Invisible Algorithms, Invisible Politics

Laura Forlano at Public Books: “Over the past several decades, politicians and business leaders, technology pundits and the mainstream media, engineers and computer scientists—as well as science fiction and Hollywood films—have repeated a troubling refrain, championing the shift away from the material and toward the virtual, the networked, the digital, the online. It is as if all of life could be reduced to 1s and 0s, rendering it computable….

Today, it is in design criteria and engineering specifications—such as “invisibility” and “seamlessness,” which aim to improve the human experience with technology—that ethical decisions are negotiated….

Take this example. In late July 2017, the City of Chicago agreed to settle a $38.75 million class-action lawsuit related to its red-light-camera program. Under the settlement, the city will repay drivers who were unfairly ticketed a portion of the cost of their ticket. Over the past five years, the program, ostensibly implemented to make Chicago’s intersections safer, has been mired in corruption, bribery, mismanagement, malfunction, and moral wrongdoing. This confluence of factors has resulted in a great deal of negative press about the project.

The red-light-camera program is just one of many examples of such technologies being adopted by cities in their quest to become “smart” and, at the same time, increase revenue. Others include ticketless parking, intelligent traffic management, ride-sharing platforms, wireless networks, sensor-embedded devices, surveillance cameras, predictive policing software, driverless car testbeds, and digital-fabrication facilities.

The company that produced the red-light cameras, Redflex, claims on their website that their technology can “reliably and consistently address negative driving behaviors and effectively enforce traffic laws on roadways and intersections with a history of crashes and incidents.”Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, the cameras were unnecessarily installed at some intersections without a history of problems; they malfunctioned; they issued illegal tickets due to short yellow-lights that were not within federal limits; and they issued tickets after enforcement hours. And, due to existing structural inequalities, these difficulties were more likely to negatively impact poorer and less advantaged city residents.

The controversies surrounding red-light cameras in Chicago make visible the ways in which design criteria and engineering specifications—concepts including safety and efficiency, seamlessness and stickiness, convenience and security—are themselves ways of defining the ethics, values, and politics of our cities and citizens. To be sure, these qualities seem clean, comforting, and cuddly at first glance. They are difficult to argue against.

But, like wolves in sheep’s clothing, they gnash their political-economic teeth, and show their insatiable desire to further the goals of neoliberal capitalism. Rather than merely slick marketing, these mundane infrastructures (hardware, software, data, and services) negotiate ethical questions around what kinds of societies we aspire to, what kind of cities we want to live in, what kinds of citizens we can become, who will benefit from these tradeoffs, and who will be left out….(More)