Research

Highlights from projects involving ESC researchers:

Making the ‘Future of Work’ Work

Auditing Algorithms Images

The rise of unemployment and unstable, precarious work conditions sit in deep tension with growing bureaucratic and corporate interests in automating work across sectors. The question of who defines and understands the risks, impact, and benefits of this rapidly changing socio-technological landscape remains an open question. Scholars, policy makers, politicians, and media have responded with sharp critiques of digital labor platforms such as Uber and Amazon Mechanical Turk as they have furthered precarious conditions of work and life for minorities rather than brought about equal opportunity. Maker and tech entrepreneurship advocates, on the other hand, argue that the problem of future of work can be “solved” by encouraging people to become self-reliant, develop an entrepreneurial mindset, and make their own tools, instruments, and machines. While such ideals of regaining control via technological ingenuity might mask continuous violence against those deemed unfit to self-upgrade, their critiques have been met with suspicion. While techno-optimistic approaches are challenged for their naïveté, their critics are seen as incapable to produce alternatives in practice. This workshop invites participants to join us for two days of engaged debates, talks, and design sessions aimed at moving beyond naive techno-solutionism on the one hand and familiar critiques of an ever further expanding and all consuming capitalism on the other. What alternatives are possible in an age of “no alternative”? Do we have to reconsider what counts as intervention into existing structures and conditions of work and labor in order to challenge persistent inequalities and exclusions? How can perspectives from policy, economics, information technology, critical race studies, and feminist studies form a robust and committed scholarship to “making the ‘future of work’ work”?

Our inaugural event for this line of research takes place May 31 – June 1, 2019 at the University of Michigan, Detroit & Ann Arbor. The workshop brings together those who experiment with new forms of tech work outside the large corporate and university laboratories and those with experience in studying the economic, social, and political processes of tech work, labor, and industries. An underlying goal of this workshop is to work through alternatives and openings for solidarity in a neoliberal moment that is often broadly perceived as granting “no alternatives” to contemporary capitalist processes. We aim to identify opportunities and challenges at various scales of intervention from writing software code to engaging with policy makers, from local interventions to translocal collaborations, from one-time off events to sustained and long-term activities.

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Auditing Algorithms: Adding Accountability to Automated Authority

Auditing Algorithms: Adding Accountability to Automated Authority is a group of events designed to produce a white paper that will help to define and develop the emerging research community for “algorithm auditing.” Algorithmic Auditing is a research design that has shown promise in diagnosing the unwanted consequences of algorithmic systems.

Automated software-based systems in finance, media, information, transportation, learning, or any application of computing can easily create outcomes that are unforeseeable by their designers, so algorithm auditing has the potential to improve the design of these systems by making their consequences visible. Auditing in this sense takes its name from the social scientific “audit study” where one feature is manipulated in a field experiment, although it is also reminiscent of a financial audit.

These events and the resulting white paper proposes to coalesce this new area of inquiry and to produce a report characterizing the state of the art and potential future directions. Participants and white paper co-authors will have opportunities to clarify the potential dangers of algorithmic systems, to specify these dangers as new research problems, to articulate challenges that they face as researchers interested in this area, to present existing methods for auditing or needs for new methods, and to propose research agendas that can provide new insights that advance science and benefit society.

This initiative is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and co-organized by the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois, and Harvard University. Events are hosted at the University of Michigan.

Find out more here.