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.

Academics And Their Secretaries

In the preface to The Age of Revolution 1789-1848  (Signet Classic, New York, 1962, p. xvi) Eric Hobsbawm writes:

Miss P. Ralph helped considerably as secretary and research assistant Miss E. Mason compiled the index.

In the preface to the new edition (1969) of Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (University of Stanford Press, Cultural Memory in the Present Series, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, p. xi, 2002) Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer write:

No one who was not involved in the writing could easily understand to what extent we feel responsible for every sentence. We dictated long stretches together; the Dialectic derives its vital energy from the tension between the two intellectual temperaments which came together in writing it. [emphasis added]

In the preface to The Morality of Law (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1964, p. vi), Lon Fuller writes:

In closing I want to express an appreciation for the contribution made to this book (and to my peace of mind) by Martha Anne Ellis, my secretary….[her] dedication and perception have largely lifted from my concern the time-consuming and anxiety-producing details that always accompany the conversion of a manuscript into final printed form.

If you’ve looked long enough at the prefaces and acknowledgements of academic books written in the past century you will often find notes thanking secretaries for typing up the manuscript of the book. Presumably the secretaries in question took a pile of handwritten pages and painstakingly converted them into typed form before sending them off to the publisher for reviewing, typesetting, and then finally printing. (My guess is that the secretaries of Messrs Hobsbawm and Fuller typed their ‘bosses’ manuscripts as part of the ‘help’ and ‘contributions’ they provided.) Matters might be thought considerably different these days when sophisticated desktop publishing software sits on everyone’s desk, and publishers demand camera-ready copies of manuscripts and articles. But you would not lose too much money on betting that where academics can afford it–mostly at private universities–they will draw upon the assistance of their department secretaries in preparing their manuscripts. Most of whom, if not all, will still be women.

Intellectual work is always facilitated by the work of others. Back in the good old days, when most academics were men, they could count on the faithful support of their wives at home who would cook, clean, and bring up their children, and of their secretaries at work, who would type up manuscripts, prepare indices, make coffee and copies, and perhaps place calls to publishers in addition to typing up letters to them. Those with grace acknowledge such assistance in their prefaces and acknowledgments; others carry on blithely, secure in the comfort of knowing they live in a world which traffics in the myth of the ‘solitary genius,’ the ‘lone artist,’ the ‘brilliant individual.’ They imagine their reputation is constructed by their mental labors alone; they do not notice that it is propped up by the labors of others too. Theirs was the glamorous bit; the unglamorous bit is easily forgotten.

It takes a village to raise a child; it took an entire departmental office to write a book.

Horkheimer And Adorno On The ‘Convergence’ Of Art And Science

In Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (University of Stanford Press, Cultural Memory in the Present Series, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, p. 13, 2002) Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno write:

The prevailing antithesis between art and science, which rends the two apart as areas of culture in order to make them jointly manageable as areas of cultures, finally causes them, through their internal tendencies as exact opposites, to converge. Science in its neopositivist interpretation, becomes aestheticism, a system of isolated signs devoid of any intention transcending the system; it becomes the game which mathematicians have long since proudly declared their activity to be.  Meanwhile, art as integral replication has pledged itself to positivist science, even in its specific techniques. it becomes indeed, the world over again, an ideological doubling, a complicated reproduction.

Physics and mathematics are often said to find a merger of sorts in string theory, whose speculations dabble in dimensions galore and disdain empirical confirmation. Here, physicists may be found approaching registers of speech only thought to be found in ‘pure’ mathematicians; their work appears to be exclusively concerned with, and expressed through, sign and symbol; the beauty of their creations could be assessed as works of theoretical art. Within such an evaluative dimension might lie string theory’s most coveted prize, once it has disdained the grubby business of verification and correspondence. The arc nears completion here. Elsewhere, art is condemned to realist reproduction, censured for flights of irresponsible fancy. It is asked to leave behind its critical and absurdist and skeptical being in favor of one more firmly anchored in the here and now, all the better to clone it, and faithfully and apologetically do its bit for its continued propagation; art is informed of the need to be reactionary. Such critiques might sound old-fashioned to the worldly-wise in the twenty-first century, but they are never too far from the surface when worries about self-indulgent or narcissistic or navel-gazing art are periodically expressed.

As can be seen, the situation that Horkheimer and Adorno described is as present today as it was when their words were originally penned. Realist art and aestheticist science still converge; the former is urged to stick to the sensible and the apprehensible; the latter seeks to move away from tedious correspondence and to go on flights of symbolic fantasy.  Horkheimer and Adorno urged this observation upon us to make us notice its ideological import: science becomes exclusively positivist, unconcerned with intervention; art becomes implicated in the ‘realities’ it seeks to depict. The standpoint of critique is  lost; science and art are enlisted as allies through various understandings that are not normatively neutral. This ideological maneuver is especially acute because science aspires to epistemic hegemony via its apparent commitment to realism and art aspires to radical critique through its lack of fidelity to that same standpoint. The ‘real’ aspires to fantasy; the fantastic is instructed to conform to the ‘real.’ Both are defanged and removed from the realm of critical theory and its interjections into the world of politics and society.

On Voting ‘Yes’ On The CUNY Strike Authorization Vote

Yesterday, like many of my colleagues at the City University of New York I voted ‘Yes’ on our union’s strike authorization vote. (The voting period ends May 11th; at that time, the PSC-CUNY will be able to inform CUNY administration of the extent of faculty and staff support for a strike.) A strike is serious business; it is a high-risk political tactic; in the current political and economic climate, a strike invites serious rhetorical and material blow-back. A strike shuts down services, sometimes essential ones; a strike causes economic damage and hurts livelihoods; a strike inconveniences many. Why strike?

It is an interesting feature of our modern social discourse that a strike has come to be regarded with as much antipathy as it has. Such a development would not have been surprising to anyone familiar with the kind of analysis that theorists like Max Weber or Max Horkheimer gave us of our developing understanding of work: work for the sake of work, work as a deliverance, work as a blessing, the desire to work as evidence of rationality, “rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling”–these all would come to signal the refusal to work as a kind of moral failing. As Horkheimer noted in The Eclipse of Reason, “The deification of industrial activity knows no limit.” Or as Weber had noted in The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, “modern labour has an ascetic character.” Unsurprisingly, we find moral abuse directed at those who strike: striking workers are lazy, they are parasites, they are selfish, they are thuggish, and so on.

But workers can, will, and should only work–surprisingly enough–if they are adequately recompensed for their labor. Their relationship with their employers should be underwritten by a respect for this basic postulate of the employment relation. Otherwise, it is no longer enjoys such a status and  merely devolves to some variant of older, exploitative models of hiring and firing (indentured labor, feudal serfs, and so on). The failure of the City University of New York administration to sign a contract with their staff indicates that such basic respect is not forthcoming: the staff of this university have been expected, for six years now, to continue working under the terms of a contract that expired six years ago. In this nation’s most expensive city, such salary and wage conditions amount to a steadily increasing pay cut.

Such a cut in wages sends several signals, none of them respectful to the most important constituencies of the university. First, it tells students that the university does not care how their teachers are compensated for their work; second, it tells students that the university is willing to suffer shortfalls in services that might result from the lack of fair compensation (loss of staff, strikes etc); third, it tells faculty, responsible for instantiating the university’s core mission, that they are not important enough to have their reasonable demands listened to. The final result is a diminishing of the university, a member of a cohort of institutions that now finds itself increasingly under attack from a political and economic sensibility that would destroy as many public goods as possible.

A strike by the faculty and staff at the City University of New York would not just showcase workers laying down their tools; it would also signal to the rest of the polity that attacks on public education will not be tolerated.

Strikes are reviled and abused because interestingly enough, they find their grounding and motivations in firmly and passionately held political convictions that might, as Georges Sorel noted (in Reflections on Violence,) attain the status of myth. In writing of the ‘general strike’ Sorel commented on the common understanding of its supposed irrationality, but as he went on to note, this was in part because of the strong social desire to return to a more quiescent state, one that would not be possible once “the myth of the ‘general strike’ is introduced.” And such reactions were especially understandable: “It is because the theory of myths tends to produce such fine results that so many seek to dispute it.”

A strike is as feared and as despised as it is because very often, a strike–the denial of a worker’s labor, his ultimate weapon, only to be exercised in the direst of circumstances–is effective. The administration of New York City and the City University of New York and its faculty and staff will soon find out–if no contract is forthcoming–how matters will turn out in this domain.

Professorship and ‘The Perennial Taker of Courses’

In ‘In Greenwich, There Are Many Gravelled Walks‘ Hortense Calisher writes,

Robert was a perennial taker of courses–one of those non-matriculated students of indefinable age and income, some of whom pursued, with monkish zeal and no apparent regard for time, this or that freakishly peripheral research project of their own conception, and others of whom, like Robert, seemed to derive a Ponce de Léon sustenance from the young.

I have special fondness for the non-matriculate; I began my academic career as one, taking two graduate classes in philosophy before I began formal doctoral studies. And before I registered for them, when I informed my mother that I planned to quit my day job eventually to seek a full-time academic career, her immediate, and immensely gratifying, reaction was, ‘That’s great! If you become a professor you take classes for the rest of your life at your university!’ I hadn’t thought that the opportunity to be an endless dilettante, browsing through each semester’s course offerings and picking one, would present itself as the most obvious advantage of a professor’s life, but my mother certainly thought that way.

I haven’t managed to do so. But I did try. After I returned to New York from my post-doctoral work in Sydney, I sat in on Spanish 101. Learn a language, travel, cook–you know, the standard aspirations. I attended quite a few classes, but found it difficult to keep up with homework given my teaching and service duties (and of course, my own academic interests). I didn’t make it to the end of the semester; sometime shortly after the mid-term (in which I got a decent, but not excellent, grade), I dropped out.

A year later, I tried again. This time around, having convinced myself that the problem the last time around had been the lack of a formal component to my dabbling, and with an eye on a graduate seminar on the Frankfurt School offered through the History department at the CUNY Graduate Center, I registered, taking advantage of the tuition exemption for employees of the City University.

This time around, things went marginally better. I did most of the readings, attended all the classes, and even wrote a  paper on Horkheimer, which was probably quite amateurish, but which was very helpful in making me more familiar with his writings. But again, I found things not entirely to my liking.  I was still busy with teaching and service and writing, and the time needed to travel to Manhattan for the seminar and do the readings seemed onerous. (Perhaps I didn’t enjoy the company of graduate students. Too many of them seemed to instantiate dreaded archetypes of that demographic: the hasn’t-done-the-readings-but-will-still-pontificate-on-it and the can’t-shut-up-and-stay-on-point varietals being the most pernicious. I certainly wasn’t deriving any ‘Ponce de Léon sustenance’ from them.)

So that was my last attempt to replicate the non-matriculate days. I became ever busier with my own writing and confined my dilettantism to unguided, unstructured dabbling on my own. And I had found other outlets for it: teaching new classes or revising syllabi for classes taught previously and blogging being the most prominent among them. Besides, once you’re a full professor, its all pretty much dabbling in any case.