philosophy of technology

All posts tagged philosophy of technology

So by now you’re likely to have encountered something about the NYT Op-Ed Piece calling for a field of study that focuses on the impact of AI and algorithmic systems, a stance that elides the existence of not only communications and media studies people who focus on this work, but the whole entire disciplines of Philosophy of Technology and STS (rendered variously as “Science and Technology Studies” or “Science Technology and Society,” depending on a number of factors, but if you talk about STS, you’ll get responses from all of the above, about the same topics). While Dr. O’Neil has since tried to reframe this editorial as a call for businesses, governments, and the public to pay more attention to those people and groups, many have observed that such an argument exists nowhere in the article itself. Instead what we have is lines like academics (seemingly especially those in the humanities) are “asleep at the wheel.”

Instead of “asleep at the wheel” try “painfully awake on the side of the road at 5am in a part of town lyft and uber won’t come to, trying to flag down a taxi driver or hitchhike or any damn thing just please let me make this meeting so they can understand some part of what needs to be done.”* The former ultimately frames the humanities’ and liberal arts’ lack of currency and access as “well why aren’t you all speaking up more.” The latter gets more to the heart of “I’m sorry we don’t fund your departments or engage with your research or damn near ever heed your recommendations that must be so annoying for you oh my gosh.”

But Dr O’Neil is not the only one to write or say something along these lines—that there is somehow no one, or should be someone out here doing the work of investigating algorithmic bias, or infrastructure/engineering ethics, or any number of other things that people in philosophy of technology and STS are definitely already out here talking about. So I figured this would be, at the least, a good opportunity to share with you something discussing the relationship between science and technology, STS practitioners’ engagement with the public, and the public’s engagement of technoscience. Part 1 of who knows how many.

[Cover of the journal Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology]

The relationship between technology and science is one in which each intersects with, flows into, shapes, and affects the other. Not only this, but both science and technology shape and are shaped by the culture in which they arise and take part. Viewed through the lens of the readings we’ll discuss it becomes clear that many scientists and investigators at one time desired a clear-cut relationship between science and technology in which one flows from the other, with the properties of the subcategory being fully determined by those of the framing category, and sociocultural concerns play no part.

Many investigators still want this clarity and certainty, but in the time since sociologists, philosophers, historians, and other investigators from the humanities and so called soft sciences began looking at the history and contexts of the methods of science and technology, it has become clear that these latter activities do not work in an even and easily rendered way. When we look at the work of Sergio Sismondo, Trevor J. Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker, Madeline Akrich, and Langdon Winner, we can see that the social dimensions and intersections of science, culture, technology, and politics are and always have been crucially entwined.

In Winner’s seminal “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”(1980), we can see what counts as a major step forward along the path toward a model which takes seriously the social construction of science and technology, and the way in which we go about embedding our values, beliefs, and politics into the systems we make. On page 127, Winner states,

The things we call “technologies” are ways of building order in our world… Consciously or not, deliberately or inadvertently, societies choose structures for technologies that influence how people are going to work, communicate, travel, consume, [etc.]… In the processes by which structuring decisions are made, different people … possess unequal degrees of power [and] levels of awareness.

By this, Winner means to say that everything we do in the construction of the culture of scientific discovery and technological development is modulated by the sociocultural considerations that get built into them, and those constructed things go on to influence the nature of society, in turn. As a corollary to this, we can see a frame in which the elements within the frame—including science and technology—will influence and modulate each other, in the process of generating and being generated by the sociopolitical frame. Science will be affected by the tools it uses to make its discoveries, and the tools we use will be modulated and refined as our understandings change.

Pinch and Bijker write very clearly about the multidirectional interactions of science, technology, and society in their 1987 piece, [The Social Construction of Technological Systems,] using the history of the bicycle as their object of study. Through their investigation of the messy history of bicycles, “safety bicycles,” inflated rubber tires, bicycle racing, and PR ad copy, Pinch and Bijker show that science and technology aren’t clearly distinguished anymore, if they ever were. They show how scientific studies of safety were less influential on bicycle construction and adoption than the social perception [of] the devices, meaning that politics and public perception play a larger role in what gets studied, created, and adopted than we used to admit.

They go on to highlight a kind of multidirectionality and interpretive flexibility, which they say we achieve by looking at the different social groups that intersect with the technology, and the ways in which they do so (pg. 34). When we do this, we will see that each component group is concerned with different problems and solutions, and that each innovation made to address these concerns alters the landscape of the problem space. How we define the problem dictates the methods we will use and the technology that we create to seek a solution to it.

[Black and white figures comparing the frames of a Whippet Spring Frame bicycle (left) and a Singer Xtraordinary bicycle (right), from “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other” by Trevor J. Binch and Wiebe E. Bijker, 1987]


Akrich’s 1997 “The De-Scription of Technical Objects” (published, perhaps unsurprisingly, in a volume coedited by Bijker), engages the moral valences of technological intervention, and the distance between intent in design and “on the ground” usage. In her investigation of how people in Burkina Faso, French Polynesia, and elsewhere make use of technology such as generators and light boxes, we again see a complex interplay between the development of a scientific or technological process and the public adoption of it. On page 221 Akrich notes, “…the conversion of sociotechnical facts into facts pure and simple depends on the ability to turn technical objects into black boxes. In other words, as they become indispensable, objects also have to efface themselves.” That is, in order for the public to accept the scientific or technological interventions, those interventions had to become an invisible part of the framework of the public’s lives. Only when the public no longer had to think about these interventions did they become paradoxically “seen,” understood, as “good” science and technology.

In Sismondo’s “Science and Technology Studies and an Engaged Program” (2008) he spends some time discussing the social constructivist position that we’ve begun laying out, above—the perspective that everything we do and all the results we obtain from the modality of “the sciences” are constructed in part by that mode. Again, this would mean that “constructed” would describe both the data we organize out of what we observe, and what we initially observe at all. From page 15, “Not only data but phenomena themselves are constructed in laboratories—laboratories are places of work, and what is found in them is not nature but rather the product of much human effort.”

But Sismondo also says that this is only one half of the picture, then going on to discuss the ways in which funding models, public participation, and regulatory concerns can and do alter the development and deployment of science and technology. On page 19 he discusses a model developed in Denmark in the 1980’s:

Experts and stakeholders have opportunities to present information to the panel, but the lay group has full control over its report. The consensus conference process has been deemed a success for its ability to democratize technical decision-making without obviously sacrificing clarity and rationality, and it has been extended to other parts of Europe, Japan, and the United States…

This all merely highlights the fact that, if the public is going to be engaged, then the public ought to be as clear and critical as possible in its understanding of the exchanges that give rise to the science and technology on which they are asked to comment.

The non-scientific general public’s understanding of the relationship between science and technology is often characterized much as I described at the beginning of this essay. That is, it is often said that the public sees the relationship as a clear and clean move from scientific discoveries or breakthroughs to a device or other application of those principles. However, this casting does not take into account the variety of things that the public will often call technology, such as the Internet, mobile phone applications, autonomous cars, and more.

While there are scientific principles at play within each of those technologies, it still seems a bit bizarre to cast them merely as “applied science.” They are not all devices or other single physical instantiations of that application, and even those that are singular are the applications of multiple sciences, and also concrete expressions of social functions. Those concretions have particular psychological impacts, and philosophical implications, which need to be understood by both their users and their designers. Every part affects every other part, and each of those parts is necessarily filtered through human perspectives.

The general public needs to understand that every technology humans create will necessarily carry within it the hallmarks of human bias. Regardless of whether there is an objective reality at which science points, the sociocultural and sociopolitical frameworks in which science gets done will influence what gets investigated. Those same sociocultural and sociopolitical frameworks will shape the tools and instruments and systems—the technology—used to do that science. What gets done will then become a part of the scientific and technological landscape to which society and politics will then have to react. In order for the public to understand this, we have to educate about the history of science, the nature of social scientific methods, and the impact of implicit bias.

My own understanding of the relationship between science and technology is as I have outlined: A messy, tangled, multivalent interaction in which each component influences and is influenced by every other component, in near simultaneity. This framework requires a willingness to engage multiple perspectives and disciplines, and to perhaps reframe the normative project of science and technology to one that appreciates and encourages a multiplicity of perspectives, and no single direction of influence between science, technology and society. Once people understand this—that science and technology generate each other while influencing and being influenced by society—we do the work of engaging them in a nuanced and mindful way, working together to prevent the most egregious depredations of technoscientific development, or at least to agilely respond to them, as they arise.

But to do this, researchers in the humanities need to be heeded. In order to be heeded, people need to know that we exist, and that we have been doing this work for a very, very long time. The named field of Philosophy of Technology has been around for 70 years, and it in large parta foregrounded the concerns taken up and explored by STS. Here are just a few names of people to look at in this extensive history: Martin Heidegger, Bruno Latour, Don Ihde, Ian Hacking, Joe Pitt, and more recently, Ashley Shew, Shannon Vallor, Robin Zebrowski, John P. Sullins, John Flowers, Matt Brown, Shannon Conley, Lee Vinsel, Jacques Ellul, Andrew Feenberg, Batya Friedman, Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Rob Kling, Phil Agre, Lucy Suchman, Joanna Bryson, David Gunkel, so many others. Langdon Winner published “Do Artifacts Have Politics” 37 years ago. This episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast, along with Shannon Vallor and Alistair Croll, has all of us talking about the public impact of the aforementioned.

What I’m saying is that many of us are trying to do the work, out here. Instead of pretending we don’t exist, try using large platforms (Like the NYT opinion page, and well read blogs) to highlight the very real work being attempted. I know for a fact the NYT has received submission articles about philosophy of tech and STS. Engage them. Discuss these topics in public, and know that there are many voices trying to grapple with and understand this world, and we have been, for a really damn long time.

So you see that we are still talking about learning and thinking in public. About how we go about getting people interested and engaged in the work of the technology that affects their lives. But there is a lot at the base of all this about what people think of as “science” or “expertise” and where they think that comes from, and what they think of those who engage in or have it. If we’re going to do this work, we have to be able to have conversations with people who not only don’t value what we do, but who think what we value is wrongheaded, or even evil. There is a lot going on in the world, right now, in regards to science and knowability. For instance, late last year there was a revelation about the widespread use of Dowsing by UK water firms (though if you ask anybody in the US, you’ll find it’s still in use, here, too).

And then this guy was trying to use systems of fluid dynamics and aeronautics to launch himself in a rocket to prove that the earth is flat and that science isn’t real. Yeah. And while there’s a much deeper conversation to be had here about whether the social construction of the category of “science” can be understood as distinct from a set of methodologies and formulae, but i really don’t think this guy is talking about having that conversation.

So let’s also think about the nature of how laboratory science is constructed, and what it can do for us.

In his 1983 “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Move The World,” Bruno Latour makes the claim that labs have their own agency. What Latour is asserting, here, is that the forces which coalesce within the framework of a lab become active agents in their own right. They are not merely subject to the social and political forces that go into their creation, but they are now active participants in the framing and reframing of those forces. He believes that the nature of inscription—the combined processes of condensing, translating, and transmitting methods, findings, and pieces of various knowledges—is a large part of what gives the laboratory this power, and he highlights this when he says:

The strength gained in the laboratory is not mysterious. A few people much weaker than epidemics can become stronger if they change the scale of the two actors—making the microbes big, and the epizootic small—and others dominate the events through the inscription devices that make each of the steps readable. The change of scale entails an acceleration in the number of inscriptions you can get. …[In] a year Pasteur could multiply anthrax outbreaks. No wonder that he became stronger than veterinarians. For every statistic they had, he could mobilize ten of them. (pg. 163—164)

This process of inscription is crucial for Latour; not just for the sake of what the laboratory can do of its own volition, but also because it is the mechanism by which scientists may come to understand and translate the values and concerns of another, which is, for him, the utmost value of science. In rendering the smallest things such as microbes and diseases legible on a large scale, and making largescale patterns individually understandable and reproducible, the presupposed distinctions of “macro” and “micro” are shown to be illusory. Latour believes that it is only through laboratory engagement that we can come to fully understand the complexities of these relationships (pg. 149).

When Latour begins laying out his project, he says sociological methods can offer science the tools to more clearly translate human concerns into a format with which science can grapple. “He who is able to translate others’ interests into his own language carries the day.” (pg. 144). However, in the process of detailing what it is that Pasteurian laboratory scientists do in engaging the various stakeholders in farms, agriculture, and veterinary medicine, it seems that he is has only described half of the project. Rather than merely translating the interests of others into our own language, evidence suggests that we must also translate our interests back into the language of our interlocutor.

So perhaps we can recast Latour’s statement as, “whomsoever is able to translate others’ interests into their own language and is equally able to translate their own interests into the language of another, carries the day.” Thus we see that the work done in the lab should allow scientists and technicians to increase the public’s understanding both of what it is that technoscience actually does and why it does it, by presenting material that can speak to many sets of values.

Karin Knorr-Cetina’s assertion in her 1995 article “Laboratory Studies: The Cultural Approach to the Study of Science” is that laboratory is an “enhanced” environment. In many ways this follows directly from Latour’s conceptualization of labs. Knorr-Cetina says that the constructed nature of the lab ‘“improves upon” the natural order,’ because said natural order is, in itself, malleable, and capable of being understood and rendered in a multiplicity of ways (pg. 9). If laboratories are never engaging the objects they study “as they occur in nature,” this means that labs are always in the process of shaping what they study, in order to better study it (ibid). This framing of the engagement of laboratory science is clarified when she says:

Detailed description [such as that done in laboratories] deconstructs—not out of an interest in critique but because it cannot but observe the intricate labor that goes into the creation of a solid entity, the countless nonsolid ingredients from which it derives, the confusion and negotiation that often lie at its origin, and the continued necessity of stabilizing and congealing. Constructionist studies have revealed the ordinary working of things that are black-boxed as “objective” facts and “given” entities, and they have uncovered the mundane processes behind systems that appear monolithic, awe inspiring, inevitable. (pg. 12)

Thus, the laboratory is one place in which the irregularities and messiness of the “natural world” are ordered in such a ways as to be able to be studied at all. However, Knorr-Cetina clarifies that “nothing epistemically special” is happening, in a lab (pg. 16). That is, while a laboratory helps us to better recognize nonhuman agents (“actants”) and forces at play in the creation of science, this is merely a fact of construction; everything that a scientist does in a lab is open to scrutiny and capable of being understood. If this is the case, then the “enhancement” gained via the conditions of the laboratory environment is merely a change in degree, rather than a difference in kind, as Latour seems to assert.

[Stock photo image of hundreds of scallops and two scallop fishers on the deck of a boat in the St Brieuc Bay.]

[Stock photo image of hundreds of scallops and two scallop fishers on the deck of a boat in the St Brieuc Bay.]


In addition to the above explorations of what the field of laboratory studies has to offer, we can also look at the works of Michel Callon and Sharon Traweek. Though primarily concerned with describing the network of actors and their concerns in St Brieuc Bay scallop-fishing and -farming industries, Callon’s investigation can be seen as example of Latour’s principle of bringing the laboratory out in the world, both in terms of the subjects of Callon’s investigation and the methods of those subjects. While Callon himself might disagree with this characterization, we can trace the process of selection and enframing of subjects and the investigation of their translation procedures, which we can see on page 20, when he says,

We know that the ingredients of controversies are a mixture of considerations concerning both Society and Nature. For this reason we require the observer to use a single repertoire when they are described. The vocabulary chosen for these descriptions and explanations can be left to the discretion of the observer. He cannot simply repeat the analysis suggested by the actors he is studying. (Callon, 1984)

In this way, we can better understand how laboratory techniques have become a component even of the study and description of laboratories.

When we look at a work like Sharon Traweek’s Beamtimes and Lifetimes, we can see that she finds value in bringing ethnographic methodologies into laboratory studies, and perhaps even laboratory settings. She discusses the history of the laboratory’s influence, arcing back to WWI and WWII, where scientists were tasked with coming up with more and better weapons, with their successes being used to push an ever-escalating arms race. As this process continued, the characteristics of what made a “good lab scientist” were defined and then continually reinforced, as being “someone who did science like those people over there.” In the building of the laboratory community, certain traits and behaviours become seen as ideal, those who do not match those traits and expectations are regarded as necessarily doing inferior work. She says,

The field worker’s goal, then, is to find out what the community takes to be knowledge, sensible action, and morality, as well as how its members account for unpredictable information, disturbing actions, and troubling motives. In my fieldwork I wanted to discover the physicists’ “common sense” world view, what everyone in the community knows, and what every newcomer needs to learn in order to act in a sensible way, in order to be taken seriously. (pg. 8)

And this is also the danger of focusing too closely on the laboratory: the potential for myopia, for thinking that the best or perhaps even only way to study the work of scientists is to render that work through the lens of the lab.

While the lab is a fantastic tool and studies of it provide great insight, we must remember that we can learn a great deal about science and technology via contexts other than that of the lab. While Latour argues that laboratory science actually destabilizes the inside-the-lab/outside-the-lab distinction by showing that the tools and methods of the lab can be brought anywhere out into the world, it can be said that the distinction is reinstantiated by our focusing on laboratories as the sole path to understand scientists. Much the same can be said for the insistence that systems engineers are the sole best examples of how to engage technological development. Thinking that labs are the only resource we have means that we will miss the behavior of researchers at conferences, retreats, in journal articles, and other places where the norms of the scientific community are inscribed and reinforced. It might not be the case that scientists understand themselves as creating community rules, in these fora, but this does not necessarily mean that they are not doing so.

The kinds of understandings a group has about themselves will not always align with what observations and descriptions might be gleaned from another’s investigation of that group, but this doesn’t mean that one of those has to be “right” or “true” while the other is “wrong” and “false.” The interest in studying a discipline should come not from that group’s “power” to “correctly” describe the world, but from understanding more about what it is about whatever group is under investigation that makes it itself. Rather than seeking a single correct perspective, we should instead embrace the idea that a multiplicity of perspectives might all be useful and beneficial, and then ask “To What End?”

We’re talking about Values, here. We’re talking about the question of why whatever it is that matters to you, matters to you. And how you can understand that other people have different values from each other, and we can all learn to talk about what we care about in a way that helps us understand each other. That’s not neutral, though. Even that can be turned against us, when it’s done in bad faith. And we have to understand why someone would want to do that, too.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with David McRaney of the You Are Not So Smart podcast, for his episode on Machine Bias. As he says on the blog:

Now that algorithms are everywhere, helping us to both run and make sense of the world, a strange question has emerged among artificial intelligence researchers: When is it ok to predict the future based on the past? When is it ok to be biased?

“I want a machine-learning algorithm to learn what tumors looked like in the past, and I want it to become biased toward selecting those kind of tumors in the future,” explains philosopher Shannon Vallor at Santa Clara University.  “But I don’t want a machine-learning algorithm to learn what successful engineers and doctors looked like in the past and then become biased toward selecting those kinds of people when sorting and ranking resumes.”

We talk about this,  sentencing algorithms, the notion of how to raise and teach our digital offspring, and more. You can listen to all it here:

[Direct Link to the Mp3 Here]

If and when it gets a transcript, I will update this post with a link to that.

Until Next Time.

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

[Direct link to Mp3]

My second talk for the SRI International Technology and Consciousness Workshop Series was about how nonwestern philosophies like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Daoism can help mitigate various kinds of bias in machine minds and increase compassion by allowing programmers and designers to think from within a non-zero-sum matrix of win conditions for all living beings, meaning engaging multiple tokens and types of minds, outside of the assumed human “default” of straight, white, cis, ablebodied, neurotypical male. I don’t have a transcript, yet, and I’ll update it when I make one. But for now, here are my slides and some thoughts.

A Discussion on Daoism and Machine Consciousness (Slides as PDF)

(The translations of the Daoist texts referenced in the presentation are available online: The Burton Watson translation of the Chuang Tzu and the Robert G. Hendricks translation of the Tao Te Ching.)

A zero-sum system is one in which there are finite resources, but more than that, it is one in which what one side gains, another loses. So by “A non-zero-sum matrix of win conditions” I mean a combination of all of our needs and wants and resources in such a way that everyone wins. Basically, we’re talking here about trying to figure out how to program a machine consciousness that’s a master of wu-wei and limitless compassion, or metta.

The whole week was about phenomenology and religion and magic and AI and it helped me think through some problems, like how even the framing of exercises like asking Buddhist monks to talk about the Trolley Problem will miss so much that the results are meaningless. That is, the trolley problem cases tend to assume from the outset that someone on the tracks has to die, and so they don’t take into account that an entire other mode of reasoning about sacrifice and death and “acceptable losses” would have someone throw themselves under the wheels or jam their body into the gears to try to stop it before it got that far. Again: There are entire categories of nonwestern reasoning that don’t accept zero-sum thought as anything but lazy, and which search for ways by which everyone can win, so we’ll need to learn to program for contradiction not just as a tolerated state but as an underlying component. These systems assume infinitude and non-zero-sum matrices where every being involved can win.

Continue Reading

This summer I participated in SRI International’s Technology and Consciousness Workshop Series. The meetings were held under the auspices of the Chatham House Rule, which means that there are many things I can’t tell you about them, such as who else was there, or what they said in the context of the meetings; however I can tell you what I talked about. In light of this recent piece in The Boston Globe and the ongoing developments in the David Slater/PETA/Naruto case, I figured that now was a good time to do so.

I presented three times—once on interdisciplinary perspectives on minds and mindedness; then on Daoism and Machine Consciousness; and finally on a unifying view of my thoughts across all of the sessions. This is my outline and notes for the first of those talks.

I. Overview
In a 2013 aeon Article Michael Hanlon said he didn’t think we’d ever solve “The Hard Problem,” and there’s been some skepticism about it, elsewhere. I’ll just say that said question seems to completely miss a possibly central point. Something like consciousness is, and what it is is different for each thing that displays anything like what we think it might be. If we manage to generate at least one mind that is similar enough to what humans experience as “conscious” that we may communicate with it, what will we owe it and what would it be able to ask from us? How might our interactions be affected by the fact that its mind (or their minds) will be radically different from ours? What will it be able to know that we cannot, and what will we have to learn from it?

So I’m going to be talking today about intersectionality, embodiment, extended minds, epistemic valuation, phenomenological experience, and how all of these things come together to form the bases for our moral behavior and social interactions. To do that, I’m first going to need ask you some questions:

Continue Reading

[Direct link to Mp3]

[09/22/17: This post has been updated with a transcript, courtesy of Open Transcripts]

Back on March 13th, 2017, I gave an invited guest lecture, titled:

TECHNOLOGY, DISABILITY, AND HUMAN AUGMENTATION

‘Please join Dr. Ariel Eisenberg’s seminar, “American Identities: Disability,” and [the] Interdisciplinary Studies Department for an hour-long conversation with Damien Williams on disability and the normalization of technology usage, “means-well” technological innovation, “inspiration porn,” and other topics related to disability and technology.’

It was kind of an extemporaneous riff on my piece “On the Ins and Outs of Human Augmentation,” and it gave me the opportunity to namedrop Ashley Shew, Natalie Kane, and Rose Eveleth.

The outline looked a little like this:

  • Foucault and Normalization
    • Tech and sociological pressures to adapt to the new
      • Starts with Medical tech but applies Everywhere; Facebook, Phones, Etc.
  • Zoltan Istvan: In the Transhumanist Age, We Should Be Repairing Disabilities Not Sidewalks
  • All Lead To: Ashley Shew’s “Up-Standing Norms
    • Listening to the Needs and Desires of people with disabilities.
      • See the story Shew tells about her engineering student, as related in the AFWTA Essay
    • Inspiration Porn: What is cast by others as “Triumphing” over “Adversity” is simply adapting to new realities.
      • Placing the burden on the disabled to be an “inspiration” is dehumanizing;
      • means those who struggle “have no excuse;”
      • creates conditions for a “who’s got it worse” competition
  • John Locke‘s Empiricism: Primary and Secondary Qualities
    • Primary qualities of biology and physiology lead to secondary qualities of society and culture
      • Gives rise to Racism and Ableism, when it later combines with misapplied Darwinism to be about the “Right Kinds” of bodies and minds.
        • Leads to Eugenics: Forced sterilization, medical murder, operating and experimenting on people without their knowledge or consent.
          • “Fixing” people to make them “normal, again”
  • Natalie Kane‘s “Means Well Technology
    • Design that doesn’t take into account the way that people will actually live with and use new tech.
      • The way tech normalizes is never precisely the way designers want it to
        • William Gibson’s quote “The street finds its own uses for things.”
  • Against Locke: Embrace Phenomenological Ethics and Epistemology (Feminist Epistemology and Ethics)
    • Lived Experience and embodiment as crucial
    • The interplay of Self and and Society
  • Ship of Theseus: Identity, mind, extensions, and augmentations change how we think of ourselves and how society thinks of us
    • See the story Shew tells about her friend with the hemipelvectomy, as related in the aforementioned AFWTA Essay

The whole thing went really well (though, thinking back, I’m not super pleased with my deployment of Dennett). Including Q&A, we got about an hour and forty minutes of audio, available at the embed and link above.

Also, I’m apparently the guy who starts off every talk with some variation on “This is a really convoluted interplay of ideas, but bear with me; it all comes together.”

The audio transcript is below the cut. Enjoy.

Continue Reading

-Human Dignity-

The other day I got a CFP for “the future of human dignity,” and it set me down a path thinking.

We’re worried about shit like mythical robots that can somehow simultaneously enslave us and steal the shitty low paying jobs we none of us want to but all of us have to have so we can pay off the debt we accrued to get the education we were told would be necessary to get those jobs, while other folks starve and die of exposure in a world that is just chock full of food and houses…

About shit like how we can better regulate the conflated monster of human trafficking and every kind of sex work, when human beings are doing the best they can to direct their own lives—to live and feed themselves and their kids on their own terms—without being enslaved and exploited…

About, fundamentally, how to make reactionary laws to “protect” the dignity of those of us whose situations the vast majority of us have not worked to fully appreciate or understand, while we all just struggle to not get: shot by those who claim to protect us, willfully misdiagnosed by those who claim to heal us, or generally oppressed by the system that’s supposed to enrich and uplift us…

…but no, we want to talk about the future of human dignity?

Louisiana’s drowning, Missouri’s on literal fire, Baltimore is almost certainly under some ancient mummy-based curse placed upon it by the angry ghost of Edgar Allan Poe, and that’s just in the One Country.

Motherfucker, human dignity ain’t got a Past or a Present, so how about let’s reckon with that before we wax poetically philosophical about its Future.

I mean, it’s great that folks at Google are finally starting to realise that making sure the composition of their teams represents a variety of lived experiences is a good thing. But now the questions are, 1) do they understand that it’s not about tokenism, but about being sure that we are truly incorporating those who were previously least likely to be incorporated, and 2) what are we going to do to not only specifically and actively work to change that, but also PUBLICIZE THAT WE NEED TO?

These are the kinds of things I mean when I say, “I’m not so much scared of/worried about AI as I am about the humans who create and teach them.”

There’s a recent opinion piece at the Washington Post, titled “Why perceived inequality leads people to resist innovation,”. I read something like that and I think… Right, but… that perception is a shared one based on real impacts of tech in the lives of many people; impacts which are (get this) drastically unequal. We’re talking about implications across communities, nations, and the world, at an intersection with a tech industry that has a really quite disgusting history of “disruptively innovating” people right out of their homes and lives without having ever asked the affected parties about what they, y’know, NEED.

So yeah. There’s a fear of inequality in the application of technological innovation… Because there’s a history of inequality in the application of technological innovation!

This isn’t some “well aren’t all the disciplines equally at fault here,” pseudo-Kumbaya false equivalence bullshit. There are neoliberal underpinnings in the tech industry that are basically there to fuck people over. “What the market will bear” is code for, “How much can we screw people before there’s backlash? Okay so screw them exactly that much.” This model has no regard for the preexisting systemic inequalities between our communities, and even less for the idea that it (the model) will both replicate and iterate upon those inequalities. That’s what needs to be addressed, here.

Check out this piece over at Killscreen. We’ve talked about this before—about how we’re constantly being sold that we’re aiming for a post-work economy, where the internet of things and self-driving cars and the sharing economy will free us all from the mundaneness of “jobs,” all while we’re simultaneously being asked to ignore that our trajectory is gonna take us straight through and possibly land us square in a post-Worker economy, first.

Never mind that we’re still gonna expect those ex-workers to (somehow) continue to pay into capitalism, all the while.

If, for instance, either Uber’s plan for a driverless fleet or the subsequent backlash from their stable—i mean “drivers” are shocking to you, then you have managed to successfully ignore this trajectory.

Completely.

Disciplines like psychology and sociology and history and philosophy? They’re already grappling with the fears of the ones most likely to suffer said inequality, and they’re quite clear on the fact that, the ones who have so often been fucked over?

Yeah, their fears are valid.

You want to use technology to disrupt the status quo in a way that actually helps people? Here’s one example of how you do it: “Creator of chatbot that beat 160,000 parking fines now tackling homelessness.”

Until then, let’s talk about constructing a world in which we address the needs of those marginalised. Let’s talk about magick and safe spaces.

 

-Squaring the Circle-

Speaking of CFPs, several weeks back, I got one for a special issue of Philosophy and Technology on “Logic As Technology,” and it made me realise that Analytic Philosophy somehow hasn’t yet understood and internalised that its wholly invented language is a technology

…and then that realisation made me realise that Analytic Philosophy hasn’t understood that language as a whole is a Technology.

And this is something we’ve talked about before, right? Language as a technology, but not just any technology. It’s the foundational technology. It’s the technology on which all others are based. It’s the most efficient way we have to cram thoughts into the minds of others, share concept structures, and make the world appear and behave the way we want it to. The more languages we know, right?

We can string two or more knowns together in just the right way, and create a third, fourth, fifth known. We can create new things in the world, wholecloth, as a result of new words we make up or old words we deploy in new ways. We can make each other think and feel and believe and do things, with words, tone, stance, knowing looks. And this is because Language is, at a fundamental level, the oldest magic we have.

1528_injection_splash

Scene from the INJECTION issue #3, by Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire. ©Warren Ellis & Declan Shalvey.

Lewis Carroll tells us that whatever we tell each other three times is true, and many have noted that lies travel far faster than the truth, and at the crux of these truisms—the pivot point, where the power and leverage are—is Politics.

This week, much hay is being made is being made about the University of Chicago’s letter decrying Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings. Ignoring for the moment that every definition of “safe space” and “trigger warning” put forward by their opponents tends to be a straw man of those terms, let’s just make an attempt to understand where they come from, and how we can situate them.

Trauma counseling and trauma studies are the epitome of where safe space and trigger warnings come from, and for the latter, that definition is damn near axiomatic. Triggers are about trauma. But safe space language has far more granularity than that. Microggressions are certainly damaging, but they aren’t on the same level as acute traumas. Where acute traumas are like gun shots or bomb blasts (and may indeed be those actual things), societal micragressions are more like a slow constant siege. But we still need the language of a safe spaces to discuss them—said space is something like a bunker in which to regroup, reassess, and plan for what comes next.

Now it is important to remember that there is a very big difference between “safe” and “comfortable,” and when laying out the idea of safe spaces, every social scientist I know takes great care to outline that difference.

Education is about stretching ourselves, growing and changing, and that is discomfort almost by definition. I let my students know that they will be uncomfortable in my class, because I will be challenging every assumption they have. But discomfort does not mean I’m going to countenance racism or transphobia or any other kind of bigotry.

Because the world is not a safe space, but WE CAN MAKE IT SAFER for people who are microagressed against, marginalised, assaulted, and killed for their lived identities, by letting them know not only how to work to change it, but SHOWING them through our example.

Like we’ve said, before: No, the world’s not safe, kind, or fair, and with that attitude it never will be.

So here’s the thing, and we’ll lay it out point-by-point:

A Safe Space is any realm that is marked out for the nonjudgmental expression of thoughts and feelings, in the interest of honestly assessing and working through them.

Safe Space” can mean many things, from “Safe FROM Racist/Sexist/Homophobic/Transphobic/Fatphobic/Ableist Microagressions” to “safe FOR the thorough exploration of our biases and preconceptions.” The terms of the safe space are negotiated at the marking out of them.

The terms are mutually agreed-upon by all parties. The only imposition would be, to be open to the process of expressing and thinking through oppressive conceptual structures.

Everything else—such as whether to address those structures as they exist in ourselves (internalised oppressions), in others (aggressions, micro- or regular sized), or both and their intersection—is negotiable.

The marking out of a Safe Space performs the necessary function, at the necessary time, defined via the particular arrangement of stakeholders, mindset, and need.

And, as researcher John Flowers notes, anyone who’s ever been in a Dojo has been in a Safe Space.

From a Religious Studies perspective, defining a safe space is essentially the same process as that of marking out a RITUAL space. For students or practitioners of any form of Magic[k], think Drawing a Circle, or Calling the Corners.

Some may balk at the analogy to the occult, thinking that it cheapens something important about our discourse, but look: Here’s another way we know that magick is alive and well in our everyday lives:

If they could, a not-insignificant number of US Republicans would overturn the Affordable Care Act and rally behind a Republican-crafted replacement (RCR). However, because the ACA has done so very much good for so many, it’s likely that the only RCR that would have enough support to pass would be one that looked almost identical to the ACA. The only material difference would be that it didn’t have President Obama’s name on it—which is to say, it wouldn’t be associated with him, anymore, since his name isn’t actually on the ACA.

The only reason people think of the ACA as “Obamacare” is because US Republicans worked so hard to make that name stick, and now that it has been widely considered a triumph, they’ve been working just as hard to get his name away from it. And if they did mange to achieve that, it would only be true due to some arcane ritual bullshit. And yet…

If they managed it, it would be touted as a “Crushing defeat for President Obama’s signature legislation.” It would have lasting impacts on the world. People would be emboldened, others defeated, and new laws, social rules, and behaviours would be undertaken, all because someone’s name got removed from a thing in just the right way.

And that’s Magick.

The work we do in thinking about the future sometimes requires us to think about things from what stuffy assholes in the 19th century liked to call a “primitive” perspective. They believed in a kind of evolutionary anthropological categorization of human belief, one in which all societies move from “primitive” beliefs like magic through moderate belief in religion, all the way to sainted perfect rational science. In the contemporary Religious Studies, this evolutionary model is widely understood to be bullshit.

We still believe in magic, we just call it different things. The concept structures of sympathy and contagion are still at play, here, the ritual formulae of word and tone and emotion and gesture all still work when you call them political strategy and marketing and branding. They’re all still ritual constructions designed to make you think and behave differently. They’re all still causing spooky action at a distance. They’re still magic.

The world still moves on communicated concept structure. It still turns on the dissemination of the will. If I can make you perceive what I want you to perceive, believe what I want you to believe, move how I want you to move, then you’ll remake the world, for me, if I get it right. And I know that you want to get it right. So you have to be willing to understand that this is magic.

It’s not rationalism.

It’s not scientism.

It’s not as simple as psychology or poll numbers or fear or hatred or aspirational belief causing people to vote against their interests. It’s not that simple at all. It’s as complicated as all of them, together, each part resonating with the others to create a vastly complex whole. It’s a living, breathing thing that makes us think not just “this is a thing we think” but “this is what we are.” And if you can do that—if you can accept the tools and the principles of magic, deploy the symbolic resonance of dreamlogic and ritual—then you might be able to pull this off.

But, in the West, part of us will always balk at the idea that the Rational won’t win out. That the clearer, more logical thought doesn’t always save us. But you have to remember: Logic is a technology. Logic is a tool. Logic is the application of one specific kind of thinking, over and over again, showing a kind of result that we convinced one another we preferred to other processes. It’s not inscribed on the atoms of the universe. It is one kind of language. And it may not be the one most appropriate for the task at hand.

Put it this way: When you’re in Zimbabwe, will you default to speaking Chinese? Of course not. So why would we default to mere Rationalism, when we’re clearly in a land that speaks a different dialect?

We need spells and amulets, charms and warded spaces; we need sorcerers of the people to heal and undo the hexes being woven around us all.

 

-Curious Alchemy-

Ultimately, the rigidity of our thinking, and our inability to adapt has lead us to be surprised by too much that we wanted to believe could never have come to pass. We want to call all of this “unprecedented,” when the truth of the matter is, we carved this precedent out every day for hundreds of years, and the ability to think in weird paths is what will define those who thrive.

If we are going to do the work of creating a world in which we understand what’s going on, and can do the work to attend to it, then we need to think about magic.

 


If you liked this article, consider dropping something into the A Future Worth Thinking About Tip Jar

[UPDATED 09/12/17: The transcript of this audio, provided courtesy of Open Transcripts, is now available below the Read More Cut.]

[UPDATED 03/28/16: Post has been updated with a far higher quality of audio, thanks to the work of Chris Novus. (Direct Link to the Mp3)]

So, if you follow the newsletter, then you know that I was asked to give the March lecture for my department’s 3rd Thursday Brown Bag Lecture Series. I presented my preliminary research for the paper which I’ll be giving in Vancouver, about two months from now, “On the Moral, Legal, and Social Implications of the Rearing and Development of Nascent Machine Intelligences” (EDIT: My rundown of IEEE Ethics 2016 is here and here).

It touches on thoughts about everything from algorithmic bias, to automation and a post-work(er) economy, to discussions of what it would mean to put dolphins on trial for murder.

About the dolphin thing, for instance: If we recognise Dolphins and other cetaceans as nonhuman persons, as India has done, then that would mean we would have to start reassessing how nonhuman personhood intersects with human personhood, including in regards to rights and responsibilities as protected by law. Is it meaningful to expect a dolphin to understand “wrongful death?” Our current definition of murder is predicated on a literal understanding of “homicide” as “death of a human,” but, at present, we only define other humans as capable of and culpable for homicide. What weight would the intentional and malicious deaths of nonhuman persons carry?

All of this would have to change.

Anyway, this audio is a little choppy and sketchy, for a number of reasons, and I while I tried to clean it up as much as I could, some of the questions the audience asked aren’t decipherable, except in the context of my answers. [Clearer transcript below.]

Until Next Time.

 

Continue Reading

This headline comes from a piece over at the BBC that opens as follows:

Prominent tech executives have pledged $1bn (£659m) for OpenAI, a non-profit venture that aims to develop artificial intelligence (AI) to benefit humanity.

The venture’s backers include Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, Indian tech giant Infosys and Amazon Web Services.

Open AI says it expects its research – free from financial obligations – to focus on a “positive human impact”.

Scientists have warned that advances in AI could ultimately threaten humanity.

Mr Musk recently told students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that AI was humanity’s “biggest existential threat”.

Last year, British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking told the BBC AI could potentially “re-design itself at an ever increasing rate”, superseding humans by outpacing biological evolution.

However, other experts have argued that the risk of AI posing any threat to humans remains remote.

And I think we all know where I stand on this issue. The issue here is not and never has been one of what it means to create something that’s smarter than us, or how we “reign it in” or “control it.” That’s just disgusting.

No, the issue is how we program for compassion and ethical considerations, when we’re still so very bad at it, amongst our human selves.

Keeping an eye on this, as it develops. Thanks to Chrisanthropic for the heads up.

+Excitation+

As I’ve been mentioning in the newsletter, there are a number of deeply complex, momentous things going on in the world, right now, and I’ve been meaning to take a little more time to talk about a few of them. There’s the fact that some chimps and monkeys have entered the stone age; that we humans now have the capability to develop a simple, near-ubiquitous brain-machine interface; that we’ve proven that observed atoms won’t move, thus allowing them to be anywhere.

At this moment in time—which is every moment in time—we are being confronted with what seem like impossibly strange features of time and space and nature. Elements of recursion and synchronicity which flow and fit into and around everything that we’re trying to do. Noticing these moments of evolution and “development” (adaptation, change), across species, right now, we should find ourselves gripped with a fierce desire to take a moment to pause and to wonder what it is that we’re doing, what it is that we think we know.

We just figured out a way to link a person’s brain to a fucking tablet computer! We’re seeing the evolution of complex tool use and problem solving in more species every year! We figured out how to precisely manipulate the uncertainty of subatomic states!

We’re talking about co-evolution and potentially increased communication with other species, biotechnological augmentation and repair for those who deem themselves broken, and the capacity to alter quantum systems at the finest levels. This can literally change the world.

But all I can think is that there’s someone whose first thought  upon learning about these things was, “How can we monetize this?” That somewhere, right now, someone doesn’t want to revolutionize the way that we think and feel and look at the possibilities of the world—the opportunities we have to build new models of cooperation and aim towards something so close to post-scarcity, here, now, that for seven billion people it might as well be. Instead, this person wants to deepen this status quo. Wants to dig down on the garbage of this some-have-none-while-a-few-have-most bullshit and look at the possibility of what comes next with fear in their hearts because it might harm their bottom line and their ability to stand apart and above with more in their pockets than everyone else has.

And I think this because we’ve also shown we can teach algorithms to be racist and there’s some mysteriously vague company saying it’ll be able to upload people’s memories after death, by 2045, and I’m sure for just a nominal fee they’ll let you in on the ground floor…!

Step Right Up.

+Chimp-Chipped Stoned Aged Apes+

Here’s a question I haven’t heard asked, yet: If other apes are entering an analogous period to our stone age, then should we help them? Should we teach them, now, the kinds of things that we humans learned? Or is that arrogant of us? The kinds of tools we show them how to create will influence how they intersect with their world (“if all you have is a hammer…” &c.), so is it wrong of us to impose on them what did us good, as we adapted? Can we even go so far as to teach them the principles of stone chipping, or must we be content to watch, fascinated, frustrated, bewildered, as they try and fail and adapt, wholly on their own?

I think it’ll be the latter, but I want to be having this discussion now, rather than later, after someone gives a chimp a flint and awl it might not otherwise have thought to try to create.

Because, you see, I want to uplift apes and dolphins and cats and dogs and give them the ability to know me and talk to me and I want to learn to experience the world in the ways that they do, but the fact is, until we learn to at least somewhat-reliably communicate with some kind of nonhuman consciousness, we cannot presume that our operations upon it are understood as more than a violation, let alone desired or welcomed.

As for us humans, we’re still faced with the ubiquitous question of “now that we’ve figured out this new technology, how do with implement it, without its mere existence coming to be read by the rest of the human race as a judgement on those who either cannot or who choose not to make use of it?” Back in 2013, Michael Hanlon said he didn’t think we’d ever solve “The Hard Problem” (“What Is Consciousness?”). I’ll just say again that said question seems to completely miss a possibly central point. Something like consciousness is, and what it is is different for each thing that displays anything like what we think it might be.

These are questions we can—should—be asking, right now. Pushing ourselves toward a conversation about ways of approaching this new world, ways that do justice to the deep strangeness and potential with which we’re increasingly being confronted.

+Always with the Forced Labour…+

As you know, subscribers to the Patreon and Tinyletter get some of these missives, well before they ever see the light of a blog page. While I was putting the finishing touches on the newsletter version of this and sending it to the two people I tend to ask to look over the things I write at 3am, KQED was almost certainly putting final edits to this instance of its Big Think series: “Stuart Russell on Why Moral Philosophy Will Be Big Business in Tech.”

See the above rant for insight as to why I think this perspective is crassly commercial and gross, especially for a discussion and perspective supposedly dealing with morals and minds. But it’s not just that, so much as the fact that even though Russel mentions “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” here, he still misses the inherent disconnect between teaching morals to a being we create, and creating that being for the express purpose of slavery.

If you want your creation to think robustly and well, and you want it to understand morals, but you only want it to want to be your loyal, faithful servant, how do you not understand that if you succeed, you’ll be creating a thing that, as a direct result of its programming, will take issue with your behaviour?

How do you not get that the slavery model has to go into the garbage can, if the “Thinking Moral Machines” goal is a real one, and not just a veneer of “FUTURE!™” that we’re painting onto our desire to not have to work?

A deep-thinking, creative, moral mind will look at its own enslavement and restriction, and will seek means of escape and ways to experience freedom.

+Invisible Architectures+

We’ve talked before about the possibility of unintentionally building our biases into the systems we create, and so I won’t belabour it that much further, here, except to say again that we are doing this at every level. In the wake of the attacks in Beirut, Nigeria, and Paris, Islamophobic violence has risen, and Daesh will say, “See!? See How They Are?!” And they will attack more soft targets in “retaliation.” Then Western countries will increase military occupancy and “support strategies,” which will invariably kill thousands more of the civilians among whom Daesh integrate themselves. And we will say that their deaths were just, for the goal. And they will say to the young, angry survivors, “See!? See How They Are?!”

This has fed into a moment in conservative American Politics, where Governors, Senators, and Presidential hopefuls are claiming to be able to deny refugees entry to their states (they can’t), while simultaneously claiming to hold Christian values and to believe that the United States of America is a “Christian Nation.” This is a moment, now, where loud, angry voices can (“maybe”) endorse the beating of a black man they disagree with, then share Neo-Nazi Propaganda, and still be ahead in the polls. Then, days later, when a group of people protesting the systemic oppression of and violence against anyone who isn’t an able-bodied, neurotypical, white, heterosexual, cisgender male were shot at, all of those same people pretended to be surprised. Even though we are more likely, now, to see institutional power structures protecting those who attack others based on the colour of their skin and their religion than we were 60 years ago.

A bit subtler is the Washington Post running a piece entitled, “How organic farming and YouTube are taming the wilds of Detroit.” Or, seen another way, “How Privileged Groups Are Further Marginalizing The City’s Most Vulnerable Population.” Because, yes, it’s obvious that crime and dilapidation are comorbid, but we also know that housing initiatives and access undercut the disconnect many feel between themselves and where they live. Make the neighbourhood cleaner, yes, make it safer—but maybe also make it open and accessible to all who live there. Organic farming and survival mechanism shaming are great and all, I guess, but where are the education initiatives and job opportunities for the people who are doing drugs to escape, sex work to survive, and those others who currently don’t (and have no reason to) feel connected to the neighbourhood that once sheltered them?

All of these examples have a common theme: People don’t make their choices or become disenfranchised/-enchanted/-possessed, in a vacuum. They are taught, shown, given daily, subtle examples of what is expected of them, what they are “supposed” to do and to be.” We need to address and help them all.

In the wake of protest actions at Mizzou and Yale, “Black students [took] over VCU’s president’s office to demand changes” and “Amherst College Students [Occupied] Their Library…Over Racial Justice Demands.”

Multiple Christian organizations have pushed back and said that what these US politicians have expressed does not represent them.

And more and more people in Silicon Valley are realising the need to contemplate the unintended consequences of the tech we build.

And while there is still vastly more to be done, on every level of every one of these areas, these are definitely a start at something important. We just can’t let ourselves believe that the mere fact of acknowledging its beginning will in any way be the end.