In this day and age, sophisticated critique of technology and science is much needed. What we don’t need is critiques like this long piece in the Baffler by Corey Pein which, I think, is trying to mount a critique of the lack of ethics education in computer science curricula but seems most concerned with asserting that computer science is not a science. By, I think, relying on the premise that “Silicon Valley activity and propaganda” = “computer science.” I fail to understand how a humanistic point is made by asserting the ‘unscientific’ nature of a purported science, but your mileage may vary. Anyway, on to Pein.
Yesterday being a snow day in New York City–for school-going children and college professors alike–I spent it with my daughter at home. Diversion was necessary, and so I turned to an old friend–the growing stock of quite excellent documentaries on Netflix–for aid. My recent conversations with my daughter have touched on the topic of space exploration–itself prompted by a discussion of the Man on the Moon, which had led me to point out that actual men had been to the moon, by rocket, and indeed, had walked on it. A space exploration documentary it would be. We settled on the BBC’s ‘Rocket Men’ and off we went; I wanted to show my daughter the Apollo 11 mission in particular, as I have fond memories of watching a documentary on its flight with my parents when I was a five-year old myself.
As the documentary began, I experienced a familiar sinking feeling: my daughter and I were going to be watching something ‘notable,’ ‘historical,’ a human achievement of some repute, and yet again, we would find few women featured prominently. Indeed, as the title itself suggests, the documentary is about men: the astronauts, the rocket scientists, the mission control specialists. The only women visible are those watching rockets blast off or worrying about the fates of their family members in them. This used to happen in our watching of music videos too as I introduced my daughter to ‘guitar heroes’ as a spur to her guitar lessons. After a couple of weeks of watching the likes of Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page et al, my daughter asked me, “Don’t girls play the guitar?” Well, of course they do, and so off we went, to check out Joan Jett, Nancy Wilson, Lita Ford, Chrissie Hynde, the Deal sisters, and many others.
It had been an easy trap to fall into. In the case of music, I had a blind spot myself. In the case of space exploration the problem lay elsewhere: there were no women pilots qualified for the astronaut program as the initial selection of the astronaut corps came from the armed forces. Both instances though, were united by their embedding in a culture in which women were women were less visible, less recognized, less likely to be promoted to the relevant pantheon. After all, as in literature and art and philosophy, women have been present in numbers that speak to their ability to surmount the social barriers placed in their paths, and yet still rendered invisible because of the failure to see them and their contributions to their chosen field of artistic endeavor.
As I watched a video of the first seven American astronauts being introduced at a press conference, I felt I had to say something to my daughter, to explain to her why no women were to be seen in this cavalcade of handsome crew cut men wearing aviator sunglasses. So I launched into a brief digression, explaining the selection process and why women couldn’t have been selected. My daughter listened with some bemusement and asked if things were still that way now. I said, no, but there’s work to be done. And then we returned to watching the Gemini and Apollo missions. Afterwards, I walked over to my computer and pulled up the Wikipedia entries for Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride and Kalpana Chawla and showed them to my daughter, promising her that we would watch documentaries on them too. She seemed suitably enthused.
The East German Stasi used to have to deploy a fleet of undercover agents and wiretaps to find out what people did, who they met, what they ate, which books they read; now we just have a bunch of Like buttons and people tell a data monetizing corporation the same information for free.
That talk–in which Moglen referred to Mark Zuckerberg as a ‘thug’–also inspired a couple of young folk, then in attendance, to start Diaspora, an alternative social network in which users would own their data. I signed up for Diaspora soon after kicked off; I also signed up for Google+. I returned to Facebook in 2012, a few months after starting my blog, because it was the only way I could see to distribute my posts. Diaspora and Google+ never ‘took off’; a certain kind of ‘first-mover status, and its associated network effects had made sure there was little social networking on those alternative platforms.
Since then, I’ve stayed on Facebook, sharing photos, bragging about my daughter and my various published writings, and so on. I use the word ‘bragging’ advisedly; no matter how much you dress it up, that’s what I’ve been doing. But it has been a horrible experience in many ways: distraction, lowered self-esteem, envy, have been but its most prominent residues. Moreover, to have substantive discussions on Facebook, you must write. A lot. I’d rather write somewhere else, like here, or work on my books and essays. So, I desperately want to leave, to work on my writing. But, ironically, as a writer, I feel I have to stay on. Folks who have already accomplished a great deal offline, can afford to stay off; those of us struggling to make a mark, to be noticed, have to stay here. (Consider that literary agents now want non-fiction writers to demonstrate that they have a ‘social media presence’; that they have a flourishing Facebook and Twitter presence, which will make the marketing of their writings easier.) I know, I know; as a writer, I should work on my craft, produce my work, and not worry about anything else. I know the wisdom of that claim and reconciling it to the practical demands of this life is an ongoing challenge.
So, let’s say, ‘we,’ the user ‘community’ on Facebook decide to leave; and we find an alternative social network platform. I’m afraid little will have changed unless the rest of the world also changes; the one in which data is monetized for profit, coupled with a social and moral and economic principle that places all values subservient to the making of profit. The problem isn’t Facebook. We could migrate to another platform; sure. They need to survive in this world, the one run by capital and cash; right. So they need to monetize data; ours. They will. Money has commodified all relationships; including the ones with social network platforms. So long as data is monetizable, we will face the ‘Facebook problem.’
Everyone is concerned about ‘algorithms.’ Especially legal academics; law review articles, conferences, symposia all bear testimony to this claim. Algorithms and transparency; the tyranny of algorithms; how algorithms can deprive you of your rights; and so on. Algorithmic decision making is problematic; so is algorithmic credit scoring; or algorithmic stock trading. You get the picture; something new and dangerous called the ‘algorithm’ has entered the world, and it is causing havoc. Legal academics are on the case (and they might even occasionally invite philosophers and computer scientists to pitch in with this relief effort.)
There is a problem with this picture. ‘Algorithms’ is the wrong word to describe the object of legal academics’ concern. An algorithm is “an unambiguous specification of how to solve a class of problems” or a step-by-step procedure which terminates with a solution to a given problem. These problems can be of many kinds: mathematical or logical ones are not the only ones, for a cake-baking recipe is also an algorithm, as are instructions for crossing a street. Algorithms can be deterministic or non-deterministic; they can be exact or approximate; and so on. But, and this is their especial feature, algorithms are abstract specifications; they lack concrete implementations.
Computer programs are one kind of implementation of algorithms; but not the only one. The algorithm for long division can be implemented by pencil and paper; it can also be automated on a hand-held calculator; and of course, you can write a program in C or Python or any other language of your choice and then run the program on a hardware platform of your choice. The algorithm to implement the TCP protocol can be programmed to run over an Ethernet network; in principle, it could also be implemented by carrier pigeon. Different implementation, different ‘program,’ different material substrate. For the same algorithm: there are good implementations and bad implementations (the algorithm might give you the right answer for any particular input but its flawed implementation incorporates some errors and does not); some implementations are incomplete; some are more efficient and effective than others. Human beings can implement algorithms; so can well-trained animals. Which brings us to computers and the programs they run.
The reason automation and the computers that deliver it to us are interesting and challenging–conceptually and materially–is because they implement algorithms in interestingly different ways via programs on machines. They are faster; much faster. The code that runs on computers can be obscured–because human-readable text programs are transformed into machine-readable binary code before execution–thus making study, analysis, and critique of the algorithm in question well nigh impossible. Especially when protected by a legal regime as proprietary information. They are relatively permanent; they can be easily copied. This kind of implementation of an algorithm is shared and distributed; its digital outputs can be stored indefinitely. These affordances are not present in other non-automated implementations of algorithms.
The use of ‘algorithm’ in the context of the debate over the legal regulation of automation is misleading. It is the ‘automation’ and ‘computerized implementation’ of an algorithm for credit scoring that is problematic; it is so because of specific features of its implementation. The credit scoring algorithm is, of course, proprietary; moreover, its programmed implementation is proprietary too, a trade secret. The credit scoring algorithm might be a complex mathematical algorithm readable by a few humans; its machine code is only readable by a machine. Had the same algorithm been implemented by hand, by human clerks sitting in an open office, carrying out their calculations by pencil and paper, we would not have the same concerns. (This process could also be made opaque but that would be harder to accomplish.) Conversely, a non-algorithmic, non-machinic–like, a human–process would be subject to the same normative constraints.
None of the concerns currently expressed about ‘the rule/tyranny of algorithms’ would be as salient were the algorithms not being automated on computing systems; our concerns about them would be significantly attenuated. It is not the step-by-step solution–the ‘algorithm’–to a credit scoring problem that is the problem; it is its obscurity, its speed, its placement on a platform supposed to be infallible, a jewel of a socially respected ‘high technology.’
Of course, the claim is often made that algorithmic processes are replacing non-algorithmic–‘intuitive, heuristic, human, inexact’–solutions and processes; that is true, but again, the concern over this replacement would not be the same, qualitatively or quantitatively, were these algorithmic processes not being computerized and automated. It is the ‘disappearance’ into the machine of the algorithm that is the genuine issue at hand here.
In Iris Murdoch‘s Black Prince (1973), Bradley Pearson wonders about his “two recent encounters with Rachel and how calm and pleased I had felt after the first one, and how disturbed and excited I now felt after the second one”:
Was I going to “fall in love” with Rachel? Should I even play with the idea, utter the words to myself? Was I upon the brink of some balls-up of catastrophic dimensions, some real disaster? Or was this perhaps in an unexpected form the opening itself of my long-awaited “break through,” my passage into another world, into the presence of the god? Or was it just nothing, the ephemeral emotions of an unhappily married middle-aged woman, the transient embarrassment of an elderly puritan who had for a very long time had no adventures at all? [Penguin Classics edition, New York, 2003, p. 134]
Pearson is right to be confused and perplexed. The ‘messages’ we receive from ‘ourselves’ at moments like these–ethical dilemmas being but the most vivid–can be counted upon to be garbled in some shape or fashion. The communication channel is noisy; and the identity of the communicating party at ‘the other end’ is obscure. Intimations may speak to us–as they do to Pearson–of both the sordid and sublime for we are possessed, in equal measure, by the both devilish and the divine; these intimations promise glory but they also threaten extinction. What meaning are we to ascribe to them? What action are we to take at their bidding? A cosmic shrug follows, and we are left to our own devices all over again. ‘Listen to your heart’ is as useless as any other instruction in this domain, for ‘the heart’ also speaks in confusing ways; its supposed desires are as complex, as confusing as those of any other part of ourselves. Cognitive dissonance is not an aberration, a pathological state of affairs; it is the norm for creatures as divided as us, as superficially visible to ourselves, as possessed by the unconscious. (Freud’s greatest contribution to moral psychology and literature was to raise the disturbing possibility that it would be unwise to expect coherence–moral or otherwise–from agents as internally divided, as self-opaque as us.)
We interpret these messages, these communiques, from ourselves with tactics and strategies and heuristics that are an unstable mixture of the expedient, the irrational, the momentarily pleasurable; we deal with ‘losses’ and ‘gains’ as best as we can, absorbing the ‘lessons’ they impart with some measure of impatience; we are unable to rest content and must move on, for life presses in on us at every turn, generating new crises, each demanding resolution. Our responses can only satisfice, only be imperfect.
The Clash were right thus, to wonder, to be provoked into an outburst of song, by the question of whether they should ‘stay or go.‘ We do not express our indecision quite as powerfully and vividly as they do, but we feel the torment it engenders in our own particular way.
I’ve often wondered how best to provide moral instruction to my daughter as she grows up, what principles and duties to keep front and center in the course of my conversations with her as she begins to grow into an age where her interactions with other human beings start to grow more complex. Over the past year or so, I’ve strived to organize this ‘instruction’ around the concept of ‘reciprocity,’ around a variation of the Golden Rule and the altruism it implies: do good unto others; but only continue with the good if it is reciprocated; do not feel obligated to respond to unkindness with kindness; indeed, you shouldn’t respond to unkindness with kindness; if good is done to you, then you must reciprocate with good. There is one conditional duty in here: that of doing good to others, whose obligations continue to hold only if your acts are met with good done to you in turn. There is no duty to do good in response to bad being done unto you; and there is an absolute duty of doing good to others when they do good unto you.
I’ve tried to provide this instruction by way of simple examples: we should not litter because in doing so we would make our neighborhoods dirty for ourselves and our neighbors; they should do the same for us; if some kid in school is nice to you, you should be nice back to them; if someone in school is not nice to you when you have been so to them, then don’t feel the need to continue being nice with them; acknowledge people’s generosity and kindness in some fashion, even if with a simple ‘thanks’; and so on. I’ve tried to make the claim that society ‘hangs together,’ so to speak, because of reciprocity. Without it, our social arrangements would fall apart.
Reciprocity is not as generous and self-sacrificing as pure altruism. I chose reciprocity as an organizing principle because I believe a commitment to altruism can hurt people, and moreover, in our society and culture, altruism has proved to be largely harmful to women. I was, and am, especially worried about a girl growing up–as too many in the past have–to believe that her primary duty is to make others happy, to do good to others even if good is not being done to her in turn. I believed that stressing reciprocity as an organizing moral principle would point in the direction of some positive obligations to make others happy but it would also place some limitations on those obligations. Aristotle wrote of the need to maintain a mean of sorts as we ‘practiced’ the virtue of generosity, between wastefulness and stinginess–the altruist gives too much in this reckoning. A moral agent guided by the principle of reciprocity aims to find a mean in the generosity of their benevolent or good actions: by all means be generous, but pick the targets of your generosity wisely.
I realize that the injunction to only do good if it is reciprocated in some way sounds vaguely unforgiving or unkind and perhaps self-defensive; but again, as I noted above, some such measure of protection is necessary for women, who for too long have been crushed by the burden of unfair or unrealistic expectations of their conduct, to the detriment of their well-being. I want my daughter to do good unto others, but I also want good to be done to her.
My daughter, to her credit, seems to have listened; she can now use the word ‘reciprocity’ in conversation and sometimes to describe a plan of ac; I wait to see how well she will internalize the ‘lessons’ it forms the core of. (She likes the rhyming with ‘gravity’; as I say to her, gravity makes the world of things work, reciprocity makes the world of people work!)
Anger is a funny business; it’s an unpleasant emotion for those on the receiving end, and very often, in its effects, on those who are possessed by it. And there is no denying that it affords a pleasure of sorts to those consumed by it; it would not have the fatal attraction it does if it did not. That kind of anger, of course, is a righteous anger; we feel ourselves possessed by a sense of rectitude as we rail against those who have offended us; we are in the right, they are in the wrong, and the expression of our anger acts as a kind of confirmation of that ‘fact.’ But anger’s hangover is very often unpleasant, and among its vivid features is a crippling melancholia. We became angry because we had been ‘wounded’ in some shape or fashion, and while the expression of our anger is often a powerful and effective palliative against the pain of that injury, it is almost always a temporary one. What is left in its wake is a complex welter of emotions: we are sad, of course, because the hurt of the injury is still with us; we are fearful too, because we dread the same kind of injury again; our anger might have fatally wounded an important personal relationship or friendship; we might well have ventured out into unknown territory, fueled by anger, trusting it to guide us, but instead find ourselves at an unknown pass, one whose contours we do not know yet to navigate. (I used the word ‘possessed’ above deliberately to indicate a kind of capture or hijacking of the self; to describe a person ‘suffering’ from anger might be equally accurate in terms of describing the sense of being a patient, one helpless in the face of an emotion running wild.)
I write about anger and distraction and anxiety here because I suffer from all of them; they are my psychic burdens, my crosses to carry. On one view, anger and distraction both bottom out in a kind of anxiety and fear. As I noted recently, I do not think I will ever rid myself of anxiety; it is a state of being. Because of that, I do not think I will rid myself of anger either. Anger cripples me–not just in personal relationships but in another crucial domain as well; it corrodes and attenuates my ability to do creative work. This failure induces its own melancholia; my sense of self is wrapped up quite strongly in terms of not just my personal relationships and social roles and responsibilities–like being a husband and father and teacher–but also my reading and writing. (I’m loath to describe this activity of mine as ‘scholarship’ and am quite happy to describe my intellectual status as ‘someone who likes to read and write.’) Reading and writing are well-nigh impossible in the febrile states induced by anger; among the terrible costs of anger this one brings with it an especially heavy burden for me. When I sought out a meditation practice a few years ago, one of my primary motivators was to ‘tame’ or ‘master’ this terrible beast somehow; it remains an ongoing struggle, one not helped by a falling off in my commitment to my meditation ‘sits.’ I write here, of course, as part of a process to try to reintroduce that in my life. More on that attempt anon.