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Research project Decoding Digital Democracy
Today, computer programs with very limited intelligence play numerous roles in our everyday lives: non-player characters (NPCs) in computer games, voice-based phone interfaces (e.g., Apple’s Siri system), and computer programs that have automated a variety of jobs including those of travel agents (travel websites), bank tellers (ATM machines), librarians (search engines), election officials (voting machines) and government officials. Indeed, automated systems have become the primary decision makers of the American legal system taking human decision making out of the process of terminating individuals’ welfare benefits; targeting people for exclusion from air travel; identifying parents believed to owe child support and instructing state agencies to file collection proceedings against those parents; purging voters from the rolls; and, deeming small businesses ineligible for federal contracts. In the language of software design, these automated systems can be referred to as “agents” or “bots.” Everyday life that requires numerous interactions with agents takes place under what I will call the “computational condition.” I propose a project to examine the theories used to design software agents and explore why they pose serious challenges to democracy in the computational condition. Which theories of contemporary software design make it so toxic to the atmospheres of democracy? How can we avoid a future in which democracy, rule by the people, becomes rule by the machines?
Research interests : Media theory; history and philosophy of science and technology; science and technology studies; political theory; software studies; software design; digital studies