➔ Francis Tseng

September 26th, 2019

➔ Francis Tseng

Optimizing the Crisis

An interview with Seda Gürses and Bekah Overdorf

Software that structures increasingly detailed aspects of contemporary life is built for optimization. These programs require a mapping of the world in a way that is computationally legible, and translating the messy world into one that makes sense to a computer is imperfect. Even in the most ideal conditions, optimization systems—constrained, more often than not, by the imperatives of profit-generating corporations—are designed to ruthlessly maximize one metric at the expense of others. When these systems are optimizing over large populations of people, some people lose out in the calculation.

Official channels for redress offer little help: alleviating out-group concerns is by necessity counter to the interests of the optimization system and its target customers. Like someone who lives in a flight path but has never bought a plane ticket complaining about the noise to an airline company, the collateral damage of optimization has little leverage over the system provider unless the law can be wielded against it. Beyond the time-intensive and uncertain path of traditional advocacy, what recourse is available for those who find themselves in the path of optimization?

In their 2018 paper POTs: Protective Optimization Technologies (updated version soon forthcoming at this same link), authors Rebekah Overdorf, Bogdan Kulynych, Ero Balsa, Carmela Troncoso, and Seda Gürses offer some answers. Eschewing the dominant frameworks used to analyze and critique digital optimization systems, the authors offer an analysis that illuminates fundamental problems with both optimization systems and the proliferating literature that attempts to solve them.

POTs—the analytical framework and the technology—suggest that the inevitable assumptions, flaws, and rote nature of optimization systems can be exploited to produce “solutions that enable optimization subjects to defend from unwanted consequences.” Despite their overbearing nature, optimization systems typically require some degree of user input; POTs uses this as a wedge for individuals and groups marginalized by the optimization system to influence its operation. In so doing, POTs find a way to restore what optimization seeks to hide, revealing that what gets laundered as technical problems are actually political ones.

Below, we speak with Seda Gürses and Bekah Overdorf, two members of the POTs team, who discuss the definition of optimization system, the departures the POTs approach makes from the digital ethics literature, and the design and implementation of POTs in the wild.

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August 1st, 2019

Decentralize What?

Can you fix political problems with new web infrastructures?

The internet's early proliferation was steeped in cyber-utopian ideals. The circumvention of censorship and gatekeeping, digital public squares, direct democracy, revitalized civic engagement, the “global village”—these were all anticipated characteristics of the internet age, premised on the notion that digital communication would provide the necessary conditions for the world to change. In a dramatic reversal, we now associate the internet era with eroding privacy, widespread surveillance, state censorship, asymmetries of influence, and monopolies of attention—exacerbations of the exact problems it portended to fix.

Such problems are frequently understood as being problems of centralization—both infrastructural and political. If mass surveillance and censorship are problems of combined infrastructural and political centralization, then decentralization looks like a natural remedy. In the context of the internet, decentralization generally refers to peer-to-peer (p2p) technologies. In this post, I consider whether infrastructural decentralization is an effective way to counter existing regimes of political centralization. The cyber-utopian dream failed to account for the exogenous pressures that would shape the internet—the rosy narrative of infrastructural decentralization seems to be making a similar misstep.

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April 17th, 2020

Inside Out

Shaping the base of a renewable economy

The transition to a post-carbon energy economy will require extraction. As the sun set on the Bernie Sanders campaign, and with it the prominence of the Green New Deal in the contest for the presidency, the Trump administration issued an executive order encouraging private US exploitation of mineral resources in space. Whatever the shape of the coming transition away from fossil fuels, the need to understand the social and distributional costs of a changing energy infrastructure has never been greater. In a new report, I survey the state of mining, near-future ploys for extra-terrestrial extraction, and the persistent externalities of extraction.

Recent years have seen growing attention to the material requirements of information technologies, and especially to the social and environmental harms of sourcing rare earths and cobalt. Researchers highlight, for example, the dependence of electric vehicles and wind power infrastructure on rare earths, or batteries on lithium. But these discussions have tended to omit emphasis on necessity of extraction, relying instead on a more familiar idiom of consumer and corporate responsibility. Both the Trump administration's vision of celestial expansion and some visions of a post-carbon future depend, stated or not, upon a continuing regime of mineral extraction and outsourced harm.

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