Editor’s note: Professor Murali Venkatesh brought his expertise to introduce inclusive system design to the Syracuse University iSchool in an October webinar. Read Prof. Venkatesh’s answers below to learn more about this topic.
What do all professionals need to know about inclusive system design?
I’d recommend that IT professionals, especially those just entering the profession, reflect on the ideals in the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) Code of Ethics to strive to promote human well-being and to never lose sight of the ends served by technology and technical practice. Get to know the ACM Code, and reflect on it.
As an expert in your field, what do you have to say to those just getting into inclusive system design?
Technology has the allure of the purely rational, untainted by human emotion and bias. It is not. As a product of human imagination, technology – be it an artifact or an algorithm – is obviously not free of bias. A first step is to simply be curious. Take driverless cars. Most people will probably stop with: oh, they are cars with no human driver. But the curious observer would want to know more. What does it mean to take the human being out of the equation?
If decisions in fraught situations (a traffic accident) are delegated to software, what assumptions and biases are baked into that code? This line of thinking can lead to critical new ways of looking at such cars, and also at the software that does the thinking for them.
These are our creatures. They are marvelous gifts of human ingenuity, but they can also be racist and politically-driven, just as we can be. Once we are so sensitized, we can start to think about ways to build technologies that promote inclusion and human flourishing.
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How does new technology help or hinder inclusive system design?
New technologies help by being ubiquitous. Who hasn’t wondered about privacy settings? If a drone flies directly over your house, what is it seeing that you don’t want it to see? They can also hinder by hiding their inner working.
Why should everyone care about inclusive system design?
Technology is everywhere. It is in most things we use every day. Institutional decisions increasingly rely on big data and algorithms. A recent book, called Weapons of Math Destruction, calls attention to the power of algorithms to do great harm. The most dangerous ones are also the most secretive, warns the author. We ignore technology at our own peril.
When does it make sense to raise this topic to others who are less concerned?
The crisis in Japan from the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster sensitized the general public to be far more concerned about the fallout from technology than they had ever been. Crises usually are opportune moments to raise the topic. They can be leveraged to highlight the folly of naïveté and dis-engagement. Technology is only as good as we make it through our actions and institutions.
What organizations or communities are leading the conversation on inclusive system design? Any associations, resources or groups to follow?
There is the ACM, the pre-eminent professional association for information technology. I would highly recommend it for its pro-social ethos and its concern for ethical practice. It is good to check in on thought leaders, but being curious is absolutely indispensable. Simple curiosity is the sure way to democratize the critical sensibility.
Want to learn more about inclusive system design? Then watch the recording of his webinar from October. Interested in other webinars? Check out the full schedule of upcoming and past iSchool webinars.