Three articles on information ethics and power

Today I happened to come across three very good articles which to me all seemed to form a theme: Ethical and political considerations of information and information technology.

First, Weaponized data: How the obsession with data has been hurting marginalized communities

Consider contexts and who is driving the data: The problem of people not from communities affected by communities making decisions for those who are is very prevalent in our field, and the work around data is no exception. Who created the data? Was the right mix of people involved? Who interpreted the data? The rallying cry among marginalized communities is “Stop talking about us without us,” and this applies to data collection and interpretation.

I think there’s deeper things to be said about ‘weaponized data’ too that have been rattling around in my brain for a while, this essay is a useful contribution to the mix.

For more on measurement and data as a form of power and social control, and not an ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ thing at all, see James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, and the works of Michel Foucault.

Second, from Business Insider, Programmers are having a huge discussion about the unethical and illegal things they’ve been asked to do by Julie Bort.

I’m not sure I buy the conclusion that “what developers really need is an organization that governs and regulates their profession like other industries have” — professional licensure for developers, you can’t pay someone to write a program unless they are licensed? I don’t think that’s going to work, and it’s kind of the opposite of democratization of making software that I think is actually important.

But requiring pretty much any IT program anywhere to include 3 credits of ethics would be a good start, and is something academic credentialing organizations can easily do.

“We rule the world,” he said. “We don’t know it yet. Other people believe they rule the world but they write down the rules and they hand them to us. And then we write the rules that go into the machines that execute everything that happens.”

I don’t think that means we “rule the world”. It means we’re tools.  But increasingly important and powerful ones. Be careful who’s rule you are complicit with.

Thirdly and lastly but not leastly, a presentation by Tara Robertson, Not all information wants to be free. (Thanks for the link Sean Hannan via facebook).

I can’t really find a pull quote to summarize this one, but it’s a really incredible lecture you should go and read. Several case studies in how ‘freeing information’ can cause harm, to privacy, safety, cultural autonomy, and dignity.

This is not a topic I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, and Robertson provides a very good entry to it.

The original phrase “information wants to be free” was not of course meant to say that people wanted information to be free. Quite the opposite, it was that many people, especially people in positions of power did not want information to be free — but it is very difficult to keep information under wraps, it tends toward being free anyway.

But yes, especially people in positions of power — the hacker assumption was that the digital era acceleration of information’s tendency toward unrestricted distribution would be a net gain to freedom and popular power.  Sort of the “wikileaks thesis”, eh?  I think the past 20 years have definitely dashed the hacker-hippy techno-utopianism of Steward Brand and Mondo 2000 in a dystopian world of state panopticon, corporate data mining (see the first essay on data as a form of power, eh?), information overload distraction and information bubble ignorance.

Information may want to be free, but the powerful aren’t the only ones that are harmed when it becomes so.

Still, while it perhaps makes sense for a librarian’s conference closing lecture, I can’t fully get behind Robertson’s conclusion:

I’d like to ask you to listen to the voices of the people in communities whose materials are in the collections that we care for. I’d also like to invite you to speak up where and when you can. As a profession we need to travel the last mile to build relationships with communities and listen to what they think is appropriate access, and then build systems that respect that.

Yes, and no. “Community’s” ideas of “appropriate access” can be stifling and repressive too,  as the geeks and queers and weirdos who grew up to be hackers and librarians know well too.   Just because “freeing” information can do and has done  real harm to the vulnerable, it doesn’t mean the more familiar story of censorship as a form of political control by the powerful isn’t also often true.

In the end, all three of these essays I encountered today, capped off by Robertson’s powerful essay, remind us that information is power, and, like all power, it’s formation and expression and use is never neutral, it has real consequences, for good and ill, intended and unintended. Those who work with information need to think seriously about their ethical responsibilities with regard to that power they wield.

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