On October 14-15, NULab faculty members Nick Beauchamp and David Smith Co-hosted the seventh annual “New Directions in Analyzing Text as Data” conference. The premier cross-disciplinary gathering to discuss developments in text as data research, this two-day conference brought over 100 scholars to campus. Previous conferences have taken place at Harvard University, Northwestern University, the London School of Economics, and New York University. This is the first in a series of posts from the NULab community, responding to the event. Its author, Sarah Shugars is pursuing a Ph.D. in Network Science at Northeastern University. 

I spent last Friday and Saturday at the 7th Annual Text as Data conference, which draws together scholars from many different universities and disciplines to discuss developments in text as data research. This year’s conference, hosted by Northeastern, featured a number of great papers and discussions.

I was particularly struck by a comment from Joanna J. Bryson as she presented her work with Aylin Caliskan-Islam, Arvind Narayanan on A Story of Discrimination and Unfairness: Using the Implicit Bias Task to Assess Cultural Bias Embedded in Language Models:

There is no neutral knowledge.

This argument becomes especially salient in the context of artificial intelligence: we tend to think of algorithms as neutral, fact-based processes which are free from the biases we experience as humans. But such a simplification is deeply faulty. As Bryson argued, AI won’t be neutral if it’s based on human culture; there is no neutral knowledge.

This argument resonates quite deeply with me, but I find it particularly interesting through the lens of an increasingly relativistic world: as facts increasingly become seen as matters of opinion.

To complicate matters, there is no clear normative judgment that can be applied to such relativism: on the one hand this allows for embracing diverse perspectives, which is necessary for a flourishing, pluralistic world. On the other hand, nearly a quarter of high school government teachers in the U.S. report that parents or others would object if they discussed politics in a government classroom.

Discussing “current events” in a neutral manner is becoming increasingly challenging if not impossible.

This comment also reminds me of the work of urban planner Bent Flyvbjerg who turns an old axiom on its head to argue that “power is knowledge.” Flyvbjerg’s concern doesn’t require a complete collapse into relativism, but rather argues that “power procures the knowledge which supports its purposes, while it ignores or suppresses that knowledge which does not serve it.” Power, thus, selects what defines knowledge and ultimately shapes our understanding of reality.

In his work with rural coal miners, John Gaventa further showed how such power dynamics can become deeply entrenched, so the “powerless” don’t even realize the extent to which their reality is dictated by the those with power.

It is these elements which make Bryson’s comments so critical; it is not just that there is no neutral knowledge, but that “knowledge” is fundamentally controlled and defined by those in power. Thus it is imperative that any algorithm take these biases into account – because they are not just the biases of culture, but rather the biases of power.