Digifesto

Tag: computational institutions

computational institutions as non-narrative collective action

Nils Gilman recently pointed to a book chapter that confirms the need for “official futures” in capitalist institutions.

Nils indulged me in a brief exchange that helped me better grasp at a bothersome puzzle.

There is a certain class of intellectuals that insist on the primacy of narratives as a mode of human experience. These tend to be, not too surprisingly, writers and other forms of storytellers.

There is a different class of intellectuals that insists on the primacy of statistics. Statistics does not make it easy to tell stories because it is largely about the complexity of hypotheses and our lack of confidence in them.

The narrative/statistic divide could be seen as a divide between academic disciplines. It has often been taken to be, I believe wrongly, the crux of the “technology ethics” debate.

I questioned Nils as to whether his generalization stood up to statistically driven allocation of resources; i.e., those decisions made explicitly on probabilistic judgments. He argued that in the end, management and collective action require consensus around narrative.

In other words, what keeps narratives at the center of human activity is that (a) humans are in the loop, and (b) humans are collectively in the loop.

The idea that communication is necessary for collective action is one I used to put great stock in when studying Habermas. For Habermas, consensus, and especially linguistic consensus, is how humanity moves together. Habermas contrasted this mode of knowledge aimed at consensus and collective action with technical knowledge, which is aimed at efficiency. Habermas envisioned a society ruled by communicative rationality, deliberative democracy; following this line of reasoning, this communicative rationality would need to be a narrative rationality. Even if this rationality is not universal, it might, in Habermas’s later conception of governance, be shared by a responsible elite. Lawyers and a judiciary, for example.

The puzzle that recurs again and again in my work has been the challenge of communicating how technology has become an alternative form of collective action. The claim made by some that technologists are a social “other” makes more sense if one sees them (us) as organizing around non-narrative principles of collective behavior.

It is I believe beyond serious dispute that well-constructed, statistically based collective decision-making processes perform better than many alternatives. In the field of future predictions, Phillip Tetlock’s work on superforecasting teams and prior work on expert political judgment has long stood as an empirical challenge to the supposed primacy of narrative-based forecasting. This challenge has not been taken up; it seems rather one-sided. One reason for this may be because the rationale for the effectiveness of these techniques rests ultimately in the science of statistics.

It is now common to insist that Artificial Intelligence should be seen as a sociotechnical system and not as a technological artifact. I wholeheartedly agree with this position. However, it is sometimes implied that to understand AI as a social+ system, one must understand it one narrative terms. This is an error; it would imply that the collective actions made to build an AI system and the technology itself are held together by narrative communication.

But if the whole purpose of building an AI system is to collectively act in a way that is more effective because of its facility with the nuances of probability, then the narrative lens will miss the point. The promise and threat of AI is that is delivers a different, often more effective form of collective or institution. I’ve suggested that computational institution might be the best way to refer to such a thing.

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computational institutions

As the “AI ethics” debate metastasizes in my newsfeed and scholarly circles, I’m struck by the frustrations of technologists and ethicists who seem to be speaking past each other.

While these tensions play out along disciplinary fault-lines, for example, between technologists and science and technology studies (STS), the economic motivations are more often than not below the surface.

I believe this is to some extent a problem of the nomenclature, which is again the function of the disciplinary rifts involved.

Computer scientists work, generally speaking, on the design and analysis of computational systems. Many see their work as bounded by the demands of the portability and formalizability of technology (see Selbst et al., 2019). That’s their job.

This is endlessly unsatisfying to critics of the social impact of technology. STS scholars will insist on changing the subject to “sociotechnical systems”, a term that means something very general: the assemblage of people and artifacts that are not people. This, fairly, removes focus from the computational system and embeds it in a social environment.

A goal of this kind of work seems to be to hold computational systems, as they are deployed and used socially, accountable. It must be said that once this happens, we are no longer talking about the specialized domain of computer science per se. It is a wonder why STS scholars are so often picking fights with computer scientists, when their true beef seems to be with businesses that use and deploy technology.

The AI Now Institute has attempted to rebrand the problem by discussing “AI Systems” as, roughly, those sociotechnical systems that use AI. This is one the one hand more specific–AI is a particular kind of technology, and perhaps it has particular political consequences. But their analysis of AI systems quickly overflows into sweeping claims about “the technology industry”, and it’s clear that most of their recommendations have little to do with AI, and indeed are trying, once again, to change the subject from discussion of AI as a technology (a computer science research domain) to a broader set of social and political issues that do, in fact, have their own disciplines where they have been researched for years.

The problem, really, is not that any particular conversation is not happening, or is being excluded, or is being shut down. The problem is that the engineering focused conversation about AI-as-a-technology has grown very large and become an awkward synecdoche for the rise of major corporations like Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix. As these corporations fund and motivate a lot of research, there’s a question of who is going to get pieces of the big pie of opportunity these companies represent, either in terms of research grants or impact due to regulation, education, etc.

But there are so many aspects of these corporations that are neither addressed by the terms “sociotechnical system”, which is just so broad, and “AI System”, which is as broad and rarely means what you’d think it does (that the system uses AI is incidental if not unnecessary; what matters is that it’s a company operating in a core social domain via primarily technological user interfaces). Neither of these gets at the unit of analysis that’s really of interest.

An alternative: “computational institution”. Computational, in the sense of computational cognitive science and computational social science: it denotes the essential role of theory of computation and statistics in explaining the behavior of the phenomenon being studied. “Institution”, in the sense of institutional economics: the unit is a firm, which is comprised of people, their equipment, and their economic relations, to their suppliers and customers. An economic lens would immediately bring into focus “the data heist” and the “role of machines” that Nissenbaum is concerned are being left to the side.