Short Read: Data Language Could Solve Data's Problems

An illustration of a computer cursor arrow symbol going through a sewing machine.

How we talk about things matters immensely. Recently Quartz published an insightful article called “The Language We Use to Describe Data Can Also Help Us Fix Its Problems”. Remember when we told you about another article on the misleading power of internet metaphors? This one was similar in addressing the linguistics but also took it to a different level regarding using the actual metaphors to help us address data’s problems.

The authors of this article are an algorithmic-fairness researcher at Microsoft and a data-ethics scholar at the University of Washington. They encouraged readers to not only look at the metaphors themselves but to dig deeper.

More than simply helping us wrap our collective heads around data-fueled technological change, we set out to learn what these metaphors can teach us about the real-life ethics of collecting and handling data today. Instead of only drawing from the norms and commitments of computer science, information science, and statistics, what if we looked at the ethics of the professions evoked by our data metaphors instead?

What do foresters, petroleum engineers, funeral directors and morticians ethical codes have to do with data metaphors and ethics? A lot.

Here are a few of our favorite quotes:

"In the digital realm, the idea of data stewardship should extend to how we think about the responsibilities of those tasked with collecting, storing, and making money off of our personal data."

“But when we look at the stories behind these metaphors, they can teach data scientists a lot about ways forward to being more socially responsible. If data is as toxic as ‘nuclear waste’ that workers must ‘clean’ to make useful, then maybe data scientists should embrace the fact they’re less like rock stars and more like janitors.”

"It’s critical to treat data 'ethics' not as an end, but as a starting point, and limiting conversations about the societal impacts and obligations of data science solely to professional ethics would be a big mistake."

Check out the article in its entirety here. We are so grateful these conversations are being brought out in the open to help our tech become more mindful and conscious!

Feature image by Marly Gallardo.

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