Unjust, Unsustainable Software Systems: Is Computing Insolvent?
Thu May 23, 2:30pm-3:30pm, McConnell 103, McGill University
This talk argues that computing in its current form is unable to pay its debts. To find a way out of the current insolvency, it suggests a rethinking of software systems research, education and practice. Its aim is to provoke and start a lively discussion about social justice, sustainability, design, and the interactions between computer science, social sciences, engineering, design, and the humanities.
Fifty years after the founding of software engineering, the boundaries between software and its social and environmental contexts are rapidly dissolving. Despite its entanglement with the social world, however, computing research and practice regularly respond to the recognition of harms using their own tools only: problem solving, computational thinking, divide-and-conquer, quantification, prediction, algorithmic optimization, machine learning... ironically, the results are often predictable. From racial profiling to Airbnb’s impact on housing inequality, from the Volkswagen emissions cheat to Youtube’s radicalizing recommender systems, one does not have to be a pessimist to see that computing's debts to our societies are mounting. These debts - the hidden, delayed and remote effects of systems design decisions on the world - continue to be externalized: offloaded and paid by others. Within the computing discourse, little attention is paid to warnings from other disciplines: The ideology of software technology, and its focus on efficient “problem solving”, makes us blind to the obvious until it becomes apparent to all. How long can that be tolerated?
The talk describes this speaker’s struggle to articulate a just and sustainable systems design practice and highlights some of the epistemic, academic, industrial, political and methodological barriers encountered. The talk argues that in its current form and context, computing theory and practice are structurally and systemically incapable of paying down their debts to societies and the planet. Computing needs help, and that help is already available. Systemic interventions in the psychology, sociology, philosophy, and methodology of software-intensive systems design can help computing to get out of its debt crisis, but there is a lot of work to do.
Bio: Christoph Becker is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Information of the University of Toronto. Following degrees in computer science, software engineering and business informatics from Vienna University of Technology in Austria, he has published widely in software systems, digital libraries, and digital curation; created award-winning decision support tools for scalable digital curation in collaboration with international consortia of universities, cultural heritage organizations and commercial partners; and developed open methods to evaluate digital preservation processes and capabilities. As co-founder of http://www.sustainabilitydesign.org, he advocates a new interdisciplinary approach to software systems research that emphasizes long-term perspectives on socio-technical systems design. As Director of the Digital Curation Institute, he brings together graduate students, appointed fellows, faculty colleagues and partners to conduct research at the intersection of digital curation and systems design (http://dci.ischool.utoronto.ca), supported by grant-funded state-of-the-art computing infrastructure and collaboration space.
I think the timing is almost ready for the creation of a journal that combines technical and sociological approaches to computing. I invite researchers and software developers on SSB to read and sign the The Karlskrona Manifesto for Sustainability Design so that this shows both the level of interest and creates the seeds of a community that could support the initiative.
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