Computing has become an extremely powerful and important part of our daily lives. Usually, the systems that exert these control are presented in positive terms, many of which are indeed worthy of consideration. Their power has, however, also created potential and real problems, often at a scale never imagined before.
Many of you are future technologists who may go on to get offers to build systems that are part of such a network. College is a good time to think about these issues, their consequences, and where you want to stand on them. Also, we’ve learned from the history of technology that what starts out as neutral or innocent can often be turned in deeply negative directions, so thinking about the current state of systems isn’t enough.
In this assignment, therefore, we will explore some of these issues through reading and writing.
You may be tempted to think “this is a technical course, so they’re not going to take this assignment very seriously”, and thereby turn in slipshod, haphazard, or shoddy work. That would be a grievous mistake, both because you’re failing to hear an important message, and because it’ll hurt you on your course grade.
We place a high premium on the quality of your writing, while also valuing concision. This means: have a point; make it clearly; be brief; use proper punctuation and grammar; use paragraph breaks to avoid walls of text; and in general, write well, as if you were in a humanities class. Our standards are certainly that high.
Over the past few years, the Chinese government has been implementing a Social Credit system.More recently, China says it will introduce a corporate social credit program. Since the article is paywalled, you can also access it through Brown’s ProQuest license. This has alarmed many people who care about principles of individual freedom of expression. At the same time, many feel this type of system is primarily a product of a country with strong centralized controls.
Lately, commentators have begun to argue that a similar system may well be implemented entirely in the private sector. See, for instance, this article in FastCompany, which argues that similar systems are being implemented in the USA.
Describe 1-3 ways in which the governmental (“Chinese”) system of social credit is particularly insidious.
Describe 1-3 ways in which the corporate (“American”) system of implicit credit is particularly insidious.
Are there circumstances in which the less baneful effects of one system can slowly change to resemble the worst effects of the other? (Focus on small, gradual changes; ignore possible (but unlikely) massive changes like an overnight change in the primary governance system of countries.) Describe them.
One of the leading scholars of Internet techology and society is danah boyd.danah happens to be a Brown CS alum. She recently wrote an article, The Fragmentation of Truth, that makes several points about how we learn things from search, how this process can be exploited, and how the way people use it doesn’t at all correspond to how it was built.
Imagine now that you’ve been made a manager at YouTube, and want to fix the system to avoid or least mitigate the kinds of issues danah identifies. What ideas do you have for what YouTube might do to? (Read the article carefully, because she dismisses some obvious answers.)
We will ask you to enter your answers into a tool called Quizius. In Quizius, after you have entered your proposal, you will be shown mitigations other students have proposed. Your job is now to act as what is sometimes called the “voice of the offense”: find ways to work around the proposed defenses. Once you do, you’ll have a chance to see what workarounds others proposed. (You’ll also be able to group yours in with those of others. While no two answers are likely to be identical, if another answer is in the same spirit as yours, group yours with that one.)
After the assignment is over, we will discuss these readings in class.