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Change in Policy Doesn’t Guarantee Change

                Ruha Benjamin’s article “Catching our Breath” once again solidifies the point that the way we are creating and approaching technology is bringing with it all the issues that are present in our society. I was intrigued with her emphasis on the fact that education alone isn’t enough, on the “routineness” of racism, and with the way she discussed how progress needs to embody an “abolitionist consciousness”. But as I sat down to write on this, I found I just didn’t have much to say.

                Most of my blogs up to this point have been exploring the issues (not exactly, but in round-about ways) that she talks about and I find I am out of words to explain the same problem once again. One approach I haven’t really taken in my blogs is looking into what is actually going on to address the issues that Benjamin brings up. With that in mind, I decided to set out and see what I could find.

                A large part of any abolitionist work is changing policy. So, I began with the question, who is involved in policy making on science and technology in our government?

  • The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) – first created in 2001 during the Bush administration – This group of non-Federal individuals advises the president mainly around policy that covers the areas of science, technology, education, and innovation. Current members include people from Purdue University, Bank of America, IBM Research, and S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc. Their goals center around the idea of forwarding “American Leadership in Industries of the Future (IotF)”. By Industries of the Future, they are specifically referring to artificial intelligence, quantum information science, advanced manufacturing, advanced communications, and biotechnology.  
  • Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) – first created in 1976 during the Ford administration – advises the President and his cabinet on policy and budget concerns around science and technology. This department also works with “private and philanthropic sectors”.
  • U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) – existed in some form since 1921 to be a nonpartisan presence that monitored government spending – Current role: “examines how taxpayer dollars are spent and provides Congress and federal agencies with objective, non-partisan, fact-based information to help the government save money and work more efficiently.” Within the GAO is the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team which evaluates scientific and technological advancements in our society and reports on them for Congress. They have identified five science and technology trends to watch:
    • Genome Editing
    • Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Automation
    • Quantum Information Science
    • Brain/Augmented Reality
    • Cryptocurrencies and Blockchain
  • Energy and Commerce Committee’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee – Made up of members of Congress who address issues related to “electronic communications” of every type, federally and commercially. Recently had a hearing with the leaders of multiple social media sites to discuss regulating disinformation on their sites.

Once you start going down the rabbit hole of agencies involved in advising, discussing, and regulating science and technology you find that there are a lot of different kinds of individuals involved – both public citizens and federal. The goals of the agencies range in focus, several of which are invested in maintaining America’s position as a leader in innovative technology. PCAST specifically has a strong agenda to get federal funding to invest in research and education institutions that further their vision around AI, quantum information science, advanced manufacturing, advanced communications, and biotechnology. Though I wasn’t able to read through the entirety of their report for what their vision is for the next few years, I found little addressing issues of discrimination within technology itself (though they do address discrimination in STEM work and education (x) ).

Of course, most of these agencies focus on government and federal programs and don’t necessarily monitor or regulate private companies, as evidenced by the hearing that the Communications and Technology Subcommittee had to hold. That said, the complexity of creating policy to fight abuse in science and technology in all areas, public and private, is one that we are having to face when considering the change that Benjamin is calling for. And even when policy change is occurring, it can have a dark side.  

In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Amba Kak, who is the Director of NYU’s AI Now Institute, discussed this issue of real change through regulations and laws in the area of biometrics: “A data protection law at its best can help you regulate when biometric data is used and make sure that it isn’t used for purposes for which consent was not given. But issues like accuracy, discrimination—those issues have still received very little legal attention.” She goes on to further emphasize that this notion of changing the law can be “glorified” in how effective it will be to create real change in society.

Though there is hope on the horizon for laws that would require tech companies to ensure greater security and privacy, we obviously still have a long way to go to find the right balance of regulation in public and private sectors. I think that it was helpful for me to look around and realize that though the idea of policy change is still the way to go, that it isn’t as straight forward as just making a new law and everything being fixed. As I discussed in my blog last week – change is not an end goal. It is a continuous monitoring, maintaining, and evolving thing that has to adapt to the new and insidious ways that issues like racism like to pop back up.

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