Safiya Umoja Noble and the virtues of justice and perspective

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and the virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we need to cultivate in order to flourish (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

From: safiyanoble.com

Safiya Umoja Noble embodies the technomoral virtues of justice and perspective.

Noble works as an assistant professor at Annenberg School of Communication of the University of Southern California. “She is a partner in Stratelligence, a firm that specializes in research on information and data science challenges, and is a co-founder of the Information Ethics & Equity Institute, which provides training for organizations committed to transforming their information management practices toward more just, ethical, and equitable outcomes.”

She is known for her book “Algorithms of Oppression“, in which she discusses various types of discrimination that happen in search services like Google. See the auto-complete function on the book’s front cover (below).

One day in the fall of 2010, she searched for interesting things for her stepdaughter and nieces, using the keywords “black girls”, only to find HotBlackPussy.com as the first hit. “Hit indeed” (Noble, 2018, p.3). This motivated her to embark on an extensive study of the ways in which algorithms “reinforce oppressive social relationships and enact new modes of racial profiling” (p.1).

Her book contains numerous shocking examples of search results, ranging from Google’s automatic image recognition system that tagged a picture of two black teenagers as ‘gorillas’ (in July 2015; very likely the result of training the algorithm with mainly white people’s faces–this has, by the way, not really been fixed; it looks like Google took a shortcut and ‘simply’ deleted words like ‘gorilla’, ‘chimp’, ‘chimpanzee’ and ‘monkey’) to a search in Google Maps for ‘N*gga House’, during Barack Obama’s presidency, that leads to the White House (p. 6). And from Google returning images of men, mostly white, when searching for ‘doctor’; images of women, mostly white, when searching for ‘nurse’; images of white women when looking for ‘professional hairstyles for work’; and images of black woman when looking for ‘unprofessional hairstyles for work (pp. 82-84); etc.

Noble embodies the technomoral virtue of justice, which Vallor described as a “reliable disposition to seek a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of emerging technologies” and a “characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128). Noble draws attention to the ways in which search engines, which we regard as ‘objective’, are in fact not ‘objective’ at all, but very often skewed, biased, prejudiced–or, simply put: unjust. With a background in Library & Information Science she understands the importance of accessible and truthful information as a condition for democracy and justice.

Furthermore, Noble embodies the technomoral virtue of perspective, which Vallor described as “a reliable disposition to attent to, discern and understand moral phenomena as meaningful parts of a moral whole” (2016, p. 149). The results from an online search engine may seem trivial. Does it really matter whether we see pictures of black women (with ‘unprofessional hair styles’) or white women (with ‘professional hair styles’), one might ask. Yes, this does matter, visual communication shapes people’s thoughts and feelings. Noble draws attention to the ways in which online search results can propagate existing biases and injustices–or how we can fix these, to combat bias and injustice.


Possibly, you find that Safiya Umoja Noble embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

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Luciano Floridi and the virtues of honesty, perspective, flexibility and justice

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and the virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we need to cultivate in order to flourish (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor Luciano Floridi

From: https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/people/luciano-floridi/

Luciano Floridi embodies the technomoral virtues of honesty, perspective, flexibility and justice.

Luciano Floridi is currently Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information and Director of the Digital Ethics Lab, at the University of Oxford, Oxford Internet Institute, and holds several other academic positions. He was originally educated as a historian of philosophy; he then became interested in analytic philosophy (MA) and in epistemology and philosophy of logic (MPhil and PhD). He contributed greatly to the Philosophy of Information (and Technology), and Information (and Computer and Digital) Ethics, e.g., in his recent books: “Philosophy of Information” (2011), “The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics” (editor) (2010), “Information: A Very Short Introduction” (2010), “The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality” (2014), and “The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Information” (2016).

Moreover, Floridi has been deeply engaged with initiatives on the socio-ethical value and implications of digital technologies and their applications; nationally (e.g., in the UK, with the House of Lords, the Cabinet Office, and the Information Commissioner’s Office),  internationally (e.g., member of the EU’s Ethics Advisory Group on Ethical Dimensions of Data Protection), and with corporations (e.g., member of Google Advisory Board on “the right to be forgotten”). He is one of the members of the recently established High Level Group of Artificial Intelligence.

The Onlife Manifesto

In the context of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research program, he was editor of the “Onlife Manifesto: Being Human in a Hyperconnected Era“. The authors of this Manifesto argue that “ICTs are not mere tools but rather environmental forces that are increasingly affecting: 1. our self-conception (who we are); 2. our mutual interactions (how we socialise); and 3. our conception of reality (our metaphysics); and 4. our interactions with reality (our agency).” Moreover, they argue that this impact of ICTs is “due to at least four major transformations: a. the blurring of the distinction between reality and virtuality; b. the blurring of the distinction between human, machine and nature; c. the reversal from information scarcity to information abundance; and d. the shift from the primacy of stand-alone things, properties, and binary relations, to the primacy of interactions, processes and networks.”

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor floridi why ai is both logically possible and utterly implausible

From: https://aeon.co/essays/true-ai-is-both-logically-possible-and-utterly-implausible 

Floridi also contributed to the debate on Artificial Intelligence. In response to alarmist messages by Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk, Floridi wrote that “True AI is not logically impossible, but it is utterly implausible” (Should we be afraid of AI?). Instead of being overly optimistic/utopian or overly pessimist/dystopian, he proposes to be realistic about AI and use it for the greater good and benefits of society: “We should make AI environment-friendly [and] human-friendly […] We should make AI’s predictive power work for freedom and autonomy […] And finally, we should make AI make us more human.”

In his search for scientific rigour and his efforts to generate an overall vision on the role of ICTs, Floridi embodies the technomoral virtue of honesty and perspective, which Vallor defines as, respectively, “an exemplary respect for truth, along with the practical expertise to express that respect appropriately in technomoral contexts(2016, p. 122), and a reliable disposition to attend to, discern and understand moral phenomena as meaningful parts of a moral whole” (2016, p. 149). 

In his engagement with society and collaborations with policy makers and corporatons, Floridi embodies the technomoral virtues of flexibility and justice, which Vallor defines as, respectively, a “reliable and skillful disposition to modulate action, belief, and feeling as called for by novel, unpredictable, frustrating, or unstable technosocial conditions” (2016, p. 145), and a “characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128).

PS: Presentation ‘AI as a force for good’ at the World Summit AI 2018, Amsterdam:


Possibly, you find that Luciano Floridi embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

Yuval Noah Harari and the virtues of perspective, humility and empathy

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and the virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we need to cultivate in order to flourish (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

From: https://www.bookspot.nl/auteurs/yuval-noah-harari

Yuval Noah Harari embodies the virtues of perspective, humility and empathy.

Harari is a historian and a storyteller. He is known for his bestseller books Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

In Sapiens, he tells the story of how humans created subjective reality: things that objectively do not exist, but which come into being because groups of people believe in them. This allowed humans to build pyramids and empires, and invent money and the rule of law.

In Homo Deus he tells the story of how we are merging infotech and biotech: integrating computers in our bodies and delegating human tasks to computers. We are, unintentionally and unconsciously, ushering in the age of data. It is unclear what role will be left for us, people.

In passing, he debunks humanistic handholds like the soul (sorry, doesn’t exist; we’re animals, just like other animals), free will (sorry, doesn’t exist; it’s either determined or random) and consciousness (sorry, not really special; probably some by-product of thinking).

He zooms-out, to paint broad brushstrokes, spanning thousands of years, and he zooms-in, on details in daily lives and experiences. His putting of things, both large and small, into one story exemplifies the technomoral virtue of perspective, whichShannon Vallor defines as “a reliable disposition to attend to, discern and understand moral phenomena as meaningful parts of a moral whole” (2016, p. 149).

Some find Harari’s books as dystopian. Everything is only a social construct. There’s no soul, no free will, nothing special about consciousness, and Artificial Intelligence is on a collision course with us, humans. I don’t share this interpretation. I read and hear humility and empathy in his books and talks.

Harari exemplifies the virtue of humility, which Vallor defines as “a recognition of the real limits of our technosocial knowledge and ability” (2016, p. 126), in that he debunks humanity’s illusions of superiority and mastery.

Harari exemplifies empathy, which Vallor defines as a “cultivated openness to being morally moved to caring action by the emotions of other members of our technosocial world” (2016, p. 133), in his urge to treat our fellow animals less cruel.

This follows from his debunking of humanity’s superiority. He sees no good reasons to torture and kill cows, pigs and chicken, fellow animals with feelings and intelligence not similar to ours. Unsurprisingly, Harari’s diet is vegan. In addition, he uses our treatment of animals as a cautionary tale for how cruelly some future so-called superior life form may, one day, treat us …

Finally, it’s worth noting two more things about Harari’s personal life, which he explicitly relates to his professional work.

He is a committed practitioner of Vipassana meditation. He explains that this helps him to quiet the deluge of random thoughts and daydreams, and to focus on reality. Professionally, this has helped him to focus on what really matters, on the big picture–extremely handy when you write about Big History.

And Harari is gay. He explains that his experience of being gay has helped him to distinguish between man-made phantasies, like “homosexuality is evil”, and natural phenomena, like “many fellow animals behave homosexually”. And, obviously and logically, to dismiss the former and embrace the latter.


Possibly, you find that Yuval Noah Harari embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

Jaron Lanier and the virtues of perspective, justice and flexibility

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and the virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we need to cultivate in order to flourish (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

jaronlanier

From: http://www.jaronlanier.com/

Jaron Lanier embodies the technomoral virtues of perspective, justice and flexibility.

Lanier is a computer scientist, author and musician. He pioneered Virtual Reality; in the early 1980s he founded VPL Research, the first company to sell VR products, and in the late 1980s he led the team that developed the first multi-person virtual worlds, using head mounted displaysand “avatars”. He believes that VR can help people to experience their own consciousness and to meet and empathize with others. He “is known for charting a humanistic approach to technology appreciation and criticism“; he wrote award-winning and best-selling books like: You Are Not A Gadget (2010), Who Owns the Future? (2012), Dawn of the New Everything (2017), and Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018)As a musician, Lanier has been active in the world of new “classical” music since the late seventies. He is a specialist in unusual musical instruments, especially the wind and string instruments of Asia. He is also active as a visual artist.

Lanier is a visionary and in that sense he embodies the technomoral virtue of perspective–a virtue which Vallor defines as: “a reliable disposition to attend to, discern and understand moral phenomena as meaningful parts of a moral whole” (2016, p. 149). He has a holistic and humanistic vision that encompasses and critically connects tiny things, like a seemingly small detail in a user interface design, which supports or stifles a specific behavior, e.g., a civil conversation or toxic mob behavior, and huge things, like capitalism and its grip on tech companies’ business models, and their drive to grab people’s attention and steer their behavior, and in the process (probably unintentionally) corrode the social fabric of society.

Furthermore, Lanier embodies the technomoral virtue of justice, which Vallor defines as a “reliable disposition to seek a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of emerging technologies” and a “characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128).

Lanier worries about the inequalities that the Internet propagates and exacerbates. He explains that several beliefs and decisions made early on in the development of the Internet currently hound us: the belief that “information wants to be free” and the decision in favor of a capitalist model. This has resulted in free services, like Google and Facebook, which see people as data points that can be surveilled and manipulated. As a result, a very small number of people is getting very rich from the business of disrupting society. Lanier also points out that this evil outcome does not need any evil intentions. It’s the by-product of a series of choices.

lanier2

From: http://www.jaronlanier.com

Moreover, Lanier embodies the technomoral virtue of flexibility, which Vallor defines as “a reliable and skillful disposition to modulate action, belief, and feeling as called for by novel, unpredictable, frustrating, or unstable technosocial conditions” (2016, p. 145). Lanier’s biography, with his movements between action and reflection, and between knowledge domains, demonstrates his flexibility.

As a result of his flexibility, it’s not easy to put Lanier into neat categories. One could, e.g., also argue that he embodies virtues like civility (his disposition to want to foster dialogue and decency in cases of disagreement), courage (his disposition to express dissent in a milieu of which he’s part himself), and humility (his disposition to view technology as a tool, and to focus on ways in which it can promote human flourishing).


Possibly, you find that Jaron Lanier embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl

Kate Raworth and the virtues of justice, perspective and empathy

Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and the virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we need to cultivate in order to flourish (2016, p. p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.

kateraworth

From: https://www.greenbelt.org.uk/artists/kate-raworth/

Kate Raworth embodies the virtue of justice. She calls for a new paradigm in economics: “to meet the needs of all, within the boundaries of our living planet”.

She calls herself a renegade economist focused on exploring the economic mindset needed to address the 21st century’s social and ecological challenges. She was educated as an economist and became increasingly critical about the dominant economic paradigm of growth. Her career has taken her from working with micro-entrepreneurs in the villages of Zanzibar to co-authoring the Human Development Report for UNDP in New York, followed by a decade as Senior Researcher at Oxfam.

She is the creator of Doughnut Economics:

Doughnut

The shape of the doughnut–two concentric circles–visualizes the area where we would need to be in order “to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer

There is a parallel between Kate Raworth’s work and Shannon Vallor’s discussion of the technomoral virtue of justice. Vallor defines this virtue as a “disposition to seek a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of emerging technologies” and a “concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128). Indeed, Raworth advocates seeking a just distribution of benefits and risks–mainly in relation to economic processes, and not specifically or explicitly regarding emerging technologies (as far as I am aware; although I did find a series of five design workshops in 2018, by Dutch media lab Waag Society, based on her work). It would be obvious, to me, however, that care for people and for our planet is a necessary precondition for further deliberations about developing and using technologies

Moreover, Kate Raworth champions the virtues of perspective and empathy.

Perspective, because she wants to (literally) change our perspective on economics. By default, we currently have in our minds a picture of a curve going up (see screenshot below). She wants us to look radically differently at the world and at economics.

growth.png

From https://www.thersa.org/discover/videos/rsa-shorts/2014/03/Kate-Raworth-on-Growth

That is why she drew the Doughnut shape. That is why she collaborated with stop-motion animators to make these ideas visual in short and attractive animations. She understands the power of visuals in shaping people’s conceptions. Vallor defined the technomoral virtue of perspective as “a reliable disposition to attend to, discern and understand moral phenomena as meaningful parts of a moral whole” (2016, p. 149). Indeed, Raworth invites us to look at the world holistically and through a moral pair of glasses, so that we can the relationships between people, planet and profit.

And from her commitment to justice also follows her championing of the virtue of empathy. Raworth urges us to empathize with other people, also on the other side of the globe, and how our lives and economic behaviours affect their lives. Moreover, she calls for action, to change our behaviours. This concurs with Vallor’s definition of the technomoral virtue of empathy: a “cultivated openness to being morally moved to caring action by the emotions of other members of our technosocial world” (2016, p. 133).


Possibly, you find that Kate Raworth embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl