Response to Abdurahman

Abdurahman has responded to my response to her tweet about my paper with Bruce Haynes, and invited me to write a rebuttal. While I’m happy to do so–arguing with intellectuals on the internet is probably one of my favorite things to do–it is not easy to rebut somebody with whom you have so little disagreement.

Abdurahman makes a number of points:

  1. Our paper, “Racial categories in machine learning”, omits the social context in which algorithms are enacted.
  2. The paper ignores whether computational thinking “acolytes like [me]” should be in the position of determining civic decisions.
  3. That the ontological contributions of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) are not present in the FAT* conference and that constitutes a hermeneutic injustice. (I may well have misstated this point).
  4. The positive reception to our paper may be due to its appeal to people with a disingenuous, lazy, or uncommitted racial politics.
  5. “Participatory design” does not capture Abdurahman’s challenge of “peer” design. She has a different and more broadly encompassing set of concerns: “whose language is used, whose viewpoint and values are privileged, whose agency is extended, and who has the right to frame the “problem”.”
  6. That our paper misses the point about predictive policing, from the perspective of people most affected by disparities in policing. Machine learning classification is not the right frame of the problem. The problem is an unjust prison system and, more broadly the unequal distribution of power that is manifested in the academic discourse itself. “[T]he problem is framed wrongly — it is not just that classification systems are inaccurate or biased, it is who has the power to classify, to determine the repercussions / policies associated thereof and their relation to historical and accumulated injustice?”

I have to say that I am not a stranger most of this line of thought and have great sympathy for the radical position expressed.

I will continue to defend our paper. Re: point 1, a major contribution of our paper was that it shed light on the political construction of race, especially race in the United States, which is absolutely part of “the social context in which algorithmic decision making is enacted”. Abdurahman must be referring to some other aspect of the social context. One problem we face as academic researchers is that the entire “social context” of algorithmic decision-making is the whole frickin’ world, and conference papers are about 12 pages or so. I thought we did a pretty good job of focusing on one, important and neglected aspect of that social context, the political formation of race, which as far as I know has never previously been addressed in a computer science paper. (I’ve written more about this point here).

Re: point 2, it’s true we omit a discussion of the relevance of computational thinking to civic decision-making. That is because this is a safe assumption to make in a publication to that venue. I happen to agree with that assumption, which is why I worked hard to submit a paper to that conference. If I didn’t think computational thinking was relevant, I probably would be doing something else with my time. That said, I think it’s wildly flattering and inaccurate to say that I, personally, have any control over “civic decision-making”. I really don’t, and I’m not sure why you’d think that, except for the erroneous myth that computer science research is, in itself, political power. It isn’t; that’s a lie that the tech companies have told the world.

I am quite aware (re: point 3) that my embodied and social “location” is quite different from Abdurahman’s. For example, unlike Abdurahman, it would be utterly pretentious for me to posture or “front” with AAVE. I simply have no access to its ontological wisdom, and could not be the conduit of it into any discourse, academic or informal. I have and use different resources; I am also limited by my positionality like anybody else. Sorry.

“Woke” white liberals potentially liking our argument? (Re: point 4) Fair. I don’t think that means our argument is bad or that the points aren’t worth making.

Re: point 5: I must be forgiven for not understanding the full depth of Abdurahman’s methodological commitments on the basis of a single tweet. There are a lot of different design methodologies and their boundaries are disputed. I see now that the label of “participatory design” is not sufficiently critical or radical enough to capture what she has in mind. I’m pleased to see she is working with Tap Parikh on this, who has a lot of experience with critical/radical HCI methods. I’m personally not an expert on any of this stuff. I do different work.

Re: point 6: My personal opinions about the criminal justice system did not make it into our paper, which again was a focused scientific article trying to make a different point. Our paper was about how racial categories are formed, how they are unfair, and how a computational system designed for fairness might address that problem. I agree that this approach is unlikely to have much meaningful impact on the injustices of the cradle-to-prison system in the United States, the prison-industrial complex, or the like. Based on what I’ve heard so far, the problems there would be best solved by changing the ways judges are trained. I don’t have any say in that, though–I don’t have a law degree.

In general, while I see Abdurahman’s frustrations as valid (of course!), I think it’s ironic and frustrating that she targets our paper as an emblem of the problems with the FAT* conference, with computer science, and with the world at large. First, our paper was not a “typical” FAT* paper; it was a very unusual one, positioned to broaden the scope of what’s discussed there, motivated in part by my own criticisms of the conference the year before. It was also just one paper: there’s tons of other good work at that conference, and the conversation is quite broad. I expect the best solution to the problem is to write and submit different papers. But it may also be that other venues are better for addressing the problems raised.

I’ll conclude that many of the difficulties and misunderstandings that underlie our conversation are a result of a disciplinary collapse that is happening because of academia’s relationship with social media. Language’s meaning depends on its social context, and social media is notoriously a place where contexts collapse. It is totally unreasonable to argue that everybody in the world should be focused on what you think is most important. In general, I think battles over “framing” on the Internet are stupid, and that the fact that these kinds of battles have become so politically prominent is a big part of why our society’s politics are so stupid. The current political emphasis on the symbolic sphere is a distraction from more consequential problems of economic and social structure.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, one reason why I think Haynes’s view of race is refreshing (as opposed to a lot of what passes for “critical race theory” in popular discussion) is that it locates the source of racial inequality in structure–spatial and social segregation–and institutional power–especially, the power of law. In my view, this politically substantive view of race is, if taken seriously, more radical than one based on mere “discourse” or “fairness” and demands a more thorough response. Codifying that response, in computational thinking, was the goal of our paper.

This is a more concrete and specific way of dealing with the power disparities that are at the heart of Abdurahman’s critique. Vague discourse and intimations about “privilege”, “agency”, and “power”, without an account of the specific mechanisms of that power, are weak.