“Machines are social before being technical” observed the French philosopher Deleuze. But what does that mean? I’m not a student of Deleuze and nor do I usually see myself as an annoying quoter of philosophers, but: to me this statement neatly encapsulates a key plank of CONNECTED by DATA ’s mission.
Namely, a corrective narrative about data and AI that moves us away from images of spreadsheets, robotics and platitudes about innovation and towards the people, politics and social implications of technologies that are rapidly changing the world.
When we reframe machines as ‘social’ rather than merely ‘technical’, we can ask questions that have always been asked about technology, from mechanised textile looms to algorithmic decision making: Who owns these machines? What is it used for? Who is impacted by it? Do these people have a say? How does it affect us individually and collectively?
I joined CONNECTED by DATA three weeks ago to help support our work in this area. Drawing on my experiences in community organising, public interest media and now learning more on progressive public policy, I’m hoping to work on connecting the dots between day to day life and the big picture.
To channel the growth of data-driven technologies to a socially useful purpose, an approach that resonates with the heart and head of diverse groups and interests will be vital.
Because, it’s clear that the rapidly growing effect of data and AI is a matter of public interest. However, we have a job on our hands to make it also interesting to the public. A key component of this will be to collaborate with partners in diverse sectors to better amplify and centre the human stories behind the machines.
Much like with the algorithms themselves, we urgently need to break open the ‘black box’ of understanding and storytelling about the impact of data - for communities, journalists, politicians and others.
This will be an important foundation for advancing wider arguments that accurately characterise data’s significance: The use of data is in aggregate, the impact is societal, so its governance must be collective too.
This ‘softer’ narrative building work feeds directly into ‘harder’ aspects of CONNECTED by DATA’s strategy: Influencing current and future policies. Because how problems or issues are framed defines how solutions or actions are taken.
Relatedly, there is a growing need for various social movements and campaigns - around the justice system, education and in the workplace, for example - to articulate demands and propositions for how these technologies can and should be used. I’m hoping to be part of convening a cross-sectoral grouping with common goals.
As Deleuze understood, if these technologies are mis-understood as merely technical they may further reinforce the inequalities and tensions within the societies they are born of. By contrast, these powerful tools could be designed and deployed for great and widespread benefit.
I’m excited and appreciative to be contributing to a collective vision and momentum for this choice before us.