Interview Sally Wyatt: “Technical choices are always ethical choices too”

By 11 December 2018News

How do big data and artificial intelligence influence social sciences and humanities research? What do robotisation and virtual reality mean for society? What is the added value for science of digitising sources? These are a few of the key questions during Synergy 2019. Sally Wyatt, Professor of Digital Cultures is an expert on the relationship between technological and social change and one of the speakers at Synergy 2019.

Sally Wyatt is a leading expert in the area of digitisation in the social sciences and humanities. Until recently, she was programme leader of the eHumanities group within the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and director of the Netherlands Graduate Research School of Science, Technology and Modern Culture (WTMC). Besides being Professor of Digital Cultures at Maastricht University for three days per week, Wyatt is also the coordinator for the Digital Society programme of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands.

Electronic highway

Sally Wyatt researches computational or digital methods and explores the limits of open science and open data. She also focuses on metaphors about digitisation. Wyatt: ‘For example, nobody talks about the “electronic highway” any more. Why is that? The term “digital divide” has, however, made an entry. Moreover, to bridge that digital divide everybody must become a “user”, become addicted so to speak. But at the same time, we note that children use far too much screen time and that a wide range of everyday activities run the risk of being automated, from the purchase of a tram ticket to managing a bank account. So although governments are concerned about the addictive aspect, they are at the same time facilitating more digitisation. And, consequently, the exclusion of groups who have difficulties in keeping up. The social sciences and humanities have a crucial role to play with respect to monitoring, collecting, interpreting and giving direction.’

‘The social sciences and humanities have a crucial role to play with respect to monitoring, collecting, interpreting and giving direction.’

Sally Wyatt can endlessly pose such social, political and ethical questions. The bottom line is: technical choices are always ethical choices too. Designers want to make the cheapest and smartest solution. But what happens then? ‘Electrical, self-driving cars will soon be able to take decisions based on programmed choices. An example: in a crisis situation, the choice could be to break abruptly, swerve and hit a cyclist or swerve and drag along a mother with a pram. We know, however, that the Chinese have different ideas about priorities than people from the West. Which makes it a difficult dilemma.’

What can we do with digital data?

Social scientists should think far more about what you can do with digital data. ‘Many possibilities have arisen thanks to the accelerations in developments. Take Phillips for example: the company has experimented with smart houses for forty years. The fridge signals when the semi-skimmed milk is almost finished and places an order with a shopping service. That sort of thing. For a long time we have heard the promises concerning these advances: now the outcomes have become a reality. How will we deal with this in society? Social scientists and humanities researchers have an important guiding role to play in shaping our ideas.’

The job application robots of a company like Amazon have been found to have a preference for male candidates, says Wyatt scornfully. ‘That’s hardly a surprise! As long as men largely write the algorithms underlying the software, then that bias will remain.’

Synergy 2019 must give a boost to interdisciplinary research and increase collaboration. Wyatt: ‘No single discipline can keep up with developments in society. New disciplines are more or less arising from new situations. Just like sociology arose as a way of understanding the Industrial Revolution, we possibly need a new discipline, or closer collaboration between existing disciplines, to interpret digital transformations.’

‘We need to make it clear that people should not blindly accept every technological development.’

Within the social science and humanities, we must always keep posing difficult and critical questions about societal, cultural and technological developments, argues Wyatt. ‘This does not necessarily mean putting technology on the chopping block. Rather the social sciences and humanities should assume a sort of “watchdog” role. We need to make it clear that people should not blindly accept every technological development. Questions such as who benefits from this or that development and who will suffer as a result of it, who will make a profit and who will have to pay… that is our responsibility!’

At the same time, science must embrace all ICT developments that it can benefit from. ‘With this, we need to realise that big data in science and the unprecedented possibilities for data collection are not the be all and end all: a collection of data does not automatically lead to the truth. Collecting and interpreting is far more complex than that: the social sciences and humanities are indispensable for this.

Source: NWO SSH

NWO SSH – SYNERGY CONFERENCE 2019
  • Date 7 February 2019
  • Location Spant, Bussum
  • Language English
  • Admission Free
  • Register here