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Histories of Artificial Intelligence: A Genealogy of Power


Reading Group #4 on 'Introduction to Seminar Theme: Disingenuous Rhetoric'

Wednesday 19 August 2020, 15:00–17:00 BST


Co-facilitator: Prof. Joanna Radin (Yale University)

Discussants: Prof. Xiaochang Li (Stanford University), Dr Colin Garvey (Stanford University)

Moderator: Prof. Stephanie Dick (University of Pennsylvania)

Assigned texts


Joanna Radin received her PhD in History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania. Her research examines the social and technical conditions of possibility for the systems of biomedicine and biotechnology that we live with today. She has particular interests in global histories of biology, ecology, medicine, technology, and anthropology since 1945; history and anthropology of life and death; biomedical technology and computing; feminist, indigenous, and queer STS; and science fiction.

She is the author of Life on Ice: A History of New Uses for Cold Blood (Chicago 2017), the first history of the low-temperature biobank and co-editor, with Emma Kowal, of Cyropolitics: Frozen Life in a Melting World (MIT 2017), which considers the technics and ethics of freezing across the life and environmental sciences.


What role has rhetoric played in shaping the imaginaries that surrounded past forms of automation and faux-mechanical-sentience? Who controls the rhetoric around AI, and who benefits from certain framings of these technologies? This session approaches these subjects, and the theme of Disingenuous Rhetoric generally, through two paired readings and two paired presentations. The first pairing, of 'Digital Natives' and 'Indigenous Circuits', looks at the way medical and industrial narratives about computing betray their origins in colonial violence. The second pairing, of 'Designer and Discarded Genomes' and 'Digital Dystopias,' explores the blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction to disrupt certain kinds of gendered/raced assumptions about the promises of technological innovation. In all cases, the rhetoric of better living through technology is exposed to be a product of wilful erasure of non-white, non-male experiences and desires.

Event summary

Prof. Radin made connections between the theme of disingenuous rhetoric and 'background communication', i.e. how people make sense of scientific discourses through various communication methods, including media representations. She identified a period of 'utter transformation' in her earlier career, following the Bush Administration, during which scientists working from nanotechnology to proposed space elevators were being interviewed. Her combined analysis of scientific discovery, public imagination, media representation, and background communications, allowed for the following observations:

  • The freezing of blood samples of indigenous peoples in the 2000s for medical research has disrupted imaginations of indigenous blood and bodies as historicised, as these samples pertain to questions of the future as well as data ownership.
  • Life Science plays a significant role in imagining futures and thus redefining knowledge in relation to computers. A conceptual overlap can be seen in the disciplines of Life Science and Computer Science, for instance, in the discursive shift from discussions of 'race' to statistical 'population' as a means of avoiding racializing typologies (though these typologies were nonetheless reproduced).
  • The need to understand 'surreal science', or the shifting forces of science and arbiters of the truth. Concerns regarding how speculation can be used to shape feelings related to scientific work arises here, with the fear of 'unintended consequences' becoming its own genre of speculation. In relation to this point, Prof. Radin also offered the example of Michael Crichton as a life scientist, futurist, and author of Jurassic Park, comparing him to a late 20th century H. G. Wells.
  • The importance of the histories of materiality, or the recognition that data has real material origins: people, bodies, circumstances.
  • The need to take colonial rhetoric seriously and to see through genealogies of appropriation and labour politics in order to question who is able to make knowledge.

Dr. Li's responses addressed new alliances between computational linguistics and datasets, and potential conceptual reorientations of AI (e.g. changes in key faculties of human reasoning). She offered the following provocations on the question of data:

  1. The need to contextualise what exactly a relevant dataset is seen to be a measure of. She referenced Robert Mercer's concept of 'more data' being the best data, and the ways in which this rhetoric allowed for a scaling up of Big Data.
  2. The problematic of techniques of data collection. She noted that there is a fantasy of being objective or passive to the conditions in which data is collected, and that technique and fantasy become mutually legitimating systems in this context.

Dr. Garvey's responses addressed AI governance, the relationship between political decision making and Herbert Simon's bounded rationality (today referred to as 'computational rationality'), and the erosion of scientific norms such as peer review. He offered the following provocations on the question of disingenuous rhetoric:

  1. That we recognise 'hype' as an industry, but must also address 'our side', i.e. our own contributions to disingenuous rhetoric. He questioned how genuine a rhetoric of ethics is in relation to this.
  2. That the term 'disingenuous' may itself be misguided in relation to the intentions of this theme/conversation: that AI scientists, for instance, may not consider certain rhetoric disingenuous, rather genuinely believe the capacities of the technology to be as they are stating. In this context, he offered the question of whether intentions matter.

Works cited (in the chat)

Data and Materiality

  • Dourish, Paul. The Stuff of Bits: An Essay on the Materialities of Information. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2017.
  • Schaffer, Simon. 'Babbage's Intelligence: Calculating Engines and the Factory System'. Critical Inquiry 21, no. 1 (1994): 203–27.

AI and Rhetoric

Science and Rhetoric

Visibility and Risk

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