Anna Lauren Hoffman
Behind the Data: Humans and Values
Professional Faculty and Postdoctoral Scholar
- Bachelor's, English and cinema and media culture, University of Minnesota, 2005
- M.L.I.S., University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
- Ph.D., information studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
I have spent a great deal of my working life in academia, which has given me the opportunity to really bite down on cultural, philosophical, and ethical issues surrounding information and technology. Before starting graduate school, I served as an AmeriCorps member in Nashville, Tennessee. It was the combination of my interests in media and technology, as well as my experience in a service position in the mid-South, that really propelled me to start thinking seriously about the intersections among social justice, information, and technology.
Early in my graduate career, I was named a student fellow with the International Society for Ethics and Information Technology (INSEIT). During that time, I was able to collaborate with Dr. Keith Miller, one of the early influential computer ethicists. Later, I had the honor of being accepted into the Oxford Internet Institute's Summer Doctoral Programme (2012), an experience that helped to fundamentally shape the direction of both my dissertation and my thinking about ethics and information broadly. More recently, I received a Student Success Award from UW-Milwaukee, awarded to me for being named by students as the person who was most influential in their academic success.
Generally, I explore the ways in which the design and use of information technology can promote or hinder the pursuit of social justice. My lens is probably best described as a feminist brand of liberalism, though I draw on leftist, disabilities, and capabilities critiques as well. In particular, I am interested in how the standards and categories imposed on the world by informational and technological systems can discriminate by supporting the development of self-respect for some and hindering its development for others. I am also interested in the long-term consequences of biased or discriminatory systems on the realization of social justice because I believe it is generally easier to change people's minds than it is to change people's stuff.
Currently, I've been focusing my research in two areas: discourse and pedagogy. At the discursive level, how we talk about online platforms — and the data they have access to — shapes how non-expert users and the general public come to understand issues like identity, privacy, and data collection online. At the same time, however, dominant discourses can work to validate the identities and interests of some and exclude those of others. In terms of pedagogy, since arriving at UC Berkeley, I've been tasked with thinking a lot about how we teach ethics and engage social justice issues in the context of data science. While there is a long history of study of these issues at a broad level — say, with information and computer ethics — there is less work that engages ethics, pedagogy, and data science as we are coming to understand it today. It's an area of increasing importance, and it's great to see the I School taking a leadership role in this space.
As a subset of ethical issues, I am interested in matters of social justice in the context of data science, especially "big" or massive social datasets. In particular, I am interested in the impact of the categories and classifications we use to carve up and make sense of the world, many of which are informed by dominant discursive understandings of particular identities and practices. For example, organizing data subjects by "male/female" validates those with a binary gender identity and excludes those with non-normative or non-conforming identities. Processes like this not only flatten an otherwise diverse terrain of identity and expression but, at a deeper level, work to reshape our understanding of the world in ways that promote certain values and demote others.
The I School's vision for studying and practicing data science has, from day one, gone beyond the practical issues surrounding the use of certain tools and quantitative methods. The school has always understood that data science does not exist apart from our broader social, cultural, and ethical worlds. Rather, it is continuous with these worlds and working to shape them in ways that we might not yet fully understand. By taking seriously what data science does in context — for science, for organizations, for governments, for the world broadly — and foregrounding attendant legal, policy, and ethical issues, the I School is equipping its students to be well-rounded leaders in this area, now and in the future.
As I teach my students, new informational or technological phenomena rarely make old social or ethical issues irrelevant; rather, they more often force us to go back and critically examine the assumptions that underwrite our understanding of certain human values or ethical principles in light of new tools or practices. In line with this, I love the opportunity that the emergence of data science as a "thing" has afforded both scholars and students for engaging in exactly this kind of critical re-assessment, especially in the areas of ethics and epistemology.
To remember that no matter how isolating or narrow certain tasks can be, your work does not exist in a vacuum. The entire life cycle of data, from collection to cleaning to storage to analysis, requires that we make decisions. These decisions have not only practical import, but also cultural and ethical import.
During my graduate school days, I had a side-gig fronting a glam rock tribute band called "Ekko Galaxie and the Rings of Saturn." I was Ekko Galaxie, a gender non-descript space alien who escaped a brutal galactic civil war to preach the gospel of rock and roll on planet Earth.
I'm a bit of a television junkie, and I've been known to binge watch entire series quite regularly. Right now, my TV obsessions are Halt and Catch Fire and catching up on Mind of a Chef. Beyond TV, I also value the escape that working out brings me — I can usually be found running, swimming, doing yoga, or playing volleyball.
It's been a running joke in my house that I only read books by authors with the last name "Smith" — specifically, Ali Smith and Zadie Smith. I'm working my way through NW by the latter and have been revisiting the former's Artful a bit. I also just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, indispensable for understanding the objective and subjective experiences of race and masculinity in the United States today.
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