Join Ruha Benjamin in Exploring Discriminatory Designs That Encode Inequity

January 17, 2020

On Feb. 7, 2020, the Department of Informatics is partnering with UCI School of Law in hosting Ruha Benjamin, associate professor of African American studies at Princeton University. This blending of multidisciplinary perspectives is at the heart of Benjamin’s research into the social dimensions of science, medicine and technology and the relationship between innovation and inequity, health and justice, and knowledge and power. Her talk, “A New Jim Code? Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life,” will explore a range of discriminatory designs that encode inequity as she discusses biased bots and altruistic algorithms, challenging participants to more closely examine their own technology designs.

According to Chancellor’s Professor Michele Goodwin, who directs the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy (CBGHP), “Professor Benjamin is a leading light on matters of technology and society.” Goodwin has closely followed Benjamin’s work for nearly a decade and jumped at the opportunity to bring her to campus. “Ruha Benjamin is really one of the first of her generation to ask serious questions about the roles of race and racism in the deployment of technology,” says Goodwin, “and she does so with great clarity and intellectual rigor.”

This collaborative project speaks volumes about the interdisciplinary strengths of UCI. “The Department of Informatics has long been interested in the social consequences of technology as it develops in various domains of sociality — work, school or play,” says Assistant Professor of Informatics Roderic Crooks, who helped coordinate Benjamin’s visit and whose own research has exposed bias in data from seemingly neutral technology. “How can we design ethical computational systems,” he asks, “given the always shifting shape of digital technologies and their travel from expert domains of science and industry into everyday life?”

In search of answers, Crooks has similarly praised Benjamin’s extraordinary ability to write clearly about complex topics and to contextualize emergent technologies in long histories of struggle. “She provides clarity in a rhetorical space that is crowded with hyperbolic claims, conflicting research findings, and ethical ambiguity.”

Crooks notes how Benjamin, in her 2019 book Race After Technology, talks about algorithmic prediction of crime hotspots in Los Angeles, a practice that has drawn condemnation from local organizers like the STOP LPAD Spying Coalition and national groups like the ACLU. In providing a more local example, Crooks says that while license plate recognition technology might not seem controversial, it can harm vulnerable members of the university community, particularly the undocumented. “Professor Benjamin shows readers how such harm is not a glitch or accidental byproduct of technology, but the result of decisions made by some in pursuit of profit at the expense of others.”

This signifies the critical role multidisciplinary collaborations play in understanding how society influences technology and vice versa. “It’s a sign of the timeliness and significance of Professor Benjamin’s work that there is such an eager audience here at UCI,” says Crooks. “This work is of interest to many fields, not just law and informatics but also sociology, African American studies, history and public policy.”

The talk, which is part of the Informatics Seminar Series and the CBGHP Constitutional Book Talk Series, will take place in the Law and Education Building, Room EDU 1111, from 2–4 p.m. on Friday, Feb, 7. Space is limited, so be sure to register for the event today.

— Shani Murray