This guide is intended as a resource for students and others interested in current research and controversies on emerging digital technologies, ethics, and society. It is rooted in Science and Technology Studies, with an emphasis on anthropology, feminist science studies, and history of technology. I compiled it for my Fall 2018 classes at NYU Tandon School of Engineering to assist students in researching and writing their final papers. As such, it is focused on topics that many students are interested in researching.
This is not the first guide of this type, and I make no claims to comprehensiveness. It represents a collection of scholarly and general interest materials that I have found helpful in teaching these topics to engineering students, designers and technologists, and others interested in the ethical and societal implications of emerging digital technologies.
This is the very first version. Feel free to drop me a line if you have a recommendation!
An introduction and review of anthropology-leaning scholarship related to algorithms and automation.
- Robyn Caplan, Joan Donovan, Lauren Hanson, and Jeanna Matthews – Algorithmic Accountability: A Primer
2018 report from Data & Society researchers connecting scholarly research to policy proposals concerning how to hold algorithms and their designers democratically accountable for their effects.
- Cathy O’Neil – Weapons of Math Destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy
An examination of the “black box” produced by algorithms as information is collected and aggregated about individuals as they go through their everyday lives. Based on experience as a data scientist, O’Neil sounds the alarm about the ways that algorithms are potentially reproducing and further entrenching inequality.
An ethnographic study of the impact of algorithmic decision-making algorithms used in the provision of public benefits in the United States.
An excerpt from Automating Inequality that offers an introduction to the main arguments and contexts of the book.
One of the definitive books on the legal and policy environment shaping – or failing to shape – the rise of algorithmic platforms and decision-making systems.
What can anthropology add to the study of algorithms as an artifact and form of culture? A programmatic and methodological overview.
A comprehensive list of resources encompassing mostly social science and humanistic perspectives on algorithms and society. Last updated in 2016 and compiled by Tarleton Gillespie and Nick Seaver. Some items may appear below.
A comprehensive list compiled by Cognitive Science PhD Candidate Abeba Birhane that includes both scholarly sources and relevant news about automated systems and bias. A good resource for identifying examples/case studies for further research.
The definitive anthropological study of life in virtual worlds (two-dimensional, but highly relevant to studies of AR/VR/MR today).
- Anti-Defamation League Center for Technology and Society – Hate in Social VR: New Challenges Ahead for the Next Generation of Social Media
A 2018 report on the emergence of hate speech and harassment in new, growing social virtual reality worlds.
- Kent Bye/Voices of VR – #654: Indigenous Futurism & Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace with Jason Edward Lewis
An interview with a member of the Indigenous Futures Project, a Canadian initiative to include indigenous groups in making and imagining future digital technologies (including in VR).
An analysis and critique of the idea that machine learning and artificial intelligence can solve all of society’s problems.
A journalistic account of the surveillance network created by home “internet of things” appliances.
A historical study of several 18th century philosophical experiments in artificial life, including Vaucanson’s defecating duck and Von Kempelen’s mechanical Turk, with an analysis of the implications for human workers and automation.
Reflections on the nature of machine intelligence and the indicators that truly intelligent machines have arrived. This paper also lays out the thought experiment commonly known as “the Turing test”.
A highly readable introduction to the major themes of cyborgs, cybernetics, and “cyborg theory” (whatever that is :-/). It is from 2002 and not footnoted (intended as a crossover academic/popular text), but it includes a detailed bibliography of relevant literature available upon publication that readers can mine for more specific sources and case studies.
- Donna Haraway – A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century
The essential paper of “cyborg theory” (whatever that is :-/), situating cyborgs as both a symbol and reality for current and future fusions of machine and organism.
- N. Katherine Hayles – How We Became Posthuman: VIRTUAL BODIES IN CYBERNETICS, LITERATURE, AND INFORMATICS
An examination of the history of cybernetics via the concept of “posthumanism”. Hayles theorizes a “three wave” model of cybernetics: homeostasis, reflexivity, and virtuality.
Kline sets out to bring cyborg studies back down to earth with a highly detailed history of the “real” cyborgs that existed in early cybernetics research, in the 1950s and 1960s.
An introduction to cybernetics by one of the key early actors in cybernetics and information theory. Wiener examines the fusions of organism and machine, human and technology, and also consider the ethical, political, and ethical consequences of the new science of cybernetics.
Are disabled people the original cyborgs? If so, what are we to make of able-bodied people who extend their senses and capabilities through the use of technologies? Weise offers a provocative correction to the more fanciful, speculative, and elitist ways that the figure of the cyborg has been used in recent decades.
If technological artifacts have politics, and if cyborgs are in part technological, then what politics do they have?
Sex, Gender, and Reproduction
- Deborah Lupton – Quantified sex: a critical analysis of sexual and reproductive self-tracking using apps
A critical analysis of the rapid increase in popularity of self-tracking apps aimed at managing fertility. Lupton raises concerns about security, privacy, and the reproduction of biologically determinist ideas about sex and gender.
A critical and ethnographic exploration of how genetic ancestry information has become a thriving industry and what this means for racial categories and racialized identities.
A history of the ways that the bodies of enslaved women were commodified, abused, and used as mere vessels for the reproduction of slave society. It stands as a cautionary tale against reducing people to their reproductive status.
An exploration of the uses of genetic ancestry testing among white nationalists. By promising to provide authoritative knowledge about genetic heritage, this information is used by these groups to bolster their claims to genetic purity and biological supremacy.
- Jenny Reardon and Kim TallBear – “Your DNA Is Our History”: Genomics, Anthropology, and the Construction of Whiteness as Property
An analysis of how Native American DNA is positioned as a cultural resources for white, Western culture at the same time that the real-world need and rights of Native people to control their genetic information is transgressed and erased.
Reflections on why dating app security and privacy are important, not only for marginalized groups, but for everyone who might use them.
A short, provocative essay on how societal hopes, fears, and biases get “built in” to technologies, which then help to perpetuate those ideas.
A collection of anthropological essays on the convergence between ethnographic practice and the practice of design.
An interview with disability and design anthropologist Cassandra Hartblay exploring her work on how infrastructure design choices made in the past affects people with disabilities living in post-Soviet Russia today.
An interdisciplinary and multi-modal book exploring the politics and possibilities of Universal Design in the present moment.
- Susan Leigh Star – Power, technology and the phenomenology of conventions: on being allergic to onions
A classic STS exposition of the ways that technologies can further constrain people who are already part of marginalized groups in society.
Another classic STS texts that argues that technological artifacts (especially infrastructures) are imbued with “politics”, that is, biases and assumptions about how society ought to work circulating at the time and place where they were designed and conceived.
Two designers lay out a program for “speculative design” that reflects on the (lack of) political awareness of design in the past, and the ways that designers can engage more actively with the potential consequences of their work via speculation.
A textbook-cum-commentary on the growing field of service design. Penin spends quite a bit of time throughout the case studies and how-tos unpacking how the design of public services shapes and is shaped by the ideals and tools of policy and governance.
- Fred Turner – From Counterculture to Cyberculture: STEWART BRAND, THE WHOLE EARTH NETWORK, AND THE RISE OF DIGITAL UTOPIANISM
A definitive book from media studies on the emergence of Silicon Valley and the development of the region’s signature political and managerial ideals.
Turner’s provocative reflections on the political and social impact of Silicon Valley in 2018.
A journalistic examination of the uptake of doomsday prepping as a new Silicon Valley trend.
An investigation into the intellectual property dispute between Google’s Waymo division and Uber. The author situates the dispute in long-term trends in employment in Silicon Valley.
An incisive, classic critique of Silicon Valley culture and politics from 1995.
Bias and Social Media
- Safiya Umoja Noble and Brendesha M. Tynes (editors) – The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online
A collection of papers mapping the intersections between critical race theory, feminist theory, and internet studies that seeks to understand the history and nature of bias online.
An in-depth examination of how search algorithms, like Google, are built upon biased foundations that reproduces racist imagery and ideas about people of color. Noble roots her work on emerging and contemporary issues in the history of library catalog systems, which, she argues, similarly embedded social biases against certain groups into the organization of knowledge and information.
- Data and Society – Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online
- Data and Society – The Oxygen of Amplification
Two comprehensive reports examining the techniques of media manipulation and hate speech online in light of the 2016 United States presidential election, with concrete advice for policy makers and journalists.
- Tarleton Gillespie – Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media
An examination of how content moderation shapes, and is shaped by, broader understandings of what constitutes “appropriate” boundaries of speech on the internet.
An analysis of the role of WhatsApp is spreading misinformation and bias among Brazilians leading up to the 2018 Brazil presidential election.
Future of Work
A collection of short, evidence-based or evidence-informed anthropological essays about how and why work seems to be a “natural” part of human lives and societies.
- Julia Ticona, Alexandra Mateescu, Alex Rosenblat – Beyond Disruption: How Tech Shapes Labor Across Domestic Work & Ridehailing
Data and Society report on the effects of tech industry “disruption” of work in the transportation and domestic labor sectors, with a focus on the United States.
A sensationally-titled, brief analysis of the impact of the “uberification” of care work.
The first comprehensive ethnographic study of Uber drivers in the United States, examinind the impact of ridesharing apps on this sector of the economy.
- Laura Forlano and Megan Halpern – Reimagining Work: Entanglements and Frictions around Future of Work Narratives
A reflection on community ideas concerning the “future of work” in Chicago based on participatory design engagements with Chicago residents.
Drawing on feminist and Marxist scholarship, Weeks analyzes the problems that work poses in a world where the work of social reproduction – sex, the enforcement of gender, and the raising of children – is explicitly written out of the story of the past, present, and future of work.
An explicitly leftist commentary on the future of work and its relationship to political activism. Williams and Srnicek envision a future in which most jobs are automated, goods and services are plentiful, and citizens are supported by robust social welfare programs, including some kind of universal income.
- Marie Hicks – Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing
A historical account of how women computing professionals were marginalized and shut out of programming work in post-WWII Britain, and an analysis of the impacts of this on the British technology industry.
- Ruth Schwartz Cowan – More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave
A thorough historical study of how the emergence of new domestic technologies has often resulted in more, rather than less, work for women in and beyond the home.
- Arlie Russell Hochschild and Anne Machung – The Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home
A classic of feminist analysis of work and gender, The Second Shift explores changing gender roles within the family in an attempt to understand why women feel they are under more pressure to perform – both at work and at home – than ever before.
This Google Doc contains a list of over 200 technology ethics syllabi from around the world (mostly United States). It also contained collections of articles defining the relationship between technology and ethics, and resources for teaching ethics to technologists and engineers.
Reflections on teaching ethics through science fiction, with examples of course activities and course design used to facilitate this approach.