Can Computers be Feminist? — Comments on a Brown Bag talk by Gillian Smith
Gillian Smith who is an Assistant Professor in Art+Design and Computer Science at Northeastern University, gave this talk entitled Can Computers be Feminist? Procedural Politics and Computational Creativity, as part of the Program on Information Science Brown Bag Series.
In the talk, illustrated through the slides below, Gillian presented a perspective on computing viewed as a co-creation of developer, algorithm, data, and user. And the talk argued that developers embed, through the selection of algorithm and data, specific ethical and epistemic commitments within the software they produce.
In her abstract, Gillian summarizes as follows:
Computers are increasingly taking on the role of a creator—making content for games, participating on twitter, generating paintings and sculptures. These computationally creative systems embody formal models of both the product they are creating and the process they follow. Like that of their human counterparts, the work of algorithmic artists is open to criticism and interpretation, but such analysis requires a framework for discussing the politics embedded in procedural systems. In this talk, I will examine the politics that are (typically implicitly) represented in computational models for creativity, and discuss the possibility for incorporating feminist perspectives into their underlying algorithmic design.
There were a wide range of provocative games, tools, and concepts referenced in the talk that were particularly intriguing, including:
- A strategy game called ThreadSteading, developed by Smith and collaborators at Disney Research Pittsburgh, that is played with cloth tiles, and which, at the end of the game is mechanically sewn into a quilt — transforming strategy (gameplay) to information (the trace of the play, as reflected by the final state of the board) to art.
- A work of computational art, developed by Smith, mapping from one space to another — from color -> emotion -> shape.
- Alice & Kev — a model of a homeless, abusive family created within the Sims, which highlights both what behaviors can emerge from the model of “life” embedded in the sims, and what that model clearly elides.
- Instances of creative software such as TinyGallery and DeepForger, and software frameworks such as Tracery which facilitate generating creative content that blends algorithmic and human choices.
The full range of topics covered are impossible to summarize in a concise summary — I recommend readers follow the links and references in the slides.
The talk raised a number of themes: How software must be understood as a complex interaction among information (data), structure (software), and behavior (use); how games and software embed epistemic and ethical models of the player/user, context, and society; how authorship and labor entwines complex relationships among authors and pay, claim, credit, and work.
Dr Smith’s talk also raised a number of provocative questions (which I paraphrase): How can software support richer identity models incorporating a broad spectrum of gender and sexuality? How can diversity in software authorship be achieved? How do we surface and evaluate the biases implicit in software? And what mechanisms beyond content filtering can we use to mitigate these biases? How do we assign responsibility for software, algorithms, and the resulting outputs? How can we integrate empathy into software, algorithms, and data systems?
Smith’s talk claims that one of the societal goals that art serves is to transmit core values through creating emotion. And I have heard said, and believe, that part of the power of art is its ability to engage us in and communicate to us the true emotional complexity of life.
Although art and information science have different goals, both act as both a mirror and lens to the ethical values and epistemic commitments of the cultures and institutions within they are embedded. Broadly conceived, Smith’s provocations apply also to the development of library software, collections and services. The research the Program on Information Science has connected with these questions at a number of points, and we aspire to engage more generally in the future by furthering our field’s understanding of how library systems can reflect and support diverse perspectives; can shed light on the biases embedded in information systems, services, and collections; and can incorporate within them understandings of emotion, embodiment, and identity.