Angsting about CMS and Robotics

It’s “ethics week” in Petey and Mehitabel’s “Networked Cultures class” and I accidentally wrote 2.5 benkrafts on this prompt. I guess if you haven’t talked to me in a while, it’s a pretty good summary of my screaming for the last two years.

inb4 Ava gives me yet more grief for not using my insane fellowship money for just fucking off and actually just doing CMS full time, aka. “When was the last time you touched a robot?”

DQ1: Read deTar. Share an occasion where you have felt the terms of your professional or educational success were in conflict with your ethics. Can you apply this advice practically?

I feel really similar to [my classmate] in that I don’t really know where to start. Fundamentally, the point of me taking this class (as well as continuing to pursue humanistic interests in the middle of a rigorous PhD program in robotics) is me trying to come with some idea of reconciling my increasing realization that I can no longer be “the naive engineer” and pretend that my work is independent from the social context from which it is derived, especially as the effects and production cycle of software / automation can occur much faster and affect more people.

There were so many lines in the deTar that felt like a personal attack. Whether it’s

“In order to obtain buy-in for the product, the designer or the designer’s institutions may develop a narrative of the technology which oversimplifies the problem domain, and overstates the potential. “

“the usual case is less overt: a designer will subtly shift objectives and framing in order to make a work more palatable to funders. If a designer is unable to conceive of a way to fund a contestational work, it is likely that it will not get past the drawing board.”

directly attacking the fact that I see the narratives my advisor puts out about my robotics research get spun around with the most shallowest social critique or

“a researcher who strays into other domains risks having the validity of their work questioned. While research structures that support interdisciplinarity exist, the tension between purification of discipline and hybridization of other disciplines is continuous and ongoing “

directly addressing my feelings of wanting to be validated and recognized by the CMS / information studies / ethics in AI people as a valid contributor, but not having a certification or an advisor or a network I can tap into means that I’m just floundering while my robotics colleagues are wondering why I’m wasting my time on this class. Sometimes, I even feel that even my friends and roommates don’t respect my contributions because I’m not certified by the media department. When I say something, I’m just being an analysis monster shirking my robotics graduate student duties. When someone who was a CMS major or a 21E major says something, their opinion is valid because they’ve “obviously” spent more time thinking about the topics.

A lot of the readings felt like review in some way — I know that designers should think about the context, and when you’re working on high-stakes fields like criminal justice, it’s obvious how to incorporate bodies and a feminist objectivity. But, on the day to day basis — I need to get this robot working and all of the feminist theory in the world will not teach me how to code in ROS. I can complain about needing to get funded by Amazon and Boeing and other large scale companies, but holding an anti-defense, anti-industry perspective will severely limit the amount of research you can do.

I think this got really driven home when I went to the Computational Cultures HCI Salon and Mixer in Nov. 2018. I was at a table with Mary Fuller, TL Taylor, and Lisa Parks — an across-the-board group of humanities scholars from literature, CMS and STS who I deeply respect. When I was telling them about how I was struggling as a roboticist trying to incorporate what I know about humanities into my daily work, their response was “oh I’m sure you’ll be fine. At least you know the issues and I’m sure that you’ll apply them correctly in your research”.

That’s when I realized that I was truly alone in trying to figure out this path. I personally am one of the weird interstitial tech people that the STS scholars keep complaining aren’t listening enough to them. And yet when I go to them for advice, I get “You’ll be fine!” I’ve made friends with others trying to figure out their way through this — whether it’s someone on the Youtube comments team realizing that their team is understaffed and without social scientists, an HCI graduate student trying to figure out how to address concerns about deepfake porn, or an ML graduate student being told that she’s throwing away her career by trying to focus on AI ethics. And yet, despite finding people, there is just a complete dearth of resources on how to go further.

And yet on some level, I say all of these high-minded concepts, but I know myself well enough to realize that my motivations are primarily selfish in nature — I just want to work on challenging systems problems. I like working in both robotics and CMS because both robots and society are large scale interconnected systems that have a lot to unpack within them that require a “jack of all trades” to understand, even if the jack is “a master of none”. I am in graduate school because I am not really money motivated and I want to work on my own problems (and maybe have some longstanding issues with authority that make it difficult for me to be what Joi Ito might call “deep state agents” in the Big Five). None of these are nearly as high-minded in the pursuit of justice as what Costanza-Chock or deTar are doing in their work for giving minority groups a voice. I just happen to work on these problems because they are intellectually challenging to me.

So you ask me how can I take the advice of deTar into practice. As Turner says, “one of the legacies of counterculture is the myth that expression is action”. I no longer believe that mere awareness is enough. Making cutesy toys and teaching new frameworks of design is helpful, but on the brass tacks level, the machine learning tools are already out of the bag and in the hands of opaque large corporations and governments. I can’t help but feel like I’m fooling myself by pretending that any intellectual contributions I make on the CMS front will ultimately pay off to actually help others and not just be a self-serving game to keep me entertained with hard systems problems.

As a final closing note, the Vice News special report on “The Future of Work” recently aired, and I watched it last week since I was interviewed as part of it. Amusingly, not only was I was the sole female academic that they included (since they cut out my advisor’s interview), but also I was so clearly framed as part of “the bad guy” — part of Amazon-funded research to fully automate lower-class workers out of the picture. Say what you want about misrepresentation in the media (as it was very clear that the special report was mostly a schill for UBI), but to me, it was really a wake-up call of “I really need to frickin do something about this humanities ‘side hustle’, because otherwise I am very much on the trajectory to being just the very ‘naive engineer’ that deTar criticizes, despite all of this high-falutin’ CMS education”.

But what? Please send help

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