Critical Technical Practice and Democracy

August 31, 2017

Looking back at the limited success of forty years of Artificial Intelligence research, Phil Agre blamed bad philosophy. Whether they knew it or not, AI researchers had philosophies of mind that determined the programs they wrote. But, researchers did not treat their programs as tests of their philosophies. The work of writing artificial intelligence programs was technical work. Failure was attributed to technical causes instead of the underlying ideas about what intelligence was.

Agre called for a “critical technical practice”

What is needed… is a critical technical practice - a technical practice for which critical reflection upon the practice is part of the practice itself. Mistaken ideas about human nature lead to recurring patterns of technical difficulty; critical analysis of the mistakes contributes to a recognition of the difficulties. This is obvious enough for AI projects that seek to model human life, but it is also true for AI projects that use ideas about human beings as a heuristic resource for purely technical end.

Computation and Human Experience

Over the past few years, I have helped build many tools that I hoped would improve the political and civic life of my city, and have observed similar work by colleagues across the United States.

Relative to my hopes, all these projects, mine and others, have had very modest success. At DataMade, we have done very many useful things, but our work has had very little effect on Chicago’s ability to understand and respond to our shared challenges. Nationally, things don’t seem much better.

This is not due to technical problems. The websites and analyses and data pipelines are good websites, analyses, and pipelines. The open data policies are pretty good policies. The changes to procurement, where they have happened are good policies. 18F and USDS and GDS are good bureaucracies.

For me, this is a time of crises, in the sense of a moment of uncertainty, change, judgment, and decision. The previous frames of action can not maintained, but the next step is not clear.

For me, it’s time to start to look at the philosophies that shaped this work. Over the next few months, that’s what I hope to explore. I’m planning on starting by exploring the schemas of politics and civic life that seem common in this work. Hopefully, making them explicit will help us see new opportunities.

If this resonates with you, I hope that we can help each other find a way forward. Some of you have a great feeling of urgency, and this just may seem impossibly solipsistic. I share your urgency, and I wish you great success. Please let me know what you know.

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