet-comp, danah boyd continues to write on these issues, along with work from the University of Washington.

But a gap remains to some extent, despite this research.

Personally, I see two potential reasons: hubris and tech’s failure to consider social media more critically. Regarding hubris, George Packer’s “Change the World” (2013) explores Silicon Valley’s optimism and their skepticism of Washington. After describing how few start-ups invest in charity, for instance, Packer writes:

At places like Facebook, it was felt that making the world a more open and connected place could do far more good than working on any charitable cause. Two of the key words in industry jargon are “impactful” and “scalable”—rapid growth and human progress are seen as virtually indistinguishable. One of the mottoes posted on the walls at Facebook is “Move fast and break things.” Government is considered slow, staffed by mediocrities, ridden with obsolete rules and inefficiencies.

After Russia’s propaganda push and amid ongoing issues, like Facebook’s role in genocide, this optimism seems naive and dangerous. Zuckerberg’s trip to the Midwest , hiring more fact checkers, and increasing  government scrutiny seem to point to a change. But I’m not sure how much is actually changing in tech–or larger structures like education and law.

This leads me to my second thought. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger distinguishes between the ready-at-hand and the present-at-hand. The former refers to how we normally go through life, interacting with objects without much reflective thought, while the later refers to the way a scientist or philosopher may look at stuff. In his hammer example, Heidegger says that we normally use a hammer without much second thought, but once the hammer breaks, we reflect on what it is or does.

Similarly, with the ugly realities of social media surfacing more, we are more apt to examine and reflect. Before it “broke,” we used it as a neutral tool to communicate and pontificate digitally. As long as we continue to see social media as a neutral tool, or a tool just needing tweaks or fixes, we miss considering what social media is within a broader context of culture, economics, and society. We may be waking up to these deeper questions now, but we can’t fall back on present-for-hand approaches to use and design.

As Lori Emerson (2014) argues, companies rush to intuitive designs and ubiquitous computing, but we must consider how these trends blackbox the values and potentials of our tools. As Emerson and others argue, we can challenge these trends with firmer technological understanding, more democratized development, and the resistance of hackers and activists.

But with tech having so much power, I am not optimistic for change without a broader attitudinal shift in tech and elsewhere. I only see incremental changes coming, like increased fact checkers and algorithmic tweaks. These are good and may lead to significant change in time, but fundamental outlooks in tech–what philosophers may call instrumental rationality–will likely stay the same. Many critique the Ivory Tower for its obsession with present-at-hand abstraction, but the Silicon Tower seems just as dangerous with its present-for-hand reduction.

[Image: “Hacker” by the Preiser Project, via Creative Commons]

 

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CCR 634: Doing things with Words

When reading Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus dialogues, as well as the Dissoi Logoi and Gorgias’ “Ecomium,” three motifs struck me: the role of relativism, the act of teaching rhetoric, and the power of language. I also couldn’t help but meld some of these readings with where my head is at lately, so I think I’ll start there.

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Ruins, Trauma, and Time

The magazine showed a scarred, abandoned street. The sort of ruin porn that surfaces from Pripyat, Centralia, or some other orphaned collection of concrete and steel that once constituted “a city,” or at least something human. Shifting earth had torn ditches into the blacktop, like broken bread. Softwoods studded cracks with prickly, anemic limbs. Rubble and rocks piled outside stripped, sagging walls. Cloud-dimmed gray permeated the cityscape.

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Empty Building by Joseph Novak, via creative commons.

“18 WAYS TO SURVIVE THE APOCALYPSE” the headline said, in bold, sans-serif font.

The magazine was on a K-Mart rack, like a bruised piece of skin in an otherwise Willy-Wonka-bright palette of check-out line candies, play dough containers, and glossed up celebrities. The rest of the store was pretty quiet beyond the usual ambience of carts, footsteps, distant telephones, and distant arguments.

I think my dad an I were there to buy a couch cover.

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The Human Condition

I’ve been carrying these ideas around for a while now and am still thinking through them. With Trump, Brexit, Orlando, anti-trans bathroom laws, and other issues cycling through the media–or at least my media–lately, I keep coming back to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, written in 1958 as a defense of philosophy’s role in “the active life” and a critique of its preference for “the contemplative life.”

Arendt opens the book discussing Sputnik. Being the first human-made object to leave the Earth, Sputnik represented, in the words of one reporter, the first “step from men’s imprisonment on Earth.” Arendt goes on to argue that science and technology have increasingly tried to make human life “artificial.” Extending lifespans, splitting the atom, in vitro fertilization, etc., for Arendt, “offer a rebellion against human existence as it has been given.”

I’m not as concerned with this “rebellion” and would side with others in the post-human view that technology and artifice have always been part of the human condition. Instead, what interests me more is Arendt’s next critique: “The trouble concerns the fact that the ‘truths’ of the modern scientific worldview, though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will no longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thought.” In other words, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We can do things, like a split an atom or raise an embryo in vitro, but can’t talk about it as a public.

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Return (for now)

Hey all, it’s been a while. Though I’ve kept blogging on a school-based site, the nature of the blogging has been more academic, mostly reaction to readings or conferences. It wasn’t the sort of writing I was doing here.

But I think I’ve come to miss this space. Primarily for three reasons. First, it’s a chance to voice my thoughts in a public setting that is a more involved than most social media. It’s uncanny, for example, that my last post before the hiatus was about gun control, since the news of the Orlando shooting has left me blank and sort of shell shocked without a space to vocalize anything. The echo of the news is sort of reverberating in my body and thoughts but not really going anywhere. I’m not ready to talk about it, but I need a space to just sort of say that. That I am literally sickened and dazed at the news and can’t seem to figure out next steps or previous steps or any steps at all. This blog used to be that space, and I guess it is today.

Second, while I’ve been doing a lot of writing, I’ve been writing in a vacuum. True, I’ve been writing to peers and professors, occasional strangers, and fellow academics at conferences, but I miss a public place interface with an audience on a semi-regular basis outside of academia. Not a big one. Or a constant one, likely. But someone. Because I miss the sense that now and then my writing was doing something. It was a small something, but the occasional thank you message or thought was more nourishing than I gave it credit.

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Progress

With the recent Scotus ruling, many have celebrated a sense of “progress” throughout social media. Rainbows have popped up on skyscrapers and online interfaces. Pictures pepper Twitter feeds and Tumblrs showing same-sex couples embracing, cheering, smiling, and waving flags. Some backlash is inevitable. But for the most part, most media outlets celebrate.

Certain words, like “conservative” and “reactionary” or (on the other side) “progressive” often make me wonder about progress–in effect, what it is and whether it exist. Personally, I think that the ruling is a sign of “progress,” but that progress is more complicated than we often give it credit for.

Take this situation. If a conservative is, by definition, someone who opposes changing the status quo and prefers more “traditional” values over more “progressive” values, then we have some odd alternatives. Either he or she is always (by definition) on the losing side of history. Or progress is not necessarily linear or inevitable.

The second of these hits to the sticky heart of progress, as one may have a harder time arguing against the raw progress of time and history–that it progresses–but we can easily argue that such progress is not some rosy, life-improving series of events. WWII, The Holocaust, the potential threat of climate change, the Arab Spring’s undoing, ISIS–such things complicate ideas of progress. “A Century’s Decline” by Wislawa Szymborska captures the feeling well:

Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.
It will never prove it now,
now that its years are numbered,
its gait is shaky,
its breath is short.
 
Too many things have happened
that weren’t supposed to happen,
and what was supposed to come about
has not.

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