COMPUTING AND AI | HUMANISTIC PERSPECTIVES FROM MIT
Anthropology | Heather Paxson
Heather Paxson, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Anthropology at MIT; photo by Allegra Boverman
"Incorporating anthropological thinking into the new College promises to help students become more effective and responsible coders, designers, and engineers. The study of anthropology can prepare students to live and work effectively and responsibly in a world of technological, demographic, and cultural exchanges."
— Heather Paxson, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Anthropology
Series | Computing and AI: Humanistic Perspectives from MIT
Heather Paxson is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Anthropology and a MacVicar Faculty Fellow. Her research centers on how people craft a sense of themselves as moral beings through everyday practices, especially those having to do with family and food. She is the author of Making Modern Mothers: Ethics and Family Planning in Urban Greece (University of California Press, 2004) and The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America (University of California Press, 2013).
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Q: What domain knowledge, perspectives, and methods from anthropology should be integrated into the research and curriculum of the Schwarzman College of Computing (SCC) and why?
The methods used in anthropology — a field that systematically studies human cultural beliefs and practices — are uniquely suited to studying the effects of automation and digital technologies in social life. For anthropologists, “Can artificial intelligence be ethical?” is an empirical, not a hypothetical, question. Ethical for what? To whom? Under what circumstances?
This kind of analysis is critical today because computing and digital technologies are increasingly, though unevenly, embedded in the everyday lives of people around the world. The social relevance of digital communications technologies (or social media) is readily apparent, but computation is rapidly reformatting less visible aspects of our lives as well, from the algorithms that match patient diagnoses and physician insurance reimbursements, to those that allocate public school resources based on standardized test scores, to recidivism “risk assessment instruments” used in criminal sentencing.
Since every form of computer modeling or automated processing starts with a set of assumptions about “the real world,” cultural assumptions and local standards are built into computer models from the beginning. There is a risk that such models may be treated as neutral prescriptions for structuring the world in ways that optimize some people’s experiences and opportunities to the detriment, or invisibility, of others’. Professor Stefan Helmreich’s Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital Age, first published in 2000, is a pioneering anthropological study of such dynamics.
Applying the ethnographic methods of anthropology has already revealed some of the less obvious effects of automation and digital technologies on society. For example, medical anthropologists, including MIT Associate Professor Amy Moran-Thomas, are furthering our understanding of global public health conditions by revealing how the standards built into computerized medical devices may fail when applied in under-resourced settings or in tropical climates.
"The methods used in anthropology — a field that systematically studies human cultural beliefs and practices — are uniquely suited to studying the effects of automation and digital technologies in social life. For anthropologists, 'Can artificial intelligence be ethical?' is an empirical, not a hypothetical, question. Ethical for what? To whom? Under what circumstances?'"
Incorporating anthropological thinking into the new College promises to help students become more effective and responsible coders, designers, and engineers. The study of anthropology can prepare students to live and work effectively and responsibly in a world of technological, demographic, and cultural exchanges. If thoughtfully entered into and analyzed, such interactions can promote cultural understanding and help to imagine policies and practices that ameliorate existing inequalities.
One way to train students to think anthropologically — to “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange” — is by working with and analyzing technical infrastructures in the classroom. For example, Associate Professor Manduhai Buyandelger is designing a new subject for spring ’20, Virtual and Other Realities, that will explore virtual and augmented reality technologies alongside traditional techniques of world-making, such as those employed by shamans.
Giving students an anthropological understanding of computing will also call attention to the material legacy of our digital age, from the hardware in landfills leaching toxins into groundwater to the fossil fuel consumption of data centers. Studying the social implications and responsibilities of computing include tracking its contributions to global climate change.
Q: What are some of the exciting, meaningful opportunities that advanced computing is making possible in your field?
Computational tools are used in anthropological research to produce and analyze data. Like other social scientists, anthropologists are benefiting from working with the large data sets generated by advanced computing — and the results can be surprising. Associate Professor Graham Jones, for example, analyzed large data sets of user interactions in Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) forums to identify how students engaged with each other. He was able to show, preliminarily and contrary to expectation, that the online platform increasingly distanced rather than connected students to each other as the course progressed.
"MIT Anthropology aspires to host an Ethnography Lab that would offer faculty and students a selection of digital and computing tools and services tailored to anthropological research and projects."
Digital media has also been a boon to anthropologists, who use it to share knowledge. For example, Professor Chris Walley, who teaches a course on documentary videomaking, is working with the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum to develop an online archive and interactive storytelling platform. Using material artifacts and family photographs donated to the museum as storytelling prompts, the website will offer diverse, community-oriented perspectives on the long-term impacts of deindustrialization on a former steel mill region. (See the Exit Zero project.)
To advance and curate such projects, MIT Anthropology aspires to host an Ethnography Lab that would offer faculty and students a selection of digital and computing tools and services tailored to anthropological research and classroom projects. Such tools include podcasting equipment, digital video cameras and editing software, data visualization software, animation and annotation software, and virtual and augmented reality platforms.
Another opportunity for advancement centers on one of our discipline’s most basic research tools: the online search of scholarly publications. I am working with PhD student Rodrigo Ochigame and the Society for Cultural Anthropology to develop an open-source digital search and recommendation tool for academic discovery that will surface modes of critique and substantive engagement between scholarly texts. We envision this as a corrective to existing search tools based on keyword or concept matching that rank results by similarity and popularity — standard algorithms that have been demonstrated to reflect biases and structural inequalities, reproducing patterns of exclusion and institutional marginalization. See the Relata project.
The Life of Cheese, Crafting Food and Value in America, by Heather Paxson (UCal Press, 2012)
Story: The subculture of cheese
MIT anthropologist looks inside the growing world of do-it-yourself American cheese-makers.
Q&A: Heather Paxson on a new model for open-access publishing in anthropology
MIT Anthropologist explains the plan's vision and challenges, plus progress made at an historic MIT workshop.
Commentary in "Ethics, Computing and AI": Computing is Deeply Human
by Heather Paxson and Stefan Helmreich
In Search of a Meaningful Life
MIT anthropology course offers contemplation and dialogue on life's big questions.
Series prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Office of Dean Melissa Nobles
MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Series Editor and Designer: Emily Hiestand, Director of Communications
Series Co-Editor: Kathryn O'Neill, Associate News Manager
Published 22 September 2019