On March 10–11, 2022 Data & Society held an online workshop that brought together researchers and advocates from around the world to consider novel algorithmic harms that are underappreciated by current approaches to AI governance, as well as methods that are emerging to better understand, evaluate, and assess those harms. Rather than start from the problems for which developers can most readily identify technical solutions — like privacy and unfairness, which have received the lion’s share of attention in the world of AI governance — the workshop began by looking at the social life of algorithmic harms that travel beyond the boundaries of the technical systems. In addition to interdisciplinary discussions and debates, participants provided feedback for fifteen papers-in-progress that each took a novel approach to the theme.
In his introduction to The Social Life of Things, Arjun Appadurai invites anthropologists to “follow the things themselves for their meanings are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories… [that manifest in] human transactions and calculations that enliven things.” Along similar lines, the workshop’s participants began by following algorithmic systems themselves to see how their meanings manifest in social exchanges and lived consequences. Among the myriad of such meanings, they identified poignant instances that offered a new window into algorithmic harms that have gone largely unnoticed by technologists and other AI professionals — harms inflicted at the intersection of medicine and technology, through applications in child protective services, and as impacts on the natural environment. In mapping the social life of algorithmic harms, workshop participants challenged the notion that algorithmic harms are merely technical problems in need of technical solutions.
In 2023, we began publishing a series of essays that grew out of the workshop, written by participants, on Data & Society’s Points blog. By highlighting novel forms of algorithmic harms and how their implications change as they move through social exchanges, the series seeks to expand our vocabulary of these harms — and with it, our capacity to defend ourselves against them.