Digifesto

Tag: ethics

Notes on Clark Kerr’s “The ‘City of Intellect’ in a Century for Foxes?”, in The Uses of the University 5th Edition

I am in my seventh and absolutely, definitely last year of a doctoral program and so have many questions about the future of higher education and whether or not I will be a part of it. For insight, I have procured an e-book copy of Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University (5th Edition, 2001). Clark Kerr was the 20th President of University of California system and became famous among other things for his candid comments on university administration, which included such gems as

“I find that the three major administrative problems on a campus are sex for the students, athletics for the alumni and parking for the faculty.”

…and…

“One of the most distressing tasks of a university president is to pretend that the protest and outrage of each new generation of undergraduates is really fresh and meaningful. In fact, it is one of the most predictable controversies that we know. The participants go through a ritual of hackneyed complaints, almost as ancient as academe, while believing that what is said is radical and new.”

The Uses of the University is a collection of lectures on the topic of the university, most of which we given in the second half of the 20th century. The most recent edition contains a lecture given in the year 2000, after Kerr had retired from administration, but anticipating the future of the university in the 21st century. The title of the lecture is “The ‘City of Intellect’ in a Century for Foxes?”, and it is encouragingly candid and prescient.

To my surprise, Kerr approaches the lecture as a forecasting exercise. Intriguingly, Kerr employs the hedgehog/fox metaphor from Isaiah Berlin in a lecture about forecasting five years before the publication of Tetlock’s 2005 book Expert Political Judgment (review link), which used the fox/hedgehog distinction to cluster properties that were correlated with political expert’s predictive power. Kerr’s lecture is structured partly as the description of a series of future scenarios, reminiscent of scenario planning as a forecasting method. I didn’t expect any of this, and it goes to show perhaps how pervasive scenario thinking was as a 20th century rhetorical technique.

Kerr makes a number of warning about the university in the 20th century, especially with respect to the glory of the university in the 20th century. He makes a historical case for this: universities in the 20th century thrived on new universal access to students, federal investment in universities as the sites of basic research, and general economic prosperity. He doesn’t see these guaranteed in the 20th century, though he also makes the point that in official situations, the only thing a university president should do is discuss the past with pride and the future with apprehension. He has a rather detailed analysis of the incentives guiding this rhetorical strategy as part of the lecture, which makes you wonder how much salt to take the rest of the lecture with.

What are the warnings Kerr makes? Some are a continuation of the problems universities experienced in the 20th century. Military and industrial research funding changed the roles of universities away from liberal arts education into research shop. This was not a neutral process. Undergraduate education suffered, and in 1963 Kerr predicted that this slackening of the quality of undergraduate education would lead to student protests. He was half right; students instead turned their attention externally to politics. Under these conditions, there grew to be a great tension between the “internal justice” of a university that attempted to have equality among its faculty and the permeation of external forces that made more of the professiorate face outward. A period of attempted reforms throguh “participatory democracy” was “a flash in the pan”, resulting mainly in “the creation of courses celebrating ethnic, racial, and gender diversities. “This experience with academic reform illustrated how radical some professors can be when they look at the external world and how conservative when they look inwardly at themselves–a split personality”.

This turn to industrial and military funding and the shift of universities away from training in morality (theology), traditional professions (medicine, law), self-chosen intellectual interest for its own sake, and entrance into elite society towards training for the labor force (including business administration and computer science) is now quite old–at least 50 years. Among other things, Kerr predicts, this means that we will be feeling the effects of the hollowing out of the education system that happened as higher education deprioritized teaching in favor of research. The baby boomers who went through this era of vocational university education become, in Kerr’s analysis, an enormous class of retirees by 2030, putting new strain on the economy at large. Meanwhile, without naming computers and the Internet, Kerr acknowledged that the “electronic revolution” is the first major change to affect universities for three hundred years, and could radically alter their role in society. He speaks highly of Peter Drucker, who in 1997 was already calling the university “a failure” that would be made obsolete by long-distance learning.

In an intriguing comment on aging baby boomers, which Kerr discusses under the heading “The Methuselah Scenario”, is that the political contest between retirees and new workers will break down partly along racial lines: “Nasty warfare may take place between the old and the young, parents and children, retired Anglos and labor force minorities.” Almost twenty years later, this line makes me wonder how much current racial tensions are connected to age and aging. Have we seen the baby boomer retirees rise as a political class to vigorously defend the welfare state from plutocratic sabotage? Will we?

Kerr discusses the scenario of the ‘disintegration of the integrated university’. The old model of medicine, agriculture, and law integrated into one system is coming apart as external forces become controlling factors within the university. Kerr sees this in part as a source of ethical crises for universities.

“Integration into the external world inevitably leads to disintegration of the university internally. What are perceived by some as the injustices in the external labor market penetrate the system of economic rewards on campus, replacing policies of internal justice. Commitments to external interests lead to internal conflicts over the impartiality of the search for truth. Ideologies conflict. Friendships and loyalties flow increasingly outward. Spouses, who once held the academic community together as a social unit, now have their own jobs. “Alma Mater Dear” to whom we “sing a joyful chorus” becomes an almost laughable idea.”

A factor in this disintegration is globalization, which Kerr identifies with the mobility of those professors who are most able to get external funding. These professors have increased bargaining power and can use “the banner of departmental autonomy” to fight among themselves for industrial contracts. Without oversight mechanisms, “the university is helpless in the face of the combined onslaught of aggressive industry and entrepreneurial faculty members”.

Perhaps most fascinating for me, because it resonates with some of my more esoteric passions, is Kerr’s section on “The fractionalization of the academic guild“. Subject matter interest breaks knowledge into tiny disconnected topics–"Once upon a time, the entire academic enterprise originated in and remained connected to philosophy." The tension between "internal justice" and the "injustices of the external labor market" creates a conflict over monetary rewards. Poignantly, "fractionalization also increases over differing convictions about social justice, over whether it should be defined as equality of opportunity or equality of results, the latter often taking the form of equality of representation. This may turn out to be the penultimate ideological battle on campus."

And then:

The ultimate conflict may occur over models of the university itself, whether to support the traditional or the “postmodern” model. The traditional model is based on the enlightenment of the eighteenth century–rationality, scientific processes of thought, the search for truth, objectivity, “knowledge for its own sake and for its practical applications.” And the traditional university, to quote the Berkeley philosopher John Searle, “attempts to be apolitical or at least politically neutral.” The university of postmodernism thinks that all discourse is political anyway, and it seeks to use the university for beneficial rather than repressive political ends… The postmodernists are attempting to challenge certain assumptions about the nature of truth, objectivity, rationality, reality, and intellectual quality.”

… Any further politicization of the university will, of course, alienate much of the public at large. While most acknowledge that the traditional university was partially politicized already, postmodernism will further raise questions of whether the critical function of the university is based on political orientation rather than on nonpolitical scientific analysis.”

I could go on endlessly about this topic; I’ll try to be brief. First, as per Lyotard’s early analysis of the term, postmodernism is as much as result of the permeation of the university by industrial interests as anything else. Second, we are seeing, right now today in Congress and on the news etc., the eroded trust that a large portion of the public has of university “expertise”, as they assume (having perhaps internalized a reductivist version of the postmodern message despite or maybe because they were being taught by teaching assistants instead of professors) that the professoriate is politically biased. And now the students are in revolt over Free Speech again as a result.

Kerr entertains for a paragraph the possibility of a Hobbesian doomsday free-for-all over the university before considering more mundane possibilities such as a continuation of the status quo. Adapting to new telecommunications (including “virtual universities”), new amazing discoveries in biological sciences, and higher education as a step in mid-career advancement are all in Kerr’s more pragmatic view of the future. The permeability of the university can bring good as well as bad as it is influenced by traffic back and forth across its borders. “The drawbridge is now down. Who and what shall cross over it?”

Kerr counts three major wildcards determining the future of the university. The first is overall economic productivity, the second is fluctuations in returns to a higher education. The third is the United States’ role in the global economy “as other nations or unions of nations (for example, the EU) may catch up with and even surpass it. The quality of education and training for all citizens will be to this contest. The American university may no longer be supreme.” Fourth, student unrest turning universities into the “independent critic”. And fifth, the battles within the professoriate, “over academic merit versus social justice in treatment of students, over internal justice in the professional reward system versus the pressures of external markets, over the better model for the university–modern or post-modern.”

He concludes with three wishes for the open-minded, cunning, savvy administrator of the future, the “fox”:

  1. Careful study of new information technologies and their role.
  2. “An open, in-depth debate…between the proponents of the traditional and the postmodern university instead of the sniper shots of guerilla warfare…”
  3. An “in-depth discussion…about the ethical systems of the future university”. “Now the ethical problems are found more in the flow of contacts between the academic and the external worlds. There have never been so many ethical problems swirling about as today.”

Existentialism in Design: Motivation

There has been a lot of recent work on the ethics of digital technology. This is a broad area of inquiry, but it includes such topics as:

  • The ethics of Internet research, including the Facebook emotional contagion study and the Encore anti-censorship study.
  • Fairness, accountability, and transparnecy in machine learning.
  • Algorithmic price-gauging.
  • Autonomous car trolley problems.
  • Ethical (Friendly?) AI research? This last one is maybe on the fringe…

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know I’m quite passionate about the intersection of philosophy and technology. I’m especially interested in how ethics can inform the design of digital technology, and how it can’t. My dissertation is exploring this problem in the privacy engineering literature.

I have a some dissatisfaction towards this field which I don’t expect to make it into my dissertation. One is that the privacy engineering literature and academic “ethics of digital technology” more broadly tends to be heavily informed by the law, in the sense of courts, legislatures, and states. This is motivated by the important consideration that technology, and especially technologists, should in a lot of cases be compliant with the law. As a practical matter, it certainly spares technologists the trouble of getting sued.

However, being compliant with the law is not precisely the same things as being ethical. There’s a long ethical tradition of civil disobedience (certain non-violent protest activities, for example) which is not strictly speaking legal though it has certainly had impact on what is considered legal later on. Meanwhile, the point has been made but maybe not often enough that legal language often looks like ethical language, but really shouldn’t be interpreted that way. This is a point made by Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior in his notable essay, “The Path of the Law”.

When the ethics of technology are not being framed in terms of legal requirements, they are often framed in terms of one of two prominent ethical frameworks. One framework is consequentialism: ethics is a matter of maximizing the beneficial consequences and minimizing the harmful consequences of ones actions. One variation of consequentialist ethics is utilitarianism, which attempts to solve ethical questions by reducing them to a calculus over “utility”, or benefit as it is experienced or accrued by individuals. A lot of economics takes this ethical stance. Another, less quantitative variation of consequentialist ethics is present in the research ethics principle that research should maximize benefits and minimize harms to participants.

The other major ethical framework used in discussions of ethics and technology is deontological ethics. These are ethics that are about rights, duties, and obligations. Justifying deontological ethics can be a little trickier than justifying consequentialist ethics. Frequently this is done by invoking social norms, as in the case of Nissenbaum’s contextual integrity theory. Another variation of a deontological theory of ethics is Habermas’s theory of transcendental pragmatics and legitimate norms developed through communicative action. In the ideal case, these norms become encoded into law, though it is rarely true that laws are ideal.

Consequentialist considerations probably make the world a better place in some aggregate sense. Deontological considerations probably maybe the world a fairer or at least more socially agreeable place, as in their modern formulations they tend to result from social truces or compromises. I’m quite glad that these frameworks are taken seriously by academic ethicists and by the law.

However, as I’ve said I find these discussions dissatisfying. This is because I find both consequentialist and deontological ethics to be missing something. They both rely on some foundational assumptions that I believe should be questioned in the spirit of true philosophical inquiry. A more thorough questioning of these assumptions, and tentative answers to them, can be found in existentialist philosophy. Existentialism, I would argue, has not had its due impact on contemporary discourse on ethics and technology, and especially on the questions surrounding ethical technical design. This is a situation I intend to one day remedy. Though Zach Weinersmith has already made a fantastic start:

“Self Driving Car Ethics”, by Weinersmith

SMBC: Autonomous vehicle ethics

What kinds of issues would be raised by existentialism in design? Let me try out a few examples of points made in contemporary ethics of technology discourse and a preliminary existentialist response to them.

Ethical Charge Existentialist Response
A superintelligent artificial intelligence could, if improperly designed, result in the destruction or impairment of all human life. This catastrophic risk must be avoided. (Bostrom, 2014) We are all going to die anyway. There is no catastrophic risk; there is only catastrophic certainty. We cannot make an artificial intelligence that prevents this outcome. We must instead design artificial intelligence that makes life meaningful despite its finitude.
Internet experiments must not direct the browsers of unwitting people to test the URLs of politically sensitive websites. Doing this may lead to those people being harmed for being accidentally associated with the sensitive material. Researchers should not harm people with their experiments. (Narayanan and Zevenbergen, 2015) To be held responsible by a state’s criminal justice system for the actions taken by ones browser, controlled remotely from America, is absurd. This absurdity, which pervades all life, is the real problem, not the suffering potentially caused by the experiment (because suffering in some form is inevitable, whether it is from painful circumstance or from ennui.) What’s most important is the exposure of this absurdity and the potential liberation from false moralistic dogmas that limit human potential.
Use of Big Data to sort individual people, for example in the case of algorithms used to choose among applicants for a job, may result in discrimination against historically disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. Care must be taken to tailor machine learning algorithms to adjust for the political protection of certain classes of people. (Barocas and Selbst, 2016) The egalitarian tendency in ethics which demands that the greatest should invest themselves in the well-being of the weakest is a kind of herd morality, motivated mainly by ressentiment of the disadvantaged who blame the powerful for their frustrations. This form of ethics, which is based on base emotions like pity and envy, is life-negating because it denies the most essential impulse of life: to overcome resistance and to become great. Rather than restrict Big Data’s ability to identify and augment greatness, it should be encouraged. The weak must be supported out of a spirit of generosity from the powerful, not from a curtailment of power.

As a first cut at existentialism’s response to ethical concerns about technology, it may appear that existentialism is more permissive about the use and design of technology than consequentialism and deontology. It is possible that this conclusion will be robust to further investigation. There is a sense in which existentialism may be the most natural philosophical stance for the technologist because a major theme in existentialist thought is the freedom to choose ones values and the importance of overcoming the limitations on ones power and freedom. I’ve argued before that Simone de Beauvoir, who is perhaps the most clear-minded of the existentialists, has the greatest philosophy of science because it respects this purpose of scientific research. There is a vivacity to existentialism that does not sweat the small stuff and thinks big while at the same time acknowledging that suffering and death are inevitable facts of life.

On the other hand, existentialism is a morally demanding line of inquiry precisely because it does not use either easy metaethical heuristics (such as consequentialism or deontology) or the bald realities of the human condition as a stopgap. It demands that we tackle all the hard questions, sometimes acknowledging that they are answerable or answerable only in the negative, and muddle on despite the hardest truths. Its aim is to provide a truer, better morality than the alternatives.

Perhaps this is best illustrated by some questions implied by my earlier “existentialist responses” that address the currently nonexistent field of existentialism in design. These are questions I haven’t yet heard asked by scholars at the intersection of ethics and technology.

  • How could we design an artificial intelligence (or, to make it simpler, a recommendation system) that makes the most meaningful choices for its users?
  • What sort of Internet intervention would be most liberatory for the people affected by it?
  • What technology can best promote generosity from the world’s greatest people as a celebration of power and life?

These are different questions from any that you read about in the news or in the ethical scholarship. I believe they are nevertheless important ones, maybe more important than the ethical questions that are more typically asked. The theoretical frameworks employed by most ethicists make assumptions that obscure what everybody already knows about the distribution of power and its abuses, the inevitability of suffering and death, life’s absurdity and especially the absurdity if moralizing sentiment in the face of the cruelty of reality, and so on. At best, these ethical discussions inform the interpretation and creation of law, but law is not the same as morality and to confuse the two robs morality of what is perhaps most essential component, which is that is grounded meaningfully in the experience of the subject.

In future posts (and, ideally, eventually in a paper derived from those posts), I hope to flesh out more concretely what existentialism in design might look like.

References

Barocas, S., & Selbst, A. D. (2016). Big data’s disparate impact.

Bostrom, N. (2014). Superintelligence: Paths, dangers, strategies. OUP Oxford.

Narayanan, A., & Zevenbergen, B. (2015). No Encore for Encore? Ethical questions for web-based censorship measurement.

Weinersmith, Z. “Self Driving Car Ethics”. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

industrial technology development and academic research

I now split my time between industrial technology (software) development and academic research.

There is a sense in which both activities are “scientific”. They both require the consistent use of reason and investigation to arrive at reliable forms of knowledge. My industrial and academic specializations are closely enough aligned that both aim to create some form of computational product. These activities are constantly informing one another.

What is the difference between these two activities?

One difference is that industrial work pays a lot better than academic work. This is probably the most salient difference in my experience.

Another difference is that academic work is more “basic” and less “applied”, allowing it to address more speculative questions.

You might think that the latter kind of work is more “fun”. But really, I find both kinds of work fun. Fun-factor is not an important difference for me.

What are other differences?

Here’s one: I find myself emotionally moved and engaged by my academic work in certain ways. I suppose that since my academic work straddles technology research and ethics research (I’m studying privacy-by-design), one thing I’m doing when I do this work is engaging and refining my moral intuitions. This is rewarding.

I do sometimes also feel that it is self-indulgent, because one thing that thinking about ethics isn’t is taking responsibility for real change in the world. And here I’ll express an opinion that is unpopular in academia, which is that being in industry is about taking responsibility for real change in the world. This change can benefit other people, and it’s good when people in industry get paid well because they are doing hard work that entails real risks. Part of the risk is the responsibility that comes with action in an uncertain world.

Another critically important difference between industrial technology development and academic research is that while the knowledge created by the former is designed foremost to be deployed and used, the knowledge created by the latter is designed to be taught. As I get older and more advanced as a researcher, I see that this difference is actually an essential one. Knowledge that is designed to be taught needs to be teachable to students, and students are generally coming from both a shallower and more narrow background than adult professionals. Knowledge that is designed to by deployed and used need only be truly shared by a small number of experienced practitioners. Most of the people affected by the knowledge will be affected by it indirectly, via artifacts. It can be opaque to them.

Industrial technology production changes the way the world works and makes the world more opaque. Academic research changes the way people work, and reveals things about the world that had been hidden or unknown.

When straddling both worlds, it becomes quite clear that while students are taught that academic scientists are at the frontier of knowledge, ahead of everybody else, they are actually far behind what’s being done in industry. The constraint that academic research must be taught actually drags its form of science far behind what’s being done regularly in industry.

This is humbling for academic science. But it doesn’t make it any less important. Rather, in makes it even more important, but not because of the heroic status of academic researchers being at the top of the pyramid of human knowledge. It’s because the health of the social system depends on its renewal through the education system. If most knowledge is held in secret and deployed but not passed on, we will find ourselves in a society that is increasingly mysterious and out of our control. Academic research is about advancing the knowledge that is available for education. It’s effects can take half a generation or longer to come to fruition. Against this long-term signal, the oscillations that happen within industrial knowledge, which are very real, do fade into the background. Though not before having real and often lasting effects.

Protected: partiality and ethics

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

Bostrom and Habermas: technical and political moralities, and the God’s eye view

An intriguing chapter that follows naturally from Nick Bostrom’s core argument is his discussion of machine ethics writ large. He asks: suppose one could install into an omnipotent machine ethical principles, trusting it with the future of humanity. What principles should we install?

What Bostrom accomplishes by positing his Superintelligence (which begins with something simply smarter than humans, and evolves over the course of the book into something that takes over the galaxy) is a return to what has been called “the God’s eye view”. Philosophers once attempted to define truth and morality according to perspective of an omnipotent–often both transcendent and immanent–god. Through the scope of his work, Bostrom has recovered some of these old themes. He does this not only through his discussion of Superintelligence (and positing its existence in other solar systems already) but also through his simulation arguments.

The way I see it, one thing I am doing by challenging the idea of an intelligence explosion and its resulting in a superintelligent singleton is problematizing this recovery of the God’s Eye view. If your future world is governed by many sovereign intelligent systems instead of just one, then ethics are something that have to emerge from political reality. There is something irreducibly difficult about interacting with other intelligences and it’s from this difficulty that we get values, not the other way around. This sort of thinking is much more like Habermas’s mature ethical philosophy.

I’ve written about how to apply Habermas to the design of networked publics that mediate political interactions between citizens. What I built and offer as toy example in that paper, @TheTweetserve, is simplistic but intended just as a proof of concept.

As I continue to read Bostrom, I expect a convergence on principles. “Coherent extrapolated volition” sounds a lot like a democratic governance structure with elected experts at first pass. The question of how to design a governance structure or institution that leverages artificial intelligence appropriately while legitimately serving its users motivates my dissertation research. My research so far has only scratched the surface of this problem.

responding to @npdoty on ethics in engineering

Nick Doty wrote a thorough and thoughtful response to my earlier post about the Facebook research ethics problem, correcting me on a number of points.

In particular, he highlights how academic ethicists like Floridi and Nissenbaum have an impact on industry regulation. It’s worth reading for sure.

Nick writes from an interesting position. Since he works for the W3C himself, he is closer to the policy decision makers on these issues. I think this, as well as his general erudition, give him a richer view of how these debates play out. Contrast that with the debate that happens for public consumption, which is naturally less focused.

In trying to understand scholarly work on these ethical and political issues of technology, I’m struck by how differences in where writers and audiences are coming from lead to communication breakdown. The recent blast of popular scholarship about ‘algorithms’, for example, is bewildering to me. I had the privilege of learning what an algorithm was fairly early. I learned about quicksort in an introductory computing class in college. While certainly an intellectual accomplishment, quicksort is politically quite neutral.

What’s odd is how certain contemporary popular scholarship seeks to introduce an unknowing audience to algorithms not via their basic properties–their pseudocode form, their construction from more fundamental computing components, their running time–but for their application in select and controversial contexts. Is this good for the public education? Or is this capitalizing on the vagaries of public attention?

My democratic values are being sorely tested by the quality of public discussion on matters like these. I’m becoming more content with the fact that in reality, these decisions are made by self-selecting experts in inaccessible conversations. To hope otherwise is to downplay the genuine complexity of technical problems and the amount of effort it takes to truly understand them.

But if I can sit complacently with my own expertise, this does not seem like a political solution. The FCC’s willingness to accept public comment, which normally does not elicit the response of a mass action, was just tested by Net Neutrality activists. I see from the linked article that other media-related requests for comments were similarly swamped.

The crux, I believe, is the self-referential nature of the problem–that the mechanics of information flow among the public are both what’s at stake (in terms of technical outcomes) and what drives the process to begin with, when it’s democratic. This is a recipe for a chaotic process. Perhaps there are no attractor or steady states.

Following Rash’s analysis of Habermas and Luhmann’s disagreement as to the fate of complex social systems, we’ve got at least two possible outcomes for how these debates play out. On the one hand, rationality may prevail. Genuine interlocutors, given enough time and with shared standards of discourse, can arrive at consensus about how to act–or, what technical standards to adopt, or what patches to accept into foundational software. On the other hand, the layering of those standards on top of each other, and the reaction of users to them as they build layers of communication on top of the technical edifice, can create further irreducible complexity. With that complexity comes further ethical dilemmas and political tensions.

A good desideratum for a communications system that is used to determine the technicalities of its own design is that its algorithms should intelligently manage the complexity of arriving at normative consensus.