Some time ago, I was around a dinner table with some tech entrepreneurs, when I said that sociology should be a compulsory module in computer science courses, because most tech entrepreneurs and computing experts clearly lack a basic understanding of human behaviour, which creates a lot of problems for the rest of us.
Next time I find myself in that type of situation, I will refer, instead, to the paper “Why Computing Belongs Within the Social Sciences”, authored by Randy Connolly, and recently published in Communications of the ACM. This paper was brought to my attention by me colleague Shireen Kanji, at a recent meeting of the Centre for Artificial Intelligence, at Brunel University London, where we were just debating the contents of a future master’s programme in Artificial Intelligence.
In the paper, Connolly argues that Facebook’s and other tech companies’ woes are “not due to misguided user expectations, or to poorly worded license agreements, or to rogue developers”. Rather, they occur because “computing (…) is becoming progressively more entangled within the human and social lifeworld”, but training programmes are still focused on technical subjects, such as maths or coding or engineering, with no space for social sciences’ inputs. This narrow focus means that tech graduates not only lack insight about social institutions and human behaviour, but they also lack the “methodological and theoretical pluralism” that defines social sciences, and which enable social scientists to study, understand and model complex matters.
This lack of understanding and pluralism is not just a mere handicap. As Connolly argues:
“In the future, how we perceive the world will be determined more and more by what is revealed to us by digital systems (…) Our range of possible action will no longer be controlled by law, but instead be controlled by code. (…) With algorithmic governance replacing legal codes, with Web platform enabled surveillance capitalism transforming economics, with machine learning automating more of the [labour] market, and with unexplainable, non-transparent algorithms challenging the very possibility of human agency, computing has never been more [wondrous and terrifying at the same time].”
There you go. At that dinner table, I should have said that as the influence of computing has expanded into more and more areas of society, so has the social responsibility of tech entrepreneurs and computing experts. And that this needs to be reflected in the training that they receive.
I really miss dinner table conversations with strangers. Don’t you?