Part of the desire to treat the internet as a separate place, apart from real life, is so that we can see it as made of numbers, clear and exact, rather than the messy politics of people. “Online” is posited as a space that can be seen from outside or above, a realm that can be computed to the requisite decimal place and adjusted through tweaking the equations. It’s a fantasy domain ready-made for the engineering mind-set, where information can be given order and made to function predictably. There is no obscurity or ambiguity, just ones and zeros.
Routinely, we talk about how algorithms decide how information or expression is presented to our screens. Sometimes it can seem as though the algorithms are impartial. It’s as if the screen world can be ordered by the neutral working of numbers rather than deriving from the choices of specific people or groups with their own viewpoints, politics, and goals. As many have pointed out, algorithms encode the biases of those who program them, and amplify the biases inherent in whatever the data sets they draw on.
But a pretense of algorithmic objectivity is necessary to sell social products and communication tools — as not of life but solutions to life and its irrationalities and unpredictability. The data-driven view from above gives communication an order and a hierarchy: Each person has follower counts, each utterance or image its own score, and all of these are used to organize feeds of people and news into whatever shape is desired. All while insisting that shape — an explicitly gamified sociality — is natural, and the scoring mechanism is neutral and not itself a capitalistic engine to produce more of a certain kind of communication.
The appeal to objectivity is always profitable. It promises authority and legitimacy, two valuable commodities that are the subject of endless social competition. The market itself is presented as an objective arbiter, a social algorithm that fairly computes value, while effacing all the asymmetries and imbalances and historical injustices that feed into it.
Objectivity is an elusive and valuable product because what constitutes knowledge itself is always in flux. Modernity is defined by there being more to know than you can ever learn, and the fact that there is no final say on what is true. What you think is right and true has a lot to do with who you are and where you’re from. No matter how many facts you gather, there are still more you’ve missed; and no matter how you concatenate those inadequately gathered facts, there are other ways to assemble and interpret them that can be argued for. And then there is the subjective bias in which facts you choose and which problems you seek to solve with them.
The discipline of sociology was founded in the 19th century on the premise of creating a “social physics” filled with “social facts” that could describe the movements of humans on earth the way astronomical physics can chart the planets in the sky. This resulted in sweeping grand narratives that claimed to speak for all people in all places at all times from a supposed disinterested point of view — as if sociologists were not at the very least interested in establishing the usefulness of their discipline, and at times much worse. (Among sociology’s earliest fruits was the eugenics movement.)
However, this kind of objectivity is always impossible, and always demonstrably so in hindsight. Law-like explanations of sociality have never emerged. In their place came thinking about how these grand narratives are dangerous in their arrogance: “neutrality” really meant white, male, Western, able-bodied, and other privileged and contingent perspectives rewritten as “objective” views from nowhere. A growing literature under a variety of banners — including standpoint epistemology, poststructuralism, postmodernism, critical race theory, queer theory, intersectional feminism — has argued persuasively for an appreciation for smaller and more local descriptions of reality, grounded in an understanding that any view of the social world is from your own, particular perspective. Sandra Harding calls this collective awareness of standpoint a “strong objectivity” as opposed to the weaker objectivity of pretending standpoint doesn’t matter.
The engineering, management, and general understanding of new social platforms keep the inherently conservative and obfuscating dream of weak objectivity alive, despite its track record as a longstanding and regressive scam, a systematic perpetuation of past injustices and manufactured inequalities.
This week, we are publishing three essays on this misuse of objectivity.
First, Linda Besner writes about how charities like the Red Cross are presented as neutral, uncomplicated conduits where money is placed in one side and human plight is reduced on the other. However, the recognition and reduction of suffering never lacks bias. Charity is never as uncomplicated as sending a charitable text.
Next, Mila Samdub describes the SimCity games as modeling the mentality of modeling reality, inviting us to adopt a remote and oversimplifying view that reduces the infinite complexities of lived experience from the ground. Yet if we can blend that abstract systems-level view with the granular experiential view it tries to efface, it could help us imagine new and different cities we might inhabit.
Finally, Anna Reser and Leila McNeill show how large-scale proposals for fixing the climate often conceptualize the earth from a distance, as a united, comprehensible whole — what Donna Haraway has called “the god trick.” Feminist climate science is far better prepared than a faux-neutral science to describe the immeasurable and unpredictable set of lived consequences caused by a changing environment.
Bias is not a problem that should be solved by resolving perspectives into one master “god view.” Eliminating “bias” means invalidating points of view, nullifying entire lives of lived experience. Rather than try to eliminate “bias” in the name of expediency, rather than homogenize experience into a uniform consistency, we must recognize that just as digitalization yields tractable representations of big data, it entails even greater losses if we insist on seeing society through only those lenses.
Thank you for your consideration. Visit us next week for Real Life’s next installment, TEAMS, featuring YouTube troupes, boot camp, and automatons to call your own.