Contra Cathy O’Neil, The ‘Ivory Tower’ Does Not ‘Ignore Tech’

In ‘Ivory Tower Cannot Keep On Ignoring TechCathy O’Neil writes:

We need academia to step up to fill in the gaps in our collective understanding about the new role of technology in shaping our lives. We need robust research on hiring algorithms that seem to filter out peoplewith mental health disorders…we need research to ensure that the same mistakes aren’t made again and again. It’s absolutely within the abilities of academic research to study such examples and to push against the most obvious statistical, ethical or constitutional failures and dedicate serious intellectual energy to finding solutions. And whereas professional technologists working at private companies are not in a position to critique their own work, academics theoretically enjoy much more freedom of inquiry.

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. That’s not surprising. Which academic department is going to give up a valuable tenure line to devote to this, given how much academic departments fight over resources already?

O’Neil’s piece is an unfortunate continuation of a trend to continue to castigate academia for its lack of social responsibility, all the while ignoring the work academics do in precisely those domains where their absence is supposedly felt.

In her Op-Ed, O’Neil ignores science and technology studies, a field of study that “takes seriously the responsibility of understanding and critiquing the role of technology,” and many of whose members are engaged in precisely the kind of studies she thinks should be undertaken at this moment in the history of technology. Moreover, there are fields of academic studies such as philosophy of science, philosophy of technology, and the sociology of knowledge, all of which take very seriously the task of examining and critiquing the conceptual foundations of science and technology; such inquiries are not elucidatory, they are very often critical and skeptical. Such disciplines then, produce work that makes both descriptive and prescriptive claims about the practice of science, and the social, political, and ethical values that underwrite what may seem like purely ‘technical’ decisions pertaining to design and implementation. The humanities are not alone in this regard, most computer science departments now require a class in ‘Computer Ethics’ as part of the requirements for their major (indeed, I designed one such class here at Brooklyn College, and taught it for a few semesters.) And of course, legal academics have, in recent years started to pay attention to these fields and incorporated them in their writings on ‘algorithmic decision making,’ ‘algorithmic control’ and so on. (The work of Frank Pasquale and Danielle Citron is notable in this regard.) If O’Neil is interested, she could dig deeper into the philosophical canon and read works by critical theorists like Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer who mounted rigorous critiques of scientism, reductionism, and positivism in their works. Lastly, O’Neil could read my co-authored work Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software, a central claim of which is that transparency, not opacity, should be the guiding principle for software design and deployment. I’d be happy to send her a copy if she so desires.

Herbert Marcuse on the Unity of Theory and Practice

In Counterrevolution and Revolt (Beacon Press, Boston, 1972), as part of his critical take on the New LeftHerbert Marcuse writes:

The pertification of Marxian theory violates the very principle the New Left proclaims: the unity of theory and practice. A theory which has not caught up with the practice of capitalism cannot possibly guide the practice aiming at the abolition of capitalism. The reduction of Marxian theory to solid “structures” divorces the theory from reality and gives it an abstract, remote, “scientific” character which facilitates its dogmatic ritualization. In a sense, all theory is abstract: its conceptual dissociation from the given reality is a precondition for understanding and changing reality. Theory is furthermore necessarily abstract by virtue of the fact that it comprehends a totality of conditions and tendencies, in Marxian theory; a historical totality. Thus, it can never decide on a particular practice–for example, whether or not certain buildings should be occupied or attacked–but it can (and ought to) evaluate the prospects of particular actions within the given totality, namely, whether a situation prevails where such occupations and attacks are indicated. The unity of theory and practice is never immediate. The given social reality, not yet mastered by the forces of change, demands the adaptation of strategy to the objective conditions–prerequisite for changing the latter. A non-revolutionary situation is essentially different from a pre- or revolutionary situation. Only a theoretical analysis can define and distinguish the prevailing situation and its potential. The given reality is there, in its own right and power–the soil on which theory develops, and yet the object, “the other of theory” which, in the process of change, continues to determine theory.

Well. That’s quite a mouthful, but still a pretty wise one, despite being written back in 1972.

Here, Marcuse deftly defuses some of the standard rhetoric against theory in favor of an exclusive focus on praxis, and shows instead, how political practice uninformed by a suitably rigorous theory is fundamentally undermined. Furthermore, he dismisses the claim that the abstraction of theory is a handicap; instead, it is a feature necessary for its applicability and use. That abstraction is what enables its generality and ability to inform a variety of practical strategies; an insufficiently abstract theory is worse than useless; it may be dangerous in provoking misguided and wasteful action. Lastly, theory plays a vital role in development of a ‘non-revolutionary situation’ into a ‘pre- or revolutionary situation’, precisely because it enables the recognition of those features that make it ripe for such movement and ‘progress’.

Almost anyone that has engaged in any form of sustained political activism has entered into disputes about the relationship of theory and practice; these in their worst moments, devolve into a species of crippling sectarian warfare. Marcuse’s calming note above is not unique; the unity of theory and practice is perhaps just as often preached as it is debated. Still, as a concise summation of its central principles, it bears rereading by all those engaged in the struggles where it is most required.