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.

Neil Postman On Disguised Technologies, And The Night Class

In his sometimes curiously conservative Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman writes:

Some technologies come in disguise. Rudyard Kipling called them “technologies in repose.” They do not look like technologies, and because of that they do their work, for good or ill, without much criticism or even awareness. This applies not only to IQ tests and to polls and to all systems of ranking and grading but to credit cards, accounting procedures, and achievement tests. It applies in the educational world to what are called “academic courses,” as well. A course is a technology for learning. I have “taught” about two hundred of them and do not know why each one lasts exactly fifteen weeks, or why each meeting lasts exactly one hour and fifty minutes. If the answer is that this is done for administrative convenience, then a course is a fraudulent technology. It is put forward as a desirable structure for learning when in fact it is only a structure for allocating space, for convenient record-keeping, and for control of faculty time. The point is that the origin of and raison d’être for a course are concealed from us. We come to believe it exists for one reason when it exists for quite another. One characteristic of those who live in a Technopoly is that they are largely unaware of both the origins and the effects of their technologies.

The paradigmatic instance of the intrusion of ‘administrative convenience’ into pedagogy is the three-hour evening class, which meets once a week. Despite protestations from some of my colleagues that their night classes ‘go well’, I remain singularly convinced that such a class is an exercise in futility. Students and professors are already tired at the end of the day–especially if both have been working prior to the class meeting–and little seems to be accomplished educationally past the one-hour mark. (The post-break period is particularly tedious.) There is also the small matter of not being able to resume discussions, to revisit, quickly, an issue that needs revisitation, till an entire week has passed. In short, this kind of class has very little to commend it from the pedagogical point of view.

But there is plenty on the administrative front: teach once and you are done; attend once and you are done; the three-hour evening class is an efficient use of building space and time. Most importantly, because very few students can afford to attend university full-time and must work to make their education financially viable, the night class affords them a way to further cram their schedules. A bureaucrat’s delight.  And really, is any more justification needed than that?

Note #1: The Wikipedia entry for Technopoly helpfully excerpts Postman’s definition of the term:

Postman defines technopoly as a “totalitarian technocracy”, which demands the “submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology”. Echoing Ellul’s 1964 conceptualisation of technology as autonomous, “self-determinative” independently of human action, and undirected in its growth, technology in a time of Technopoly actively eliminates all other ‘thought-worlds’. Thus, it reduces human life to finding meaning in machines and technique. [citations removed; link added]

Note #2: I’m well aware that the night class serves a valuable function for those trying to change careers or seeking additional professional qualifications.

Flying Solo, As Author, For a Change

Sometime this week or the next, my fourth book, Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket (HarperCollins India 2012), will make its way to bookstores and online book-sellers. My fourth book differs in one crucial regard from those that have preceded it: I have not co-authored it with anyone; its jacket lists but one name, mine, as the author. (Summing up, the blurb says: ‘In Brave New Pitch, Samir Chopra takes a hard look at cricket’s tumultuous present, and considers what could and should lie ahead.’)

This is a novel feeling, a journey to a strange land. Flying solo?

I like collaborators. Not dastardly Vichy-types but the diverse set of co-authors that have brought my writing projects,  thus far, before Brave New Pitch, to fruition. While working on my doctorate I carefully managed my awe of my Putnam Prize-winning adviser while drawing upon his genius to help me navigate the complexities of mathematical logic. My dissertation–on new models of belief revision that accommodated inconsistent beliefs and relevance-sensitivity–bore my name on its spine but the stamp of his exacting attention to detail.

And then there was the military aviation historian whom I did not meet until after the publication of our book (a history, the first, of the India-Pakistan air war of 1965).  We talked on the phone and generated a blizzard of emails (he lived in India, I in the US and Australia); his presence was always palpable in constantly redefining my notion of good history. We used no sophisticated file sharing software; we simply maintained a repository of book chapters, and sent the other an email when we edited a file. It worked; somehow, at the end of it all, we had a book, a good one.

Later, while working on a book about the liberatory potential of that gigantic collaboration called the ‘free software phenomenon’,  I found a co-author four floors down from me; we went biking, drank beers, went on double-dates, and squabbled endlessly over writing. Every single sentence was negotiated, an exhausting experience essential to the form and content of the final work. We stored our files online, worked on them together. And I mean ‘together’; we put four hands on the keyboard, and miraculously, managed to write that way.

Later, while working on a book on how current legal theory could and should accommodate artificial agents, I negotiated with a collaborator who often preferred long periods of autonomous activity in isolation. For the first time, I used software for writing collaboration; it wasn’t perfect but it introduced some much-needed structure to the writing process. I became an expert at change-tracking software; I became used to repeated iterations and pass-throughs of chapters in response to close readings by my co-author.

I’ve negotiated many power relationships in these partnerships; from dissertation advisers to good friends (deleting either’s sentences requires sensitivity and tact). Each collaborator has enriched and complemented me, and, in becoming part of my cognitive resources, has been an essential agent in my self-realization. The muses only visit while we work; mine include my collaborators.

Environmental ‘Luddism’ and Feenberg Contra Technological Determinism

My post yesterday on the debate on the Factories Act of 1844 was written to remind ourselves of the perennial dismissal–in the all-too-familiar language of economic efficiency–of attempts to introduce values pertinent to worker-side regulation in industrial workplaces. As noted, I had borrowed the example  from Andrew Feenberg’s Reason and Modernity, his latest book in a long series of works that have developed his ‘critical theory technology’. It should be unsurprising that this material would have been found in a book on the philosophy of technology, because arguments about economic efficiency often use as cover technological imperatives i.e., ‘this argument has the form that it does because technology has pushed us into this corner, along this path, and to back up now is unthinkable.’ Thus, not only can the sword of economic efficiency be flourished, it can do so under the cover of technological determinism.

So, today, I’d like to quote Feenberg to note the followup to the little story recounted yesterday:

Yet what actually happened once the regulators succeeded in imposing limitations on the work day and expelling children from the factory? Did the violated imperatives of technology come back to haunt them? Not at all. Regulation led to an intensification of factory labor that was incompatible with the earlier conditions in any case. Children ceased to be workers and were redefined socially as learners and consumers. Consequently, they entered the labor market with higher levels of skill and discipline that were soon presupposed by technological design. A vast historical process unfolded, partly simulated by the ideological debate over how children should be raised and partly economic. It led eventually to the current situation in which nobody dreams of returning to cheap child labor in order to cut costs, at least not in developed countries.

The key phrase in this paragraph, of course,  is ‘Children ceased to be workers and were redefined socially as learners and consumers.’ Technical systems are flexible, as are the societies in which they are embedded, capable of conceptual redefinition and the absorption of new values. Technological development can be pushed into new trajectories, guided and prodded by the introduction of values that we, as a society, have elevated in our priorities. Among the ways in which these new trajectories can be sought out and followed is the redefinition of key theoretical terms–such as ‘children–in the discourse that guides technological development. These redefinitions may alter the term of the debate such that some old dialectical positions, once thought commonsensical, are unlikely to be ever adopted again.

On page 38 of Reason and Modernity Feenberg provides us a photograph by Lewis Hine of a ten-year old girl standing in front of a cotton mill. The machines are built to her height, designed to be operated by people four feet tall. Needless to say, their design was altered in response to the regulation of child labor.

Those that articulate modern dismissals of environmental concerns, describing it as ‘the new Luddism’ and couching their objections in the language of we’d-love-to-be-environmentalists-but-our-hands-are-tied-by-the-technological-infrastructure, would do well to read up on the history of the technological apparatus they so fervidly defend.

The Factory Act of 1844 and the Economic Inefficiency of Banning Child Labor

One of the dominant threads–sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit–in any modern conversation about employer-side regulation of the workplace (health and safety standards, worker unions etc) is that such constraints are invariably economically inefficient, a burden on the profit-making potential of the enterprise. The parameters for this conversation are drawn from a sparse set consisting of technocratic values: revenue-maximization and technological efficiency, with human welfare as a to-be-hoped-for but not inevitable by-product. Some winners and some losers, you see.

‘Twas ever thus, of course. Consider for instance the debates surrounding the passage of The Factories Act of 1844  by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, to regulate the number of hours worked by women and children in industrial establishments. Some of its benevolent provisions limited the number of hours that children between the ages of 9-13 could work to a mere nine hours a day, others required machinery be fenced in, and yet others required accidental deaths to be reported to a surgeon and investigated.

Unsurprisingly this Act met with determined opposition from factory owners, bemoaning, I presume, the ‘nanny-state’ and busy-body bureaucrats determined to stick their oars into the frictionless, benign churnings of market forces and technological imperatives. For instance, it was ‘inefficient’ to use full-grown workers to do work that could be done just as well–and sometimes better–by children. Adult labor was more expensive; employing it would lead to ruination. Increased poverty and unemployment, decreased competitiveness in the international market for manufactured goods were but the least of these consequences. Sir J. Graham, who spoke up vigorously on behalf of factory owners, said,

We have arrived at a state of society when without commerce and manufactures this great community cannot be maintained. Let us, as far as we can, mitigate the evils arising out of this highly artificial state of society; but let us take care to adopt no step that may be fatal to commerce and manufactures.

Sir Graham then went on to greater concreteness as he noted that reducing the workday for women and children would throw the current depreciation cycle for machinery off-kilter–a factor in assessing year-end balance sheets–and result in lower wages, higher prices for goods and trade imbalances. Thus,

In the close race of competition which our manufacturers are now running with foreign competitors …such a step would be fatal…

Regulation was felt by Sir Graham to be:

[B]ased on a false principle of humanity, which in the end is certain to defeat itself.

Its proponents were disingenuous; for what they were offering was:

[I]n principle an argument to get rid of the whole system of factory labor.

Well said, Sir Graham. Someone has to step up and speak out on behalf of the entrepreneur, constantly on guard against the intrusion of profit-denying Whitehall mavens. The next thing you know these do-gooders will be asking for environmental safeguards against economically-necessary and profit-ensuring pollution. Better to man the barricades now.

Less facetiously, I hope to write a follow up to this little story very soon.

Source: Andrew FeenbergBetween Reason and Experience: Essays in Technology and Modernity (MIT Press, Cambridge: MA, 2010, pp-11-12)