Technology

Are Academics ‘Asleep at the Wheel’? Op-Ed on Tech’s Influence Draws Scholars’ Fire

November 14, 2017

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.”

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 pushback was so intense that Ms. O’Neil offered an apology on Twitter.

To which Ms. Tufekci responded that, to sort out solutions, one must have an accurate sense of why the problem exists:

Andy Thomason oversees breaking-news coverage. Send him a tip at andy.thomason@chronicle.com. And follow him on Twitter @arthomason.