God View

Systems may be good at making decisions efficiently without making the world more just

The Theorizing the Web conference is in two weeks In bringing social theory to social media through discussions that are conceptual, critical, and historical, it shares with Real Life a common scope, philosophy, and personnel, so we wanted to preview the topics of its four keynote panels. This one is on objectivity. See the others on youth and social media, socialism and the web, and nerd culture.

The final keynote panel at Theorizing the Web this year, on the idea of objectivity, is something we’ve wanted to do since we started the conference in 2011. False claims to objectivity have often been the underlying concern behind some the specific topics that presenters and panelists have taken up over the years, from the way media platforms try to represent themselves as neutral, apolitical vessels to the declarations of the “end of theory” in the wake of big data. This year, we’ve decided to take on the “view from nowhere” directly as the topic of the closing keynote. With the issue of bias and “fake news” intensifying political polarization, the demand for perspectives that can be regarded as universally truthful may only intensify. But what supports these claims to neutrality and how might they best be exposed and countered?

The idea that anyone can, in the pursuit of knowledge, transcend their social location — who you are, where you are from, what your particular interests, fears, vulnerabilities, and so on are — has a long history; it also has a long history of being debunked. From its origins in the work August Comte and Herbert Spencer to Emile Durkheim, my discipline of sociology was founded on the idea of applying “positivist” science to human beings and society writ large. The dream was to create a “social physics” that could explain the movements of society in the same way physics can predict the motion of a falling object. The positivist framework was championed through the 1950s, with the major sociology journals making themselves home to eugenics research, a paradigmatic example of an incorrect and politically regressive claim to objectivity. From engineers to critics, behaviorism, functionalism, positivism are all back in tech discussions. Why?

Sociology never created its social physics. Over and over, those who claim a disinterested stance to truth turn out to have interests and biases that reveal themselves over time through criticism and how their truths tend to benefit those making the claims. Marxist, critical-race, feminist-standpoint, and queer theories — the ones under attack now from contemporary evolutionary psychologists and alt-right self-help hacks — have persuasively argued that a stronger notion of objectivity incorporates different standpoints, recognizes the effects of existing power structures, and works to actively undo them. Throughout its history — from 19th century phrenologists to 21st century data scientists — positivism has been a dangerous means for the powerful to try to naturalize their power by rendering its basis invisible and inevitable, so that they may benefit from political control without assuming any responsibility or accountability for it.

A prominent voice against the impossible claims to neutrality has been Donna Haraway, who described this way of seeing the world as if at a clean remove from the messy political human reality as a “gaze from nowhere,” and a kind of “god trick.” In 2014, Uber was revealed to have a master map showing where everyone using their service was riding, which they showed off at parties and, fittingly, called “god view.” This nicely captures how this perspective — one supposedly not of but above the world — pervades tech culture and leads to abuses. It is not only a matter of centralized power and surveillance capabilities being misused but how their development is authorized in the first place. Tech companies often embrace the idea that technology is an inherently neutral tool without politics and interests embedded in them but more like a “perfect empty vessel,” as a Facebook design director once said.

Tech criticism, too, often appeals to false objectivity. In the last year, this has begun to take the conspicuous form of appeals to health, whether it’s advocating “mindfulness” in device use, “reformed techies” warning of addictive platforms, or the platforms themselves fixating on “time well spent.” In this medicalized discussion about tech, phone use is understood in dieting terms, with an emphasis on balance and “nutrition,” and supplemented of course with faddish trends: Turning your phone grayscale became the juice cleanse in a digital “detox.”

The not so subtle move, with tech companies and critics alike, is to have “phone use” stand in for our broader concerns with how we present ourselves, communicate with others, and learn about the world. How devices and platforms affect those abilities is of course important to assess and debate. But there is no single correct, “healthy” way to have an identity, or to have close friends, or to be with your family, or to be in the world. These are all always in flux, always in the course of being renegotiated. The health turn in tech discourse makes a claim for the supposed objectivity of the doctor’s perspective, which itself presumes an absolute expertise in sociality that does not, and cannot, exist. “Health” assumes some knowable optimal state, one where normal people are good and those who deviate are sick and should be cured, for their own good and against their will, if necessary.

Can we learn from those that criticized claims to objectivity in the past? How might those critiques be re-articulated and extended? I’m looking forward to this panel and the many more angles it will address that I haven’t here. See you on the 28th! —Nathan Jurgenson, Editor

Panel: God View, April 28, 7:30 p.m.

Ayesha A. Siddiqi

John Cheney LippoldKade CrockfordIngrid BurringtonNavneet AlangKate Crawford

Theorizing the Web 2018 is April 27 and 28 at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York City. Register here.

The conference is run on a donation, pay-what-you-can basis with a volunteer committee. For more information about the event, click here