Roles for Computing in Social Change

by   Rediet Abebe, et al.

A recent normative turn in computer science has brought concerns about fairness, bias, and accountability to the core of the field. Yet recent scholarship has warned that much of this technical work treats problematic features of the status quo as fixed, and fails to address deeper patterns of injustice and inequality. While acknowledging these critiques, we posit that computational research has valuable roles to play in addressing social problems — roles whose value can be recognized even from a perspective that aspires toward fundamental social change. In this paper, we articulate four such roles, through an analysis that considers the opportunities as well as the significant risks inherent in such work. Computing research can serve as a diagnostic, helping us to understand and measure social problems with precision and clarity. As a formalizer, computing shapes how social problems are explicitly defined — changing how those problems, and possible responses to them, are understood. Computing serves as rebuttal when it illuminates the boundaries of what is possible through technical means. And computing acts as synecdoche when it makes long-standing social problems newly salient in the public eye. We offer these paths forward as modalities that leverage the particular strengths of computational work in the service of social change, without overclaiming computing's capacity to solve social problems on its own.


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