Technology is often presented as a neutral and objective tool, bringing about greater efficiency and positive change. However, as Lance Strate, Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University argues in “If It’s Neutral, It’s Not Technology,” “[i]f technology leads to change, and change is not neutral, then technology is not neutral” (6). Technology is embedded with values, judgments, and purposes that have effects on our complex world—effects that can be wanted, unwanted, or unanticipated.
On October 3rd, 2018, Safiya Noble came to Purdue University to discuss her book, Algorithms of Oppression (2018), which illustrates the racial and gender biases that impact online search results. Thus, while algorithmically organized search results promise to make finding information online more efficient, Noble argues that this technology perpetuates discrimination and prioritizes private interests over intellectual freedom. At the Purdue “Dawn or Doom Conference” on November 5th, 2018, Frank Pasquale drew from his book, The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information (2015), to discuss the promise and threat of algorithms for managing the political, social, and financial spheres of our lives.
On February 13th, 2019, Virginia Eubanks will visit our campus to discuss her book, Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor (2018), which examines, in part, how welfare eligibility automation harms people living in poverty and people with disabilities in Indiana. Eubanks argues that while automation and big data promise to make public assistance more efficient and effective, these practices increase the surveillance of underserved populations and reduce people’s access to needed services. Recent controversies concerning the use of biased algorithms in the criminal justice system, racial biases in AI training sets for digital cameras, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal have also shown that many of us are often evaluating the negative impacts of technologies in retrospect, rather than adequately anticipating these problems and designing technologies for a better future.
Many existing forms of technological innovation have presented us with this problem: the failure to adequately anticipate technology’s impact on society. And new large-scale technological innovations are constantly on the horizon—autonomous vehicles, gene editing, 3-D metal printing, and “smart” cities, just to name a few. During the Spring 2019 semester, the Solutions Lab asks each house team to develop a solution that addresses the following:
How might we better anticipate the impact of technologies on society? What changes should we make when it comes to how we research, develop, design, and/or implement technologies for a better future?
Each team should draw from their interdisciplinary research, critical thinking, and collaboration skillsets in order to generate a solution. Team members should also take advantage of the events on Purdue’s campus related to the Solutions Lab topic that might further their knowledge. Teams may focus on a particular technology or propose a solution that applies to technology broadly speaking.
The final challenge is that, 48 hours before solutions are due to be presented on February 23rd, 2019 at 4 pm in the Honors Hall, a prompt will dictate the format the presentation must take for a specified audience.