Roles for Computing in Social Change

ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency (FAT*), 2020

9 Pages Posted: 10 Jan 2020 Last revised: 29 Jan 2020

See all articles by Rediet Abebe

Rediet Abebe

Harvard University - Society of Fellows

Solon Barocas

Cornell University

Jon Kleinberg

Cornell University - Department of Computer Science

Karen Levy

Cornell University

Manish Raghavan

Cornell University - Department of Computer Science

David G. Robinson

Georgetown University Law Center; Upturn

Date Written: December 12, 2019

Abstract

A recent normative turn in computer science has brought concerns about fairness, bias, and accountability to the core of the field. Yet recent scholarship has warned that much of this technical work treats problematic features of the status quo as fixed, and fails to address deeper patterns of injustice and inequality. While acknowledging these critiques, we posit that computational research has valuable roles to play in addressing social problems — roles whose value can be recognized even from a perspective that aspires toward fundamental social change. In this paper, we articulate four such roles, through an analysis that considers the opportunities as well as the significant risks inherent in such work. Computing research can serve as a diagnostic, helping us to understand and measure social problems with precision and clarity. As a formalizer, computing shapes how social problems are explicitly defined — changing how those problems, and possible responses to them, are understood. Computing serves as rebuttal when it illuminates the boundaries of what is possible through technical means. And computing acts as synecdoche when it makes long-standing social problems newly salient in the public eye. We offer these paths forward as modalities that leverage the particular strengths of computational work in the service of social change, without overclaiming computing’s capacity to solve social problems on its own.

Keywords: social change, inequality, discrimination, societal implications of AI

Suggested Citation

Abebe, Rediet and Barocas, Solon and Kleinberg, Jon and Levy, Karen and Raghavan, Manish and Robinson, David G., Roles for Computing in Social Change (December 12, 2019). ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency (FAT*), 2020. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3503029

Rediet Abebe

Harvard University - Society of Fellows ( email )

1875 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

HOME PAGE: http://https://www.cs.cornell.edu/~red/

Solon Barocas

Cornell University ( email )

Ithaca, NY 14853
United States

Jon Kleinberg

Cornell University - Department of Computer Science ( email )

4130 Upson Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-7501
United States

Karen Levy

Cornell University ( email )

Ithaca, NY 14853
United States

Manish Raghavan (Contact Author)

Cornell University - Department of Computer Science ( email )

402 Bill & Melinda Gates Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
United States

David G. Robinson

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

Upturn ( email )

1015 15th St, NW Suite 600
Washington, DC 20009
United States

HOME PAGE: http://teamupturn.com

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