Can Personal Identity Survive Personalization?

Posted on February 7, 2019

Algorithms, especially computer algorithms, are playing a larger role in everyday life. Algorithms work well when they serve as filters that limit data overload and increase relevant search results. Facebook’s algorithms, for example, use a ranking system that examines the inventory of all of the possible stories (posts by the user’s friends, posts by companies the user follows), examines signals given by the user (types of stories that the user likes/shares/blocks), predicts which stories the user is likely to enjoy (share/like), and develops a relevancy score (Mosseri 2018). Stories are then posted on the user’s newsfeed based on that score. This process can be useful since it prevents the user from having to sift through many unrelated and unwanted posts.

I contend, however, that there is a fundamental problem with some computer algorithms: the effect they can have on the development of the individual’s I-for-myself. The I-for-myself is an internal self-definition. It is how our lives feel to us, day to day, on the inside. Our conception of the I-for-myself, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, comes from the initial words of the parents that are internalized by the child as self-definition (1984, 1986, 1990, 1993, 2017). As individuals encounter new people and ideas, this inner definition is used to judge new definitions of the individual given by external others. The inner definition is modified as the individual openly interacts with a world of other selves. When those others lose their personhood, when the individual no longer sees others as individuals but as stereotypes, categories, or images, the individual becomes less trusting of the other and less open to change. Algorithms quicken this shift by flipping the normal equation: the individual interacts with programs that create a snapshot of the individual at a given moment. The (artificial) algorithmic image stands in for the authentic other, “helping” the individual develop her “self” by presenting the individual with articles, stories, or search results that “match” her. Because the development of self requires voices that bring novelty, the algorithmic voice, which brings the individual conformity (material she already has affirmed as part of her “self”), shuts the person off from herself and her development.

Cultivating the Virtue of Immodesty

Posted on August 10, 2018

In June 2018, an opinion piece in The New York Times titled “Women, Own Your ‘Dr.’ Titles” commented on the explosion of the #immodestwoman hashtag following Fern Riddell’s documentation of her experience of adding her title (“Dr.”) to her Twitter handle.[1] The hashtag itself was derived from one of Riddell’s Twitter critics who censured her for being “immodest.” Claiming the criticism as a badge of honor, a host of female Ph.D.’s began to add their titles to their Twitter handles and celebrate this addition under the banner #immodestwoman.

I would like to add my voice to this celebration. Having been raised in a relatively conservative, religious environment, I was taught from a young age about the importance of practicing the virtue of “modesty.” In most cases, this term was used as a synonym for “frumpy clothing for women.” Despite this connection between modesty and clothing, the recent #immodestwoman discussions suggest that modesty in the academic world is likewise disproportionately regarded as a virtue for women to pursue. Drawing on Valerie Saiving’s work on theological articulations of sin, I would argue that virtue should not be defined as abstention from pride but rather that immodesty should be upheld as a virtue for people of all genders.

Academic Knowledge and Democratic Practice: Dewey’s Case for Accessible and Interdisciplinary Education

Posted on March 16, 2018

In the chapter “Search for the Great Community” in The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey establishes a case for interdisciplinary, accessible education to foster forms of public democracy and social unity. According to Dewey, knowledge for democratic practice must be simultaneously interdisciplinary, accessible, and socially applicable.[1] Accessibility, here, is two-fold. First, it means that knowledge should be created in a way that it is understood and applied in many ways. Second, it means that knowledge should be able to be equally grasped by and distributed across the social body that helps create it. This schema ensures that forms of knowledge are publicly generated, owned, and useful in many applications. Based on this description, for knowledge to be useful for democratic practice, it must not be limited to a specific domain, terminology, or institution. Interestingly, knowledge circulated in the modern academy is diametrically opposed to Dewey’s calls. The academy—especially elite, “prestigious” research institutions—produces knowledge that is technical, overly-specialized, and unequally distributed.

The knowledge circulated by academic institutions is mostly inaccessible and oftentimes useless for social application and democratic theorizing or organizing. Conceptual frameworks that situate the world are accessible only to individuals in distinct academic disciplines, who are housed within academic institutions. Dewey argues that “the backwardness of social knowledge is marked in its division and insulated branches of learning. Anthropology, history, sociology, morals, political science, go their own ways without constant and systematized interaction.”[2] Here, knowledge is inherently social, meaning the public helps create it and can equally access it (read: accessible and open), and it is capable of being applied in a breadth of situations (read: interdisciplinary and flexible). Conversely, the knowledge circulated by the academy is factional and specialized rather that interdisciplinary and open.