Wednesday 21 October 2020

Revisiting the Black Box Society by Rethinking the Political Economy of Big Data

Special Theme Issue

Guest lead editors: Benedetta Brevini* and Frank Pasquale**

* University of Sydney
** Brooklyn Law School

Throughout the 2010s, scholars explored the politics and sociology of data, its regulation and its role in informing and guiding policymakers such as the importance of quality health data in the COVID-19 epidemic to “flatten the curve.” However, all too much of this work is being done in “black box societies” jurisdictions where the analysis and use of data is opaque, unverifiable, and unchallengeable. As a result, far too often data are used as a tool for social, political, and economic control, with biases often distorting decision making and accompanied by narratives of tech solutionism and even salvation-ism abound.

The Black Box Society was one of first scholarly accounts of algorithmic decision making to synthesize empirical research, normative frameworks, and legal argument and this symposium of commentaries reflect on what has happened since its publication. Much has happened since 2015 that vindicates and challenges the book’s main themes. Yet recurring examples of algorithmically driven injustices raise the question of whether transparency—the foundational normative value in The Black Box Society—is a first step toward a more emancipatory deployment of algorithms and AI, is an easily deflected demand, or actually worsens matters by rationalizing the algorithmic ordering of human affairs.

To address these issues, this symposium features the work of leading thinkers who have explored the interplay of politics, economics, and culture in domains ordered algorithmically by managers, bureaucrats, and technology workers. By bringing social scientists and legal experts into dialogue, we aim both to clarify the theoretical foundations of critical algorithm studies and to highlight the importance of engaged scholarship, which translates the insights of the academy into an emancipatory agenda for law and policy reform. While the contributions are diverse, a unifying theme animates them: each offers a sophisticated critique of the interplay between state and market forces in building or eroding the many layers of our common lives, as well as the kaleidoscopic privatization of spheres of reputation, search, and finance. Unsatisfied with narrow methodologies of economics or political science, they advance politico-economic analysis. They therefore succeed in unveiling the foundational role that the turn to big data has in organising economic and social relations. All the contributors help us imagine practical changes to prevailing structures that will advance social and economic justice, mutual understanding, and ecological sustainability. For this and much else, we are deeply grateful for their insightful work.

Editorial by Benedetta Brevini and Frank Pasquale, "Revisiting the Black Box Society by rethinking the political economy of big data"

Ifeoma Ajunwa, in “The Black Box at Work,” describes the data revolution of the workplace, which simultaneously demands workers surrender intimate data and then prevents them from reviewing how it is used.

Mark Andrejevic, in “Shareable and Un-Shareable Knowledge,” focuses on what it means to generate actionable but non-shareable information, reaffirming the urgency of intelligible evaluation as a form of dignity.

Margaret Hu’s article “Cambridge Analytica’s Black Box” surveys a range of legal and policy remedies that have been proposed to better protect consumer data and informational privacy.

Paul Prinsloo examines “Black Boxes and Algorithmic Decision-making in (Higher) Education” to show how the education sector is beginning to adopt technologies of monitoring and personalization that are similar to the way the automated public sphere serves political information to voters.

Benedetta Brevini, in “Black Boxes, not Green: Mythologizing AI and Omitting the Environment” documents how AI runs on technology, machines and infrastructures that deplete scarce resources in their production, consumption and disposal, thus placing escalating demands on energy and accelerating the climate emergency.

Gavin Smith develops the concept of our “right to the face” in “The Face is the Message: Theorisingthe Politics of Algorithmic Governance in the Black Box City” as he explores how algorithms are now responsible for important surveillance of cities, constantly passing judgment on mundane activities.

Nicole Dewandre’s article, “Big Data: From Fears of the Modern to Wake-up Call for a New Beginning” applies a deeply nuanced critique of modernity to algorithmic societies arguing that Big Data may be hailed as the endpoint or materialisation of a Western modernity, or as a wake-up call for a new beginning.

Jonathan Obar confirms this problem empirically in “Sunlight Alone is Not a Disinfectant: Consent andthe Futility of Opening Big Data Black Boxes,” and proposes solutions to more equitably share the burden of understanding.

Kamel Ajji in “CyborgFinance Mirrors Cyborg Social Media” outlines how The Black Box Society inspired him to found “21 Mirrors, a nonprofit organization aimed at analyzing, rating and reporting to the public about the policies and practices of social media, web browsers and email services regarding their actual and potential consequences on freedom of expression, privacy, and due process.”