We need to talk about categories

One of the interesting topics to emerge from the 08.11.21 Stanford Arts event on ‘High-Tech Modernism’ was the topic of categories.

First, Charlton McIlwain raised the discriminatory power of categorisation in pre-digital data systems, and how these harmful uses of categories are perpetuated in new digital systems. As he put it, “the categories precede the algorithm” – meaning that new AI systems latch onto the strident categories already at play in society – such as categories of gender, race, ability, and so on. As such, algorithmic systems are unlikely to lead to wholly different outcomes – such as liberation, or a less oppressive social relations. Instead, algorithms are most likely to support, strengthen, intensify and amplify long-established harms associated with the use of these categories to sort, classify and reach decisions.

Danah Boyd then responded to this point in terms of how we might set about establishing different ways of appropriating data. They raised the need for societies to move beyond categories – eschewing the use of group-based models altogether, and instead finding alternate ways of reflecting on people and their lives. Clearly, this is a huge shift with no clear obvious alternative. However, Boyd raised the idea of at least beginning to encourage the intersectional use of categories – i.e. processing categorical data in ways that show categories as they relate to each other, thereby developing insights into how the patterning of social outcomes is multi-faceted and contingent on intersecting circumstances and forces.