Open Access Issue
The Contestation of Tech Ethics: A Sociotechnical Approach to Technology Ethics in Practice
Journal of Social Computing 2021, 2 (3): 209-225
Published: 13 January 2022
Abstract PDF (535.6 KB) Collect

This article introduces the special issue “Technology Ethics in Action: Critical and Interdisciplinary Perspectives”. In response to recent controversies about the harms of digital technology, discourses and practices of “tech ethics” have proliferated across the tech industry, academia, civil society, and government. Yet despite the seeming promise of ethics, tech ethics in practice suffers from several significant limitations: tech ethics is vague and toothless, has a myopic focus on individual engineers and technology design, and is subsumed into corporate logics and incentives. These limitations suggest that tech ethics enables corporate “ethics-washing”: embracing the language of ethics to defuse criticism and resist government regulation, without committing to ethical behavior. Given these dynamics, I describe tech ethics as a terrain of contestation where the central debate is not whether ethics is desirable, but what “ethics” entails and who gets to define it. Current approaches to tech ethics are poised to enable technologists and technology companies to label themselves as “ethical” without substantively altering their practices. Thus, those striving for structural improvements in digital technologies must be mindful of the gap between ethics as a mode of normative inquiry and ethics as a practical endeavor. In order to better evaluate the opportunities and limits of tech ethics, I propose a sociotechnical approach that analyzes tech ethics in light of who defines it and what impacts it generates in practice.

Open Access Issue
Data Science as Political Action: Grounding Data Science in a Politics of Justice
Journal of Social Computing 2021, 2 (3): 249-265
Published: 13 January 2022
Abstract PDF (410.6 KB) Collect

In response to public scrutiny of data-driven algorithms, the field of data science has adopted ethics training and principles. Although ethics can help data scientists reflect on certain normative aspects of their work, such efforts are ill-equipped to generate a data science that avoids social harms and promotes social justice. In this article, I argue that data science must embrace a political orientation. Data scientists must recognize themselves as political actors engaged in normative constructions of society and evaluate their work according to its downstream impacts on people’s lives. I first articulate why data scientists must recognize themselves as political actors. In this section, I respond to three arguments that data scientists commonly invoke when challenged to take political positions regarding their work. In confronting these arguments, I describe why attempting to remain apolitical is itself a political stance—a fundamentally conservative one—and why data science’s attempts to promote “social good” dangerously rely on unarticulated and incrementalist political assumptions. I then propose a framework for how data science can evolve toward a deliberative and rigorous politics of social justice. I conceptualize the process of developing a politically engaged data science as a sequence of four stages. Pursuing these new approaches will empower data scientists with new methods for thoughtfully and rigorously contributing to social justice.

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