Volume 46, Issue 1 - March 2016
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On Inequality and beyond
By Vaibhav Garg and Dee Weikle
Welcome to the first issue of the forty-sixth volume of the ACM’s Computers & Society newsletter. Since its inception in the 1970s this newsletter’s purpose has been to voice the potential social impacts of modern computing technology. With the increasing ubiquity of computing technology, the field of computers and society has seen an exponential growth. Computers are not just making an impression; they are dictating the dialogue in fields as diverse as biology to archeology.
To ensure that this richness of societal impact of computers (and associated technologies) is covered in depth, we reached out to the community to serve as area editors. Thanks to an enthusiastic response from SIGCAS members, nineteen of you are now serving the newsletter, covering individual areas from physics to digital humanities. With Dee Weikle serving as the associate editor and myself, we are a team of 21.
Apart from assuring the breadth and depth of content, we are also working to improve your experience engaging with the material. We are mindful of the issues of accessibility and will continue to have this publication available through the digital library as low resource PDFs. However, we are adding a media rich publication channel, which will make it easier for you to read content on the go, for example on tablets and smartphones. If you have other suggestions for improvement or any comments/questions/concerns contact us at email@example.com.
Finally, I am excited to introduce an excellent series of articles that make this issue. While these articles represent distinct perspectives, they are bound by an underlying theme inequality. This is one of the defining (as well as polarizing) debates of our time. Robert Dimeo introduces this subject through a sketchnote review of Harry G. Frankfurt’s book – On Inequality. Swati Agarwal (et al.) then present the unsurprising yet troubling statistics on women’s unequal participation in computer science research. Yet more troubling statistics are shown in John D. Martin III et al. who note bias in research funding against minority voices. Angèle Christin notes the potential for these biases to become pervasive, as many decisions are automated through algorithms. Her article reifies that just because algorithms do not have agency, does not mean that they are value neutral. Jean Yang continues that line of reasoning and argues that these automated agents can now dictate which voices are heard and whose concerns addressed. Inevitably these ‘robots’ tend to expose and marginalize those who need technology to level the playing field the most.
This complexity is illustrated by Nizan Geslevich-Packin et al.’s discussion of Social Netbanks, a technology that can potentially empower populations that do not have access to traditional banking infrastructure. Yet the lack of regulations also exposes these consumers to risk. Kirsten Wahlstrom et al. similarly explore the privacy risks of Brain Computer Interfaces (BCIs).
Kalpana Shankar ends on a positive note She introduces the concept of digital curation, its goal to make information accessible to wider community, while maintaining a record of history. This issue of the newsletter embodies the need for SIGCAS. Computers are neither good nor evil. They can simultaneously create equal opportunity, while amplifying even engendering systemic biases. Given that actions of algorithms are often invisible and without agency makes it difficult to even identify the problems, let alone propose solutions. It is this SIG’s responsibility to ask questions, have difficult discussions, and create awareness amongst our peers.
None of this will be easy. In recent memory there have been several heated debates on several topics, e.g. Gamer Gate, surveillance, lethal autonomous weapons. I encourage readers to bring these debates to page. Write an article for the newsletter. Encourage others to write rebuttals. But be mindful that we do not enjoy the luxury of objective truth. If your colleague’s opinion differs from your own, do not fall into the trap of assuming that they are ignorant or worse evil. This is not about an agenda, liberal or conservative, capitalist or socialist, libertarian or authoritarian. We are a community. We must be the voices of reason and not give in to the ‘worse angels’ of our nature. Because regardless the topic the stakes are high.
I will close by a quote from Salman Rushdie:
“Free societies...are societies in motion, and with motion comes tension, dissent, friction. Free people strike sparks, and those sparks are the best evidence of freedom's existence.”
So let us strike a spark...