Holding ourselves accountable

Anatomy of an AI System“, diagram and essay by Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler that attempts to chart all the human labour, data, and planetary resources used to create an Amazon Echo device. From Data Feminism.

I just finished reading this brilliant book by data scientists Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein called Data Feminism, where it proposes a new way of thinking about data science and data ethics that is informed by the ideas of intersectional feminism. Today, when data is being used to discriminate, police, and surveil more than ever, this book invites you to treat individuals and communities beyond data points, and to ask — especially if you are in the field of data science and technology — Data science by whom? Data science for whom? Data science with whose interests in mind? And who’s going to be harmed from this practice of the field of data science — which is overwhelmingly white, male, and techno-heroic — and how are you OK with this? 

I could not especially stop thinking of the last few chapters in the book, where the authors laid out a documentation of their values and their metrics for holding themselves accountable. If you have read my previous newsletter, I have especially been taken an interest in verbalising and documenting personal / shared statements, more so than manifesting, but more towards, as mentioned in the book:

[…] we saw how statements of shared values can become important orientation points, guiding internal decisions at challenging junctures and making ethical commitments public and transparent.

Here are the authors’ metrics for accountability:

  • Insist on intersectionality
  • Advocate for equity
  • Prioritise proximity
  • Acknowledge the humanity of data
  • Be reflexive, transparent, and accountable

From the book, I also learned about the feminist standpoint theory where it “recognises the value of situated knowledge — acknowledging the perspectives and experiences of the knower and how those have shaped the knowledge they produce. Accordingly, we situate ourselves and the learning contexts in which we work.” In essence, what we write, what we produce, can be influenced by where we are socially situated in the world — both our privileges and how we can also be oppressed from the matrix of domination (race, class, gender, ability, sexual orientation, religion, age, etc.) So from this book, the authors, D’Ignazio and Klein recognised their significant privileges from their whiteness, ability, institutional affiliation, and education, while at the same time experiencing oppression based on their gender. This is a very important perspective that I wished I have encountered while I was still writing my thesis, where I could situate my privileges and the experiences of oppression which had both benefitted and limited me in my research, of which, realistically, all of us have experienced! But I guess it is never too late to learn now, and there will always be other opportunities where I could be able to apply this someday.

But also, to conclude:

[…] values are not enough. We have to put those values into action and hold ourselves accountable time and time again. This constant emphasis on accountability is not easy, and it is not always successful (case in point). It also takes time. Our final metrics are uncomfortable but in some ways constructive: they serve as evidence of the distance between our ideals and our actions, they help us locate the help we need to bridge those gaps, and they help us persist.

The book is available for free here, and I would highly recommend for any of you who wants to interrogate the way we do data and technology — which we should! — to read it.

Reading in my tabs:

  • The four myths of healthy tech.
  • What if we borrow ethical data principles from the field of social work so we will be able to so clearly and explicitly deal with issues of justice and oppression, rather than just treating people and events as just data points? Maybe this is what it would sound like: “Data scientists treat each person in a caring and respectful fashion, mindful of individual differences and cultural and ethnic diversity. Data scientists promote clients’ socially responsible self-determination. Data scientists seek to enhance clients’ capacity and opportunity to change and to address their own needs.”
  • “There are two ways forward [to address the great climate migration]: climate reparations or climate colonialism. Reparations would use international resources to address inequalities caused or exacerbated by the climate crisis; it would allow for a way out of the climate catastrophe by tackling both mitigation and migration. The climate colonialism alternative, on the other hand, would mean the survival of the wealthiest and devastation for the world’s most vulnerable people.” On why we need a reparations-based approach to address the coming wave of climate refugees.
  • What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design? Very intrigued about the idea of ‘design friction’, a sort of tool that “would use the alternative futures and storytelling methods from speculative design in order to interrogate the gaps and seams that we uncover through ethnographic research.”
  • Something I am unlearning these days: ‘carceral feminism‘, the idea of mainstream feminism that is leaning on becoming more prosecutorial and punitive — and instead, to focus on addressing issues of harm without replicating and resorting to the tools of violence that are responsible for making us unsafe.
  • “The idea that women and femmes will be neutered of any desire for violence or rage if they become caregivers is, of course, inaccurate. Mothers and caregivers are, in fact, people who get to experience the full range of human emotion. But it is a useful cultural narrative for perpetuating the idea of the Good Mother and, more broadly, the Good Woman: Look, here is the most powerful villain in the Disney pantheon, and even she can learn to quiet her wrath out of love for her daughter.” Whoa, I have never thought of it before, but this is a brilliant essay on the sexual politics of the Maleficent movies and how women are only suited to power if they have children, otherwise, they are just witches.
  • Documentary Mania is a website with hundreds of documentaries you can watch for free. So that’s weekend sorted.
  • Cats have been walking all over our stuff for centuries, and elephants as environmental engineers.
  • I asked you to be human — I am no needier than other people. But the absence of all feeling, of the least concern for me — I might as well go on addressing the birches.”


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