Search News:

Amor Mundi: Harvey’s Heroes

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Harvey's Heroes

As of August 17th, I’ve lived in Texas for four full years. While the effects of Harvey in Austin are several orders of magnitude less severe than the devastation in Houston, several my students and many of my closest friends are from the Space City, and many more residents of Austin came here from there. The damage is felt acutely. As the storm waters recede, and the dead are counted and the property damage accounted for, we must make our own accounting. Benjamin Wallace-Wells asks one of the most important questions left in the storm’s wake:

“Among the heroes of Hurricane Harvey have been hundreds of volunteer boaters, members of the so-called Cajun Navy and other similar groups, who have patrolled the flooded streets of Houston in their own boats, pulling stranded families off of roofs and bringing them to shelter. Along the Gulf Coast, where hurricanes happen every year, the tradition of citizen boat rescue goes back generations, but a more modern form of the practice developed last August, during a spate of catastrophic floods around Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when people in danger began posting messages seeking help on a Cajun Navy Facebook page. A man named Shawn Boudreaux eventually convinced everyone to start using a walkie-talkie app called Zello, which gave the operation some organization and ability to scale. This week, Boudreaux, who works banquets at fancy New Orleans hotels, was in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a hundred and fifty miles east of Houston, helping to prepare local boaters for a wing of Harvey that materialized only after the storm pummeled Texas. He spent much of what spare time he had on Zello, monitoring the volunteer rescue efforts across the state line. The Cajun Navy had expanded, and the size of this spontaneous, self-organizing response, and the sacrifices of the citizen volunteers, he told me by phone, “was pretty amazing to see.”

Harvey is now ebbing. The sun is out in Houston. And the stories of the storm are consolidating, much as they did following the floods last year in Baton Rouge, around the failures of the government’s preparations and response to the disaster, and the successes of private individuals’ rescue efforts. The news on Thursday morning is of two large explosions at a chemical plant northeast of Houston. Last year, the Houston Chronicle published a series of articles about the vulnerabilities of the city’s chemical industry and the ways in which the industry’s lobbyists had defeated the Obama Administration’s regulatory efforts. (One part of the investigation was titled “An Industry Left to Police Itself.”) Harvey, like other great Gulf Coast storms of recent years, has also made clear the insufficiency of the National Flood Insurance Program, which is designed to manage building in flood-prone areas but which has wound up encouraging vast development in areas too risky for private insurers to support. The hurricane’s destruction has, as well, underscored the insufficiency of Houston’s city planning (“Boomtown, Flood Town” was the title of a prescient report last year by the Texas Tribune and ProPublica) and the inadequacy of the reservoirs built to manage flooding (“If the Addicks and Barker Dams Fail” was the headline of a sharp Houston Press report published five years ago). Behind everything, escalating the stakes, is the willful ignorance of climate change that many local and national political leaders still cling to. In contrast to this, the actions of the Cajun Navy and other groups are celebrated. The heroism of the boaters is so vivid and so moving that it obscures the most important question about them: Why are they so needed in the first place?”

It seems every day there’s a new story of individual heroism, of the Cajun Navy and others, and individual generosity, from the many of millions of dollars donated to relief efforts by celebrities and sports teams to the cleaning supplies being brought to my campus by students, staff and faculty to aid in clean-up efforts. But as Houston picks itself up, brushes itself off, and gets back on the field (in some cases literally: after playing a home series this week in Florida, the Astros return to Minute Maid Park on Saturday), Wallace-Wells’s question rings true, and it keeps ringing in my ears: Where is the organized public response?

This is a question people who lived through Katrina have been asking for a decade. Where is the public commitment to supporting each other in disasters like this? Where is the public commitment not only to relief, but to preparation? Will we ever find the will to do what we need to do? To make sure Los Angeles is ready for the next earthquake or Kansas for the next tornado? That Miami and New York and, yes, Houston, are ready when the seas rise? The spectacle of certain Texas senators (rightly) requesting aid in 2017 after (unconscionably) voting against it in the wake of Sandy speaks for itself. The relative silence from particular quarters is deafening; the lack of empathy from others is loud and clear. After decades of willful neglect, our infrastructure, our institutions, our discourse and our politicians are failing us. The lack of care we have for each other in this moment is clear, despite the extraordinary heroism and generosity we’ve seen this week. How will we be ready when the next storm (literal or metaphorical; both are brewing) comes?”

—Josh Kopin

Room To Speak

This week a number of professors at the annual American Political Science Association conference organized a protest against Professor John Yoo, who was invited to speak on two panels.

Yoo is a professor of law at the University of California Berkeley, and was an author of the so-called “Torture Memos” which legitimized advanced torture techniques during the Bush Presidency. He advised President Bush that laws and treaties barring torture do not apply to interrogators when a president is exercising wartime powers. Many lawyers believe that Yoo’s memo legitimated acts of torture that violated both U.S. and international law. Political Scientists at the APSA meeting accused Yoo of violating APSA’s ethical guidelines, international human rights law, and of being a war criminal. Corey Robin penned a letter arguing against allowing Yoo to speak.

“In his celebrated diary of daily life in the Third Reich, Victor Klemperer writes:

‘If one day the situation were reversed and the fate of the vanquished lay in my hands, then I would let all the ordinary folk go and even some of the leaders, who might perhaps after all have had honourable intentions and not known what they were doing. But I would have all the intellectuals strung up, and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from the lamp posts for as long as was compatible with hygiene.’

The reason Klemperer reserved such special contempt for the professors and intellectuals of the 1920s and 1930s was that professors and intellectuals played a special role in bringing on the horrors of the Nazi regime, as Claudia Koonz and other historians have documented. Not only did those professors and intellectuals provide some of the leading arguments for the rise of that regime, but they also served in that regime: as doctors, population experts, engineers, propagandists. And lawyers.

We now come to the matter of John Yoo, Emmanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at UC Berkeley, who has been invited to address the annual conference of the American Political Science Association, which will be meeting in San Francisco next week, and whose speech acts while serving as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Bush administration did so much to bring about the torture regime of that era. While there is no need to rehearse all of those speech acts, we might recall that in his lengthy memo of 2003, Yoo claimed that detainees of the US military could be legally stripped of their clothing “for a period of time” and interrogated naked. If you have trouble visualizing what that might mean, have a look at these photographs from Abu Ghraib. In that same memo, Yoo mooted the possibility that actions ordinarily considered illegal—including gouging an eye, dousing a prisoner with “scalding water, corrosive acid, or caustic substance,” or biting—might well be legal in time of war: the president’s powers as commander in chief were that broad.

When it comes to torture, our minds often drift to the torturer or his higher-ups in the Pentagon and the CIA. But as Jane Mayer documented in The Dark Side, the torture regime of George W. Bush was very much a lawyers’ regime. As one of Yoo’s colleagues told Mayer, “It’s incredible, but John Yoo and David Addington were running the war on terror almost on their own.” Yoo’s memos were not the idle speculations of a cloistered academic; stamped with the seal of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) at the Justice Department, they had the force of law, issuing binding interpretations of existing statutes that could only be overturned by the Attorney General. As Mayer explains, “For Yoo’s allies in the White House, his position at OLC was a political bonanza. It was like having a personal friend who could write medical prescriptions.” Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith, who headed the OLC in 2003, adds that Yoo-type memos were essentially “get-out-of-jail-free cards.” That is why former CIA head George Tenet has written:

Despite what Hollywood might have you believe, in situations like these [the capture, interrogation, and torture of Al Qaeda logistics chief Abu Zubayda] you don’t call in the tough guys; you call in the lawyers.

That’s how powerful John Yoo was….

I fear that with this invitation to Yoo to address our profession, as if he were simply the author of controversial and heterodox opinions rather than the architect of a regime of torture and barbarity, the American Political Science Association has written itself a chapter in those future histories.”

Numerous political scientists agreed with Robin. Several videos on Twitter show most of the room standing and turning their backs on Yoo when he got up to speak. Not wholly unreminiscent of what we saw students at Middlebury College do last spring. Except there was no audible disruption. Noted members of the field stand, hold Guantanamo-orange signs that read: “Stand up to torture.” Which, in a way, is literally what they are doing.

The political scientists and theorists in the room did not disrupt Yoo’s speech, but staged a fairly routine act of political protest. Turning one’s back: a sign of disrespect. Holding a protest sign: a way to be heard without speaking. Protest is an important and noble way of expressing oneself, one we both support.

But as we scrolled through the photos and watched the videos we were filled with a certain unease. There is little question that Yoo’s work during the Bush administration is ethically questionable, to say the least. But, we wonder if protesting his appearance on an academic panel was not a bad political move on the part of political scientists?

Robin argues that we should not treat Yoo as if he simply represented a heterodox or controversial opinion. No, he argues, we should treat him as a war criminal. If he is a war criminal, he may still have a constitutional right to speak, but we may also feel justified in exercising our constitutional right to protest his invitation.

But how do we have a conversation about the claim that Yoo is a war criminal? He has not been charged with war crimes even after eight years of a Democratic Presidency. If he hasn’t been charged (let alone found guilty) of war crimes, should we nevertheless exile him from democratic and intellectual debates? Or do we have a democratic and intellectual and political responsibility to listen to him?

It strikes us that protests calling for Yoo to be charged and tried for war crimes are perfectly justified. So too are calls for him to be held legally and morally responsible. But it is problematic for an academic organization to exclude Yoo simply because some people believe he is a war criminal?

The problem with the call for Yoo to be prevented from speaking is that those making this demand have not done the necessary work of persuading others that Yoo is in fact guilty. They assume Yoo is guilty. They may be right. But in a democracy with a functioning legal system, Yoo is innocent until proven guilty. And the fact is that despite numerous calls to prosecute Yoo, he has not even been charged. That suggests that there is quite a disagreement in our country over Yoo’s guilt or innocence. But instead of trying to make that case, those would prevent him from speaking simply announce, repeatedly, that he is guilty and should not be allowed to speak.

We see those making this argument succumbing to a basic fallacy. They think that because they have convinced themselves of something, they have satisfied the burden of making their case. Those who don’t understand Yoo’s guilt are simply wrong. But in a democracy, winning an argument means not convincing oneself and one’s allies, but persuading others, namely a majority or at least a substantial plurality. Instead of working to persuade, Robin and others operate as if the question of Yoo’s guilt is settled.

Robin’s argument about the responsibility of intellectuals calls to mind Arendt’s understanding of Eichmann. But the analogy is imperfect. Yes, like Eichmann, Yoo did not personally kill anyone. And Yoo organized systems of torture while Eichmann was responsible for organizing the killing of millions of Jews. But unlike Eichmann, Yoo was operating within the lines of a democratic political system. And unlike Eichmann who bureaucratically set in motion the mass murder of innocents simply because of their religion, Yoo legally rationalized the torture of a small number of terrorists who may or may not have had information that might lead to the saving of thousands of American lives. Yoo might be responsible for the torture and murder of individuals who may or may not have been guilty of terrorism, but comparing Yoo to Nazi intellectuals who excused or rationalized the denaturalization and mass-murder of Jews is disingenuous.

The question is, do we recognize John Yoo as a member of our political and academic communities? Does he get to speak where we speak? Does he get to share his thoughts, work, and research, even though it contradicts, undermines, and offends what we stand for? We think the answer to that question has to be yes.

We recognize the uneasiness of this example—why should we listen or talk with someone who has rendered so many persons invisible, subject to violence and torture? But in the Arendtian spirit we cannot deny recognition to others based upon difference or opinion. Offering a space of public appearance is not an act of legitimation. Fundamentally, it is a human act of appearing before others in a space where our words and actions can be recognized, good or otherwise. If I listen to someone, it does not mean that I agree with them, it simply means that they too are a member of our political community and have a right to think, speak, and be heard. And there, in that space of being heard, in the messy web of human relationship, we have a moral and ethical obligation to hold one another accountable for what is said and done. If we deny that space of appearance, we are closing our eyes and ears to the world around us, unseemly as it sometimes strikes us.

There are limits to the responsibility to hear and recognize someone as part of our political community. There are people—like Adolf Eichmann, for example—whose acts are so evil and so repulsive in their denial of the very essence of what political community stands for that to recognize them would be to undermine the very ideals of that community. In such instances, we can make the political judgment that someone should be expelled from the political community and we can try to persuade others to agree with us. That was Arendt’s view and it is why she believed that Eichmann should have been killed for his crimes. But in our judgment Professor John Yoo has not in any way approached such a standard of evil that would render him unfit to be heard and argued with. On the contrary, Yoo is the kind of person we need to argue with head on. We should seek to convince him of his errors; we may even, in doing so, become aware of some of our own.

—Samantha Hill and Roger Berkowitz

Constituting Unity

Robert Howse rightly sees that the primary insight animating Mark Lilla’s attack on identity politics is his “critique of individualism or social atomism in liberal American culture and his contrasting ideal of social and political unity, “the common good.”” In line with Hannah Arendt’s belief that politics means finding a unity amidst plurality, Lilla imagines politics as a search for unity and criticizes identity politics liberals for privileging identity-group-interests over a broader conception of unity. But for Howse, Lilla’s argument fails because he never addresses what such a unity may be, or whether it is even possible.

“If there is a serious intellectual operating system in Lilla’s book, something beyond picking a fight with others in the chattering classes, it is Lilla’s  For Lilla, the style of liberal politics that (he claims) has been such a loser at the ballot box for liberal Democrats has its deep root in a sort of hyper-individualism: liberals he attacks define their politics not in terms of general principles about justice but personal causes and values that articulate a lifestyle, a certain image that appeals to their own kind.   The political agenda sounds like an entry on a dating site: “vegan, bi, Black Lives Matter, anti-GMO, climate justice”, to give the idea (my invention not Lilla’s).

Of course, there is plenty of material here for a satirical take, and Zadie Smith’s novels, for instance, do a wonderful job of that.  But the serious question is: what kind of political unity is possible or desirable in a liberal society, given the commitment of to individual rights and political pluralism, as well as the sociological fact of diversity in contemporary liberal societies.  If we go back for a moment to an early vision of America, that in the Federalist Papers (Madison, Hamilton and Jay, framers of the US constitution and liberal thinkers of the Enlightenment), what is clear is this earlier liberal vision assumed and embraced American politics and society as a battleground of conflicting interests and agendas.  Indeed, for Madison and Hamilton, this conflict – channeled through appropriate political institutions – was a guarantee against tyranny; the authors of the Federalist worried about the danger of a majority faction imposing its agenda on the whole country, a form of oppressive unity, and they thought that a large republic would be very hard to co-opt or capture by any one movement or interest group.

In Lilla’s account, Roosevelt’s New Deal vision of America, and the policies that it wrought, unified the country for decades.  Something happened starting in the late 1960s and 1970s that prepared the ground for the Reagan Revolution, which then created a new national consensus of sorts on the right.  This something, according to Lilla’s tale is mostly the fault of the kind of liberals or leftists that he dislikes.

No historical evidence or sources are cited in this chronicle (it seems to spring from Lilla’s head like Athena did from that of Zeus); but anyone who has thought or written about these decades in America history will recognize Lilla’s account as a fairy-tale. First of all, the New Deal, as well as desegregation and civil rights, were fought tooth-and-nail by powerful factions in many places in America-in the courts, on picket lines, in the schoolyards, and often with violence. If there were unifying influences, these were World War II and the Cold War; a common front against these external threats helped maintain a strong base of support for the progressive elements in what Lilla calls the “Roosevelt Dispensation”….

Lilla pleads for unity – as if the cleavages produced by the disappointments with the civil rights movement and the Great Society were manufactured by activists and intellectuals merely trying to whip up trouble.  But the lack of unity reflects genuine disagreements and conflicts in American political culture that could not be simply resolved by morphing the New Deal into the Great Society.”

Howse argues that Lilla has no vision of unity because he rejects both the classical liberal’s embrace of individualism and the conservative claim of a naturalistic community. Instead, Howse argues we need to return to the classical ideal of a constitutional polity, the “notion of a polity where all citizens can see, in some way or another, their interests and values taken into account in public decision-making.” Here Howse reflects Hannah Arendt’s idea of a constitutional republic where unity is based on solidarity as opposed to pity. Such a unity cannot be built on the pity of the poor and powerless alone, for that unity excludes the rich and powerful For Arendt, solidarity encompasses all voices in a pluralist society. But such a republic, in Arendt’s understanding, will be liberal only if it fully embraces plural visions of the good life, which is why she believes that essential to constitutional unity are the principles of federalism and localism.

—Roger Berkowitz

Nation Breaking

Andrew Wachtel revisits the conclusion of his 1998 book Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation. Literature and Cultural Politics in Yugoslavia in which he seeks lessons for the multicultural United States in the experience of the breakdown of the unified Yugoslavian culture into its various ethnic and religious parts. Wachtel argues that the experience of Yugoslavia suggests that “once the glue holding a supranational culture begins to unstick, it turns out to be extremely difficult to reconstitute it.” There is a debate raging in the United States about whether there is a unified American culture and whether e pluribus unum is still a meaningful aspiration. Wachtel offers a glimpse of what might happen if that aspiration is abandoned.

“The most obvious way in which the United States is becoming more like Yugoslavia is in what appears to be a slow slide toward a consideration of itself not as a uni-national but as a multi-national country coupled with an increasing tendency to collectivistic thinking. The basis for potential national separation in the United States is not as it was in Yugoslavia, cultural or religious, but rather racial. The idea that Americans are first and foremost Americans and should self-identify as such is being slowly replaced by what is sometimes called a multi-cultural view (I would call it a multi-national one), which sees Americans as belonging to five official races: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American. In this society, people are believed to have place and value not as individuals, but as members of their specific racial group. This trend is encouraged by large and small government policies ranging from preference based on race to the requirement to check off a racial box on many forms. Such policies have spilled over into the private sector, where race-based typing has become the norm on job applications and other forms.

One way to see the extent to which problems of ethnicity in Yugoslavia and race in the United States are analogous is to compare the debates surrounding the addition of the debates surrounding the category “Yugoslav” to census forms in postwar Yugoslavia to those presently raging around proposal to add a “multiracial” category to the upcoming U.S. census. The choice of “Yugoslav” first appeared on the 1961 census forms but appears to have drawn little comment and less support. A decade later, the census coincided with a time of heightened nationalist feeling, and at that time the category drew criticism from many quarters …. In particular, Dušan Bilandžić, a member of the Croatian central committee, complained that the “Yugoslav” category had led to the “disappearance of 30, 000 Croats in Vojvodina.” Bilandžić’s fear was that the “Yugoslav” category, were it to continue to grow, would call into question the entire basis of Yugoslav cultural and political policies, which were predicated on a person having a single national identification. Specifically, a “loss” of Croats would mean fewer people to support Croat politicians and a diminution of their power base within the multi-national state.”

Middle-Class Constitutions

Zephyr Teachout—who will be speaking at Crises of Democracy the 10th Annual Arendt Center Conference in October—writes suggests that our Constitution is fundamentally incompatible with the extreme inequality we are experiencing today.

“According to Sitaraman, in an epically unequal society, with a constitution built for equality, we won’t last long. Unless something changes quickly, we may experience revolution, instability, coup attempts, and violence, common fates of unequal societies. More likely, he writes, “either the republic will transform into an oligarchy, or the people will be seduced by an authoritarian demagogue.”

Just how unequal are we? For generations, the American middle class was the majority of Americans—no more, as of 2015. The top 1 percent owns more than 30 percent of America’s wealth. The poorest half owns just 2.5 percent. Wall Street bonuses alone are twice the amount of all the combined earnings of minimum-wage workers in this country. We are grotesquely, bizarrely, grossly unequal—unequal in cash, health care, schooling, and access to clean air and water. Unequal in our access to power. And we are becoming more unequal by the year: Since Ronald Reagan became president, the income of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans has doubled.

Sitaraman posits that we simply don’t have the right kind of constitution to withstand this degree of inequality. He argues that there are two kinds of constitutional structures: Class Warfare Constitutions and Middle-Class Constitutions. Class Warfare Constitutions—like those of ancient Rome, England, and Florence—assume inequality. These constitutions were designed with an eye to channeling a natural antagonism between the very rich and the poor into nonviolent mechanisms for negotiation. Both rich and poor accept these channels as conditions for the freedom from violence and instability that threaten the rich, and the freedom from despotism and arbitrary power that threaten the poor. Some used devices like class-specific representative chambers to give different classes political clout; some used devices like lotteries to ensure that even the poor get a voice.

The second kind of constitution, the Middle-Class Constitution, depends upon relative equality across the classes, and especially a strong middle class. Representation is designed to channel different cross-class interests, not warfare between the classes. America, Sitaraman says, has this kind of constitution. For instance, we have a Senate and House, but no property requirements for either, no expectation that elective office will be filled by the wealthiest. We don’t use lotteries to choose our representatives, only our jurors. Unlike other countries with other constitutions, we cannot survive inequality, because we were not planning for it.”

Weaponizing Ridicule


Michael Waller writes in The Military Review about employing Saul Alinsky’s suggestion that ridicule is a weapon of war (seemingly without irony about how such a weapon could be turned back on the United States).

“Venezuelan women stripped off their pants and threw them at riot police, taunting the already demoralized young men to “man up” and put them on. Jeering crowds laughed at the confused paramilitary forces, chanting for them to “wear some pants” and side with the people against the tottering Maduro dictatorship. Suddenly, the truncheon-wielding, helmeted police and their armored vehicles didn’t seem quite so menacing. Once the public could make fun of the repressive machine, everyone knew the police state’s time was running out.

Improvised street theater across Venezuela in the spring of 2017, with the occasional Molotov cocktails adding drama to provoke overreaction among the security forces, marked the tipping point for a corrupt regime that had brought itself to the breaking point. The people laughed in the face of their oppressors. Their fear evaporated.

When a police state loses its ability to instill obedience or fear, it cannot long survive. When terrorists lose their ability to terrorize, they lose their most vital psychological weapon. Terrorism being by definition a form of psychological warfare—the name says it all, which is to instill terror among populations and leaders—the perpetrators cannot exist in perpetuity if they fail to cow the people.

Killing terrorists and their supporters is only part of the counterterrorism arsenal. Yet, hunting down and killing them has been the primary means of counterterrorism in a war apparently without end. Sometimes the worst thing to do to an enemy is to mock him or her. Ridicule, mockery, and their related tactics have been weapons against evil—and evildoers’ weapons against all things good—throughout recorded history.”

The Delicacy of Complication

Hilton Als speaks with T. Cole Rachel about his approach to writing and his recent curated art show and book about Alice Neel. “It’s such an incredible opportunity to be an artist. Our job is to empathize with other people, to understand their story, but also to reveal ourselves.” Als has an extraordinary capacity to empathize and to reveal, in large part because he is always alive to the complexity and multiplicity in human life.

“What I am trying to do for myself, always, is honor the delicacy of complication—the idea that people are not really one thing or the other, that there is this amalgamation of all sorts of nerve endings and truths. One of the reasons that I loved Alice Neel so much was her ability to gather all of this information and turn it around in a certain way; make it not literal, but emotionally metaphorical.

Another thing I love so much about Alice (and try to do in my own work) is that she honors the copyrights people have on their lives. They are the author of their own lives. Your job is to not rewrite it, but to make it really important in some way, to show it. To understand that the fictions that are put forth are there to protect themselves, generally, or to give us an idea of something other than the self. Wasn’t it Blanche DuBois who said “I know I don’t tell the truth, but what ought to be truth.” That’s kind of a great thing for people to know about themselves, that the truth is not an empirical thing; just as the “I” is not an empirical thing. I think that’s what I love investigating the most—how we put ourselves together.”

Pay No Attention To The Numbers Behind The Algorithm

Although there is a tendency to think of technology and science as neutral, as apolitical, this is very far from the truth. Computers have biases, because they are programmed by humans, who have biases. Navneet Alang pulls back the curtain:

“As AI becomes more and more complex, it can become difficult for even its own designers understand why it acts the way it does. This poses a serious problem, particularly when given the common perception that AI is somehow objective or scientific. In such scenarios, technology becomes a black box that makes decisions and offers pronouncements and that we are encouraged to obey. As complexity only grows, it becomes more and more important to be aware of what effects AI is having on a broader social reality.

But the fact is that technology is never neutral. The example of sexist interpretation of images is just the tip of the iceberg. Since machine learning and AI operate through collecting, filtering, and then learning from and analyzing existing data, they will replicate existing structural biases unless they are designed explicitly to account for and counteract that. To address this situation, an approach would require a specifically social justice-oriented perspective, one that considers how economics intertwine with gender, race, sexuality, and a host of other factors. But given cultural factors such as the pervasive faith in blind meritocracy among tech professionals, pushing ideas focused on equity will be an uphill battle.

There are moves afoot, however. AI Now is a New York-based research initiative led by Kate Crawford and Meredith Whittaker that seeks to further understanding of how AI works, how it might be put to better use, and how current implementations may sometimes be harmful. In an annual report, the group put out a series of recommendations designed to offer a perspective on how to mitigate the worst of AI’s prejudices. Among them: dedicated resources to diversifying the range of inputs for AI systems, especially those related to marginalized groups—photos of men doing the dishes, say, or of two women getting married. Another suggestion is to develop systems to evaluate AI’s fairness and harms when in use; and try and improve diversity amongst the people designing and implementing AI in order to ferret out blind spots and bias. After all, if more of the developers were black, or women, then the programs might not reflect such a white, male worldview.”

Posted on 3 September 2017 | 8:00 am

Back to News