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Arcus Lecture Explores Data, Bias and Dignity

Dr. Hoffman argues that big data can ignore dignity (Katia Dermott/The Index)

Data ethicist Dr. Anna Lauren Hoffmann presented her research on the intersections of dignity and data to an overflowing audience at the Arcus Center for Social Justice last Thursday. As if to attest to the relevance of the topic, the audience consisted not only of K students, but also of members of the greater Kalamazoo community.

Though Hoffman is formally an ethicist concerned with data, privacy, and dignity, she joked that she prefers the term “bad philosopher,” because it better describes the manner in which she combines a diverse set of analytical tools to tackle the interdisciplinary issue of data violence and dignity. Hoffman exemplified this title throughout the course of her presentation, jumping between topics which included TSA scanner data, Foucault, biographies of the wives of modernist writers, and unexpected histories of early data.

Hoffman’s presentation also touched on the many ways in which data intersects with social justice, drawing upon a preexisting body of work to demonstrate the impact biased algorithms and data sets have on civil rights and economic opportunities. Where data has been used to predict recidivism rates in the court system or making hiring decisions, apparent and legally-actionable injustices exist. In one infamous case study from 2015, Google Images mistakenly labeled photos of African-Americans as “gorillas.” Incidents like this bring data ethics into a new area of concern: dignity and self-respect.

The problem, Hoffman believes, largely stems from the design process and the mindset of the companies the design data-heavy products like Tinder and Facebook. By designing their product around an “average” end-user, they ignore the inevitable fictions and harms that occur when users fail to conform to an arbitrary, normative standard.

During the Q&A segment of the event, Hoffmann offered some solutions, such as incorporating ethics into the design process from the very beginning. Hoffmann also emphasized biasing design towards the needs of the most vulnerable users, rather that treating them as collateral. Though philosophical, Hoffman’s lecture also provoked a concrete understanding of the daily realities of modern data.

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Arcus Lecture Explores Data, Bias and Dignity