➔ Jack Gross

September 26th, 2019

➔ Jack Gross

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.

⤷ Full Article

January 29th, 2020

Historicizing the Self-Evident

An interview with Lorraine Daston

Lorraine Daston has published widely in the history of science, including on probability and statistics, scientific objectivity and observation, game theory, monsters, and much else. Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science since 1995 (emeritus as of Spring 2019), she is the author and co-author of over a dozen books, each stunning in scope and detail, and each demonstrating of her ability to make the common uncommon—to illuminate what she calls the “history of the self-evident.”

Amidst the ever expanding reach of all varieties of quantification and algorithmic formalization, both the earliest of Daston's works (the 1988 book Classical Probability in the Enlightenment) and her most recent (an ongoing project on the history of rules) perform this task, uncovering the contingencies that swirled around the invention of mathematical probability, and the rise of algorithmic rule-making.

We spoke over the phone to discuss the labor of calculation, the various emergences of formal rationality, and the importance of interdisciplinarity in the social sciences. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

⤷ Full Article

February 13th, 2020

Austerity and Ideology

An interview with Kim Phillips-Fein

Kim Phillips-Fein is an associate professor of history at New York University and the author of the books Invisible Hands: the Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal and Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, as well as the editor and co-editor of several collections in political economy, business history, and labor history.

In a conjuncture defined by high ideological tension, in which elite consensus and power structures seem increasingly discredited and the scope of political possibility is wider than in recent memory, Phillips-Fein's work is particularly topical. She is an historian of social movements and of ideology—the political action that it both stems from and engenders, and the repercussions of elite politics for the lives of ordinary people. Her two books—which deal, respectively, with New York City's 1970s fiscal crisis and the rise of conservative business movement—also offer cautionary tales about the severe constraints under which political officials operate, and the ease with which powerful reactionary interests organize, relative to the public interest.

⤷ Full Article

April 24th, 2020

The Weight of Movements

An interview with Frances Fox Piven

Few theorists of social movements have shaped the events that they analyze. Frances Fox Piven, Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York and one of these few, has studied and agitated within American social movements since the 1960s.

In 1966, Piven and Richard Cloward published "The Weight of the Poor" in the Nation magazine. The essay elaborates what has since been dubbed the "Cloward-Piven Strategy": the mass enrollment of the poor onto welfare rolls. If all who were entitled to government benefits claimed them, they argued, the system would buckle, exposing the magnitude of American poverty and the inadequacy of its safety net. The ensuing political crisis would provide an opening in which to enact broad and lasting anti-poverty policy. Cloward and Piven published the article in the midst of an intense period of grassroots activity among welfare recipients. That same year, anti-poverty groups around the country formed a broad coalition that became the National Welfare Rights Organization, of which Piven was a founding member. The rank-and-file membership of the NWRO grew dramatically through the late-60s, reaching over 20,000 dues paying members and 540 grassroots groups by the end of the decade, and gaining influence over national welfare politics.

⤷ Full Article