Are we coding bias?

by Vanisha Pandia

August 7, 2021

It is said that knowledge is produced by the hands of authority. The same knowledge then becomes history. Going further into the future, the past knowledge, the history of the present, becomes the inscribed ‘way of the world’. Given our world where inscriptions on paper are a long lost thing, we are coding our knowledge into unchangeable, and absolute algorithms. We are unconsciously or consciously but uncaring, feeding these algorithms data, our every living minute. We are looking at an uncanny progress, in the rear view mirror.

The method of producing knowledge has evolved with continuing epoch, and thus have humans categorized among themselves, who’ll hold the onus of these entries. This categorization has not always been mindful or inclusive. The intellectuals, the wealthy, the resource persons have not been a democratic group.  Till date, it constitutes in majority, privileged white males. This has always been the case, hence the debates of rewriting the history, retelling of tales and bringing the subaltern texts in the fore. That’s how the problem had been tackled till now, but the issue has become graver on 3 accounts.

The first account finds its base in the fact that knowledge production today does not affect just the future or near future, it implicates our present in it. It functions to feed information that alters our present and doesn’t let our past be past. For example, one of the devices of this knowledge production is our identity cards that we use to register for our basic rights, like having a job, housing, health benefits etc. These IDs contain barcodes that mechanically absorb all information and produce results. Being a machine, it is not equipped to receive context, to measure the value of information in an individual’s life or give benefit of doubt. It goes on creating algorithms that govern not only our human rights, but our decisions and daily choices. Most importantly it is bound to make errors that can destroy our whole life.

The crux of this issue is, it is bound to have biases of a human being with the lack of their empathy. Data fed by a racially privileged person can encode biases against those considered a minority. Data encoded by a baby boomer may have generational bias, data given to the machine by man may encode his prejudice against women, persons from LGBTQA community etc. And yes, we are coding biases. An extremely small number of world population are playing an instrumental role in gearing us towards a world divided in factions, where the division is manufactured and run by the machines.

The second account of devastation lies in two things. Through a machine engineered life, we step onto an unwanted absolute. This absolute is nothing but our faults. A human makes many errors in life and it was acceptable till date afterall ‘to err is human, to forgive is divine’. We are taking away the second part of the idiom. There remains non room for second chances, forgiveness or redemption in the world we dream of as our future.

We are being watched, continuously and unapologetically. The surveillance devices are taking away our privacy on an hourly basis and feeding data of our faults to construct our profiles that not records our past conducts but predicts our future one’s. The psychology of it is that we are bound to make more mistakes and get into inconvenient, often illegal scenarios due to fear. We’ll be driven by our fear rather than faith with no room for privacy, forgiveness, or for redemption. We are changing the methodology of the world which the generations to come won’t be able to change further. We are stepping into the fearful absolute.

Through these algorithms being constructed in milliseconds, we are carrying forward our mistakes as not just communities, religions, nations, but as species. The racial biases we find in some people are amplified to the universal, the misogyny entrenched is taken forward to our youth and children.  All this more and more automated world. All this for inhuman efficiency! Well by that logic, efficiency makes a system brittle. Efficiency is bound to break the bones of a sense of justice and moral uprightness and the marginal will pay the price. Women terribly considered the ‘second gender’ will bear the brunt of the decision making of these machines. Communities will be invisibilized. Rich will become richer, the poor poorer. The prison system will worsen and will not be equipped to rehabilitate the remand bearer  a place in society. And these are some of the catastrophes we can predict, there lies a plethora that we cannot.

An enlightenment age French thinker, Julien Offray de La Mettrie, once drew a conclusion in his work L’homme Machine. The conclusion was that we need not worry about the ‘soul’, because man is essentially a machine, and his emotional outbursts are physical manifestations. The view was highly criticized and took the age down. We face the same dilemma again, the difference is just that we knowingly want to hand it over to the machines. We are on our way to sacrifice our right to choose to achieve an undreamt-of efficiency. We need to criticize the disguised destruction, and stand for justice.

About the Author

Vanisha Pandia

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