In Cathy O’Neil’s telling, academe may be the only institution standing between the tech industry and a very bleak future. That’s the crux of her argument in a New York Times op-ed published on Tuesday.
Algorithms, which help generate everything from Google search results to college-admissions decisions, are opaque. And if unexamined, Ms. O’Neil wrote, they could profoundly reshape society for the worse. “Our lawmakers desperately need this explained to them in an unbiased way so they can appropriately regulate,” she wrote, “and tech companies need to be held accountable for their influence over all elements of our lives. But academics have been asleep at the wheel, leaving the responsibility for this education to well-paid lobbyists and employees who’ve abandoned the academy.”
Ms. O’Neil, the author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (Crown, 2016), went on to propose that an academic institute be formed to study “algorithmic accountability.” The need for such an institute, she argued, is partly driven by the fact that existing data-science institutes “are more focused on trying to get a piece of the big-data pie — in the form of collaborations and jobs for their graduates — than they are on asking how the pie should be made.” She concluded that academics should “scrutinize the big tech firms rather than stand by, waiting to be hired.”
Some academics were swift in their condemnation of the piece. Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is one of the most prominent public intellectuals who studies big tech’s influence on society. She responded to Ms. O’Neil on Twitter, calling the essay “way, way lopsided.”
As someone who tries to do just this, and argued for much of the same, I found the diagnosis in your piece way, way lopsided. Academia is under severe attack exactly because it’s the one place that can do this. The problem is deeply political.— zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) November 14, 2017
The analysis is a caricature of the reality I see everyday—and I know Cathy means well. But this is framed as another “out-of-touch” ivory tower piece—there are places like that, but you need to only know of Harvard and Stanford to characterize the “academy” as such.— zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) November 14, 2017
Many other Twitter users posted that the piece ignored academics and organizations that study the issues. Siva Vaidhyanathan, director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, listed computer-science and engineering schools “that take this very seriously,” and noted that “others all have faculty and programs devoted to critical and ethical examination of data and algorithms.”
Other observers on Twitter argued that the piece was emblematic of widespread ignorance about the work of the humanities.
The issue for media and technology scholars is that we have been expressing these concerns for a long time. But the worst is that we face a number of hurdles, not least of which is the fact that STEM academics continually fail to even notice that we've been on this issue forever.— Eric Lohman (@erlohman) November 14, 2017
This is endemic.— Nicholas G. Evans (@neva9257) November 14, 2017
STEM: NO ONE IS LOOKING AT THIS PROBLEM
Good Chunk of the Humanities: I mean, we've been loo–
STEM: NO OOOOOOOONNNNEEEE! WE'RE DOOOOOOOMED
The pushback was so intense that Ms. O’Neil offered an apology on Twitter.
To any academic working on algorithmic accountability whom I've offended with my NYTimes piece today: I know you're working hard, against the odds. I'm trying to make the point that you deserve *much more support*. The tech companies are absolutely more powerful than we are.— Cathy O'Neil (@mathbabedotorg) November 14, 2017
To which Ms. Tufekci responded that, to sort out solutions, one must have an accurate sense of why the problem exists:
It's not about being offended! To get that *much more support* for this work, you need the correct analysis of *why* we don't have it. It's not because academics are "asleep at the wheel." We're deliberately attacked, defunded, blocked and pressured to stop us from critical work!— zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) November 14, 2017
And despite the deliberate defunding, and that the data belongs to corporations that often don't like the criticism and the pressure, there is so much work—which you know! If you mean CS departments: say that *and* even there, we need a better framing of what's going on and why.— zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) November 14, 2017