A few refreshing feminist articles—to point out and fix bugs in the game

Most articles on gender issues and feminism regurgitate the same old story and arguments, or are reports on more data and experiments with similar results popping up. Some articles or blog posts do bring something relatively new to the table, or apply a feminist analysis to something else, or explain things in a novel way that resonates better in this day and age. Upfront, to those who think gender issues and feminism is mostly rubbish, please read the parable by John Scalzi about the computer game, which is set at the lowest difficulty setting in the Game of the Real World for the Straight White Male; then read ‘those feminazi articles’ as one of pointing out bugs in the code, and of suggesting bug fixes or of a slight rewriting of the game logic to level the playing field. So, here are a few links to some such articles that otherwise may be snowed-under by the online articles on women in STEM, IT, management etc.

The feminist appraisal of Dirty Dancing over at Jezebel’s blog, or, as another one puts it “It’s the feminist sleeper agent of chick flicks” (and some class issues); after reading this, you won’t see the movie the same anymore. (Yes, I did watch the movie again, and the points made in the articles are valid, which, honestly, had escaped me when I watched it in the 80s.)

The many shortcomings of (old) white men futurology, who have a rather limited set of imaginations (fantasies?) in prognosticating. Maybe people in that (non-STEM) discipline already know about the issues and limitations, but I’m in another field of research, so it was new to me. Obviously, if futurology is a science, then it should not make a difference whether men or women do it, but that’s another discussion.

The Super-exploitation of women by Marlene Dixon on capitalism and patriarchy in cahoots to keep women as their unpaid servants and labour-producers wives. I did search for more recent analyses, but they don’t compare in content and clarity to this one.

I did not manage to find again the recent fine rant on feminist issues in Africa that are, at least in part, different from ‘the [white middle-class] feminism in the West’, but these will do on scope as well: feminism here on the continent driven by African women who really do have lots of agency (e.g., all the way up to presidents/prime ministers and Nobel Peace Prize winners) and where certain types of ‘help’ from the outside is counterproductive for it enforces dependence. An example of a currently hot topic here (and, afaik, never was in Europe) is the need for free sanitary pads for girls whose family cannot afford them, so that they can keep going to school to learn rather than miss out on it for a few days each month.

Finally, a slightly crudely formulated article that discusses a whining “pick-up artist” who is “cockblocked by redistribution” in Denmark, a socialist-like and feminist-friendly country. Squeezed between the chatter are notes on flaws on evolutionary psychology and the criticism on feminism as an individual pursuit (e.g., ‘lean in’) versus as a collective goal. Even the pick-up artist eventually notes “we can’t fulfill basic human rights for all without viewing everyone as equal”.

Reblogging 2011: Essay on the Nonviolent Personality

From the “10 years of keetblog – reblogging: 2011”: of the general interest ones, this was most definitely the one that has taken up most time—not to write the post, but what it talks about: it reports on the Italian->English translation of a booklet “The nonviolent personality”, which took over 2 years to complete. Giuliano Pontara, whom I had the pleasure to finally meet in person in Stockholm last October, wrote the original in Italian. 

Essay on the Nonviolent Personality; March 3


La personalità nonviolenta—the nonviolent personality—is the title of a booklet I stumbled upon in a bookshop in Trento in spring 2004 whilst being in the city for my internship at the Laboratory for Applied Ontology. The title immediately raises the question: what, then, actually does constitute a nonviolent personality? The author of the booklet, Giuliano Pontara, since recently an emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Stockholm, aims to contribute to answer this question that certainly does not have simple answer.

The booklet itself is out of print (having been published in 1996) and, moreover, written in Italian, which most people in the world cannot understand. However, in my opinion at least, Pontara’s proposed answer certainly deserves a wider audience, contemplation, and further investigation. So I set out to translate it into English and put it online for free. That took a while to accomplish, and the last year was certainly the most interesting one with multiple email exchanges with Giuliano Pontara about the finer details of the semantics of the words and sentences in both the Italian original and the English translation. Now here it is: The Nonviolent Personality [pdf, 1.7MB] (low bandwidth version [pdf, 287KB]).

So what is it about? Here is the new back flap summary of the booklet:

At the beginning of the new century, the culture of peace finds itself facing many and difficult challenges. This booklet surveys some of these challenges and the characteristics that a mature culture of peace should have in order to respond to them. Particularly, it investigates what type of person is more apt to be a carrier of such a mature culture of peace: the nonviolent personality. Finally, it addresses the question regarding the factors that in the educative process tend to impede and favour, respectively, the development of moral subjects equipped with a nonviolent personality.

The original Italian version was written by Giuliano Pontara, emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Stockholm, and published in 1996, but its message is certainly not outdated and perhaps even more important in the current climate. Why this is so, and why it is useful to have a more widely accessible version of the booklet available, is motivated in the introduction by Maria Keet, Senior Lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

A slightly longer description

The first chapter of the book, having been written in the mid-nineties, discusses the then-current political situation in the world. Pontara describes the post-Cold War situation, touches upon separatism, nationalism, fundamentalism, exploitation and totalitarian capitalism (among other challenges). This includes the “cow-boy ethics” and the return of the Nazi mentality, the latter not being about Arian supremacy, but the glorification of force (and violence in general) and contempt for ‘the weak’, the might-is-right adagio, and that cow-boy ethics has been elevated to prime principle of conducting international politics. You can analyse and decide yourself if the shoe fits for a particular country’s culture and politics, be it then or now. After this rather gloomy first chapter, the first step toward a positive outlook is described in Chapter 2, which looks at several basic features of a mature culture of peace.

The core of the booklet is Chapter 3, which commences with listing ten characteristics of a nonviolent personality:

  • Rejection of violence
  • The capability to identify violence
  • The capability to have empathy
  • Refusal of authority
  • Trust in others
  • The disposition to communicate
  • Mildness
  • Courage
  • Self-sacrifice
  • Patience

These characteristics are discussed in detail in the remainder of the chapter. Read it if you want to know what is meant with these characteristics, and why.

Chapter 4 considers education at school, at home, and through other influences (such as the TV), describing both the problems in the present systems and what can to be done to change it. For example, educating students to develop a critical moral conscience, analyse, and to be able to think for oneself (as opposed to rote-learning in a degree-factory), not taking a dualistic approach but facilitating creative constructive solutions instead, and creating an atmosphere that prevents the numbing of conscience, the weakness of the senses, consumerism, and conformism of the mass-media. Also some suggestions for class activities are suggested, but note that education does not end there: it is a continuous process in life.

The English writing style may not be perfect (the spelling and grammar checkers do not complain though); either way, it tries to strike a balance between the writing style of the original and readability of the English text. And no, the translation was not done with Google translate or a similar feature, but manually and there are some notes on the translation at the end of the new booklet. Other changes or additions compared to the Italian original are the new foreword by Pontara and introduction by me, an index, bibliography in alphabetical order and several Italian translations in the original have been substituted with the original English reference, and there are biographical sketches. I did the editing and typesetting in Latex, so it looks nice and presentable.

Last, but not least:
Creative Commons License
The Nonviolent Personality by Maria Keet is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Reblogging 2010: South African women on leadership in science, technology and innovation

From the “10 years of keetblog – reblogging: 2010”: while the post’s data are from 5 years ago, there’s still room for improvement. That said, it’s not nearly as bad as in some other countries, like the Netherlands (though the university near my home town improved from 1.6% to 5% women professors over the past 5 years). As for the places I worked post-PhD, the percent female academics with full time permanent contract: FUB-KRDB group 0% (still now), UKZN-CS-Westville: 12.5% (me; 0% now), UCT-CS: 42%.

South African Women on leadership in science, technology and innovation; August 13, 2010


Today I participated in the Annual NACI symposium on the leadership roles of women in science, technology and innovation in Pretoria, which was organized by the National Advisory Council on Innovation, which I will report on further below. As preparation for the symposium, I searched a bit to consult the latest statistics and see if there are any ‘hot topics’ or ‘new approaches’ to improve the situation.

General statistics and their (limited) analyses

The Netherlands used to be at the bottom end of the country league tables on women professors (from my time as elected representative in the university council at Wageningen University, I remember a UN table from ’94 or ‘95 where the Netherlands was third last from all countries). It has not improved much over the years. From Myklebust’s news item [1], I sourced the statistics to Monitor Women Professors 2009 [2] (carried out by SoFoKleS, the Dutch social fund for the knowledge sector): less than 12% of the full professors in the Netherlands are women, with the Universities of Leiden, Amsterdam, and Nijmegen leading the national league table and the testosterone bastion Eindhoven University of Technology closing the ranks with a mere 1.6% (2 out of 127 professors are women). With the baby boom generation lingering on clogging the pipeline since a while, the average percentage increase has been about 0.5% a year—way too low to come even near the EU Lisbon Agreement Recommendation’s target of 25% by 2010, or even the Dutch target of 15%, but this large cohort will retire soon, and, in terms of the report authors, makes for a golden opportunity to move toward gender equality more quickly. The report also has come up with a “Glass Ceiling Index” (GCI, the percentage of women in job category X-1 divided by the percentage of women in job category X) and, implicitly, an “elevator” index for men in academia. In addition to the hard data to back up the claim that the pipeline is leaking at all stages, they note it varies greatly across disciplines (see Table 6.3 of the report): in science, the most severe blockage is from PhD to assistant professor, in Agriculture, Technology, Economics, and Social Sciences it is the step from assistant to associate professor, and for Law, Language & Culture, and ‘miscellaneous’, the biggest hurdle is from associate to full professor. From all GCIs, the highest GCI (2.7) is in Technology in the promotion from assistant to associate professor, whereas there is almost parity at that stage in Language & Culture (GCI of 1.1, the lowest value anywhere in Table 6.3).

“When you’re left out of the club, you know it. When you’re in the club, you don’t see what the problem is.” Prof. Jacqui True, University of Auckland [4]

Elsewhere in ‘the West’, statistics can look better (see, e.g., The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) survey on women 2004-05), or are not great either (UK, see [3], but the numbers are a bit outdated). However, one can wonder about the meaning of such statistics. Take, for instance, the NYT article on a poll about paper rights vs. realities carried out by The Pew Research in 22 countries [4]: in France, some 100% paid their lip service to being in favour of equal rights, yet 75% also said that men had a better life. It is only in Mexico (56%), Indonesia (55%) and Russia (52%) that the people who were surveyed said that women and men have achieved a comparable quality of life. But note that the latter statement is not the same as gender equality. And equal rights and opportunities by law does not magically automatically imply the operational structures are non-discriminatory and an adequate reflection of the composition of society.

A table that has generated much attention and questions over the years—but, as far as I know, no conclusive answers—is the one published in Science Magazine [5] (see figure below). Why is it the case that there are relatively much more women physics professors in countries like Hungary, Portugal, the Philippines and Italy than in, say, Japan, USA, UK, and Germany? Recent guessing for the answer (see blog comments) are as varied as the anecdotes mentioned in the paper.

Physics professors in several countries (Source: 5).

Barinaga’s [5] collection of anecdotes of several influential factors across cultures include: a country’s level of economic development (longer established science propagates the highly patriarchal society of previous centuries), the status of science there (e.g., low and ‘therefore’ open to women), class structure (pecking order: rich men, rich women, poor men, poor women vs. gender structure rich men, poor men, rich women, poor women), educational system (science and mathematics compulsory subjects at school, all-girls schools), and the presence or absence of support systems for combining work and family life (integrated society and/or socialist vs. ‘Protestant work ethic’), but the anecdotes “cannot purport to support any particular conclusion or viewpoint”. It also notes that “Social attitudes and policies toward child care, flexible work schedules, and the role of men in families dramatically color women’s experiences in science”. More details on statistics of women in science in Latin America can be found in [6] and [7], which look a lot better than those of Europe.

Barbie the computer engineer

Bonder, in her analysis for Latin America [7], has an interesting table (cuadro 4) on the changing landscape for trying to improve the situation: data is one thing, but how to struggle, which approaches, advertisements, and policies have been, can, or should be used to increase women participation in science and technology? Her list is certainly more enlightening than the lame “We need more TV shows with women forensic and other scientists. We need female doctor and scientist dolls.” (says Lotte Bailyn, a professor at MIT) or “Across the developed world, academia and industry are trying, together or individually, to lure women into technical professions with mentoring programs, science camps and child care.” [8] that only very partially addresses the issues described in [5]. Bonder notes shifts in approaches from focusing only on women/girls to both sexes, from change in attitude to change in structure, from change of women (taking men as the norm) to change in power structures, from focusing on formal opportunities to targeting to change the real opportunities in discriminatory structures, from making visible non-traditional role models to making visible the values, interests, and perspectives of women, and from the simplistic gender dimension to the broader articulation of gender with race, class, and ethnicity.

The NACI symposium

The organizers of the Annual NACI symposium on the leadership roles of women in science, technology and innovation provided several flyers and booklets with data about women and men in academia and industry, so let us start with those. Page 24 of Facing the facts: Women’s participation in Science, Engineering and Technology [9] shows the figures for women by occupation: 19% full professor, 30% associate professor, 40% senior lecturer, 51% lecturer, and 56% junior lecturer, which are in a race distribution of 19% African, 7% Coloured, 4% Indian, and 70% White. The high percentage of women participation (compared to, say, the Netherlands, as mentioned above) is somewhat overshadowed by the statistics on research output among South African women (p29, p31): female publishing scientists are just over 30% and women contributed only 25% of all article outputs. That low percentage clearly has to do with the lopsided distribution of women on the lower end of the scale, with many junior lecturers who conduct much less research because they have a disproportionate heavy teaching load (a recurring topic during the breakout session). Concerning distribution of grant holders in 2005, in the Natural & agricultural sciences, about 24% of the total grants (211 out of 872) have been awarded to women and in engineering & technology it is 11% (24 out of 209 grants) (p38). However, in Natural & agricultural sciences, women make up 19% and in engineering and technology 3%, which, taken together with the grant percentages, show there is a disproportionate amount of women obtaining grants in recent years. This leads one to suggest that the ones that actually do make it to the advanced research stage are at least equally as good, if not better, than their male counterparts. Last year, women researchers (PIs) received more than half of the grants and more than half of the available funds (table in the ppt presentation of Maharaj, which will be made available online soon).

Mrs Naledi Pandor, the Minister for Science and Technology, held the opening speech of the event, which was a good and entertaining presentation. She talked about the lack of qualified PhD supervisors to open more PhD positions, where the latter is desired so as to move to the post-industrial, knowledge-based economy, which, in theory at least, should make it easier for women to participate than in an industrial economy. She also mentioned that one should not look at just the numbers, but instead at the institutional landscape so as to increase opportunities for women. Last, she summarized the “principles and good practice guidelines for enhancing the participation of women in the SET sector”, which are threefold: (1) sectoral policy guidelines, such as gender mainstreaming, transparent recruiting policies, and health and safety at the workplace, (2) workplace guidelines, such as flexible working arrangements, remuneration equality, mentoring, and improving communication lines, and (3) re-entry into the Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) environment, such as catch-up courses, financing fellowships, and remaining in contact during a career break.

Dr. Thema, former director of international cooperation at the Department of Science and Technology added the issues of the excessive focus on administrative practicalities, the apartheid legacy and frozen demographics, and noted that where there is no women’s empowerment, this is in violation of the constitution. My apologies if I have written her name and details wrongly: she was a last-minute replacement for Prof. Immaculada Garcia Fernández, department of computer science at the University of Malaga, Spain. Garcia Fernández did make available her slides, which focused on international perspectives on women leadership in STI. Among many points, she notes that the working conditions for researchers “should aim to provide… both women and men researchers to combine work and family, children and career” and “Particular attention should be paid, to flexible working hours, part-time working, tele-working and sabbatical leave, as well as to the necessary financial and administrative provisions governing such arrangements”. She poses the question “The choice between family and profession, is that a gender issue?”

Dr. Romilla Maharaj, executive director for human and institutional capacity development at the National Research Foundation came with much data from the same booklet I mentioned in the first paragraph, but little qualitative analysis of this data (there is some qualitative information). She wants to move from the notion of “incentives” for women to “compensation”. The aim is to increase the number of PhDs five-fold by 2018 (currently the rate is about 1200 each year), which is not going to be easy (recollect the comment by the Minister, above). Concerning policies targeted at women participation, they appear to be successful for white women only (in postdoc bursaries, white women even outnumber white men). In my opinion, this smells more of a class/race structure issue than a gender issue, as mentioned above and in [5]. Last, the focus of improvements, according to Maharaj, should be on institutional improvements. However, during the break-out session in the afternoon, which she chaired, she seemed to be selectively deaf on this issue. The problem statement for the discussion was the low research output by women scientists compared to men, and how to resolve that. Many participants reiterated the lack of research time due to the disproportionate heavy teaching load (compared to men) and what is known as ‘death by committee’, and the disproportionate amount of (junior) lecturers who are counted in the statistics as scientists but, in praxis, do not do (or very little) research, thereby pulling down the overall statistics for women’s research output. Another participant wanted to se a further breakdown of the numbers by age group, as the suspicion was that it is old white men who produce most papers (who teach less, have more funds, supervise more PhD students etc.) (UPDATE 13-10-’10: I found some data that seems to support this). In addition, someone pointed out that counting publications is one thing, but considering their impact (by citations) is another one and for which no data was available, so that a recommendation was made to investigate this further as well (and to set up a gender research institute, which apparently does not yet exist in South Africa). The pay-per-publication scheme implemented at some universities could thus backfire for women (who require the time and funds to do research in the first place so as to get at least a chance to publish good papers). Maharaj’s own summary of the break-out session was an “I see, you want more funds”, but that does not rhyme fully with he institutional change she mentioned earlier nor with the multi-faceted problems raised during the break-out session that did reveal institutional hurdles.

Prof. Catherine Odora Hoppers, DST/NRF South African Research Chair in Development Education (among many things), gave an excellent speech with provoking statements (or: calling a spade a spade). She noted that going into SET means entering an arena of bad practice and intolerance; to fix that, one first has to understand how bad culture reproduces itself. The problem is not the access, she said, but the terms and conditions. In addition, and as several other speakers already had alluded to as well, she noted that one has to deal with the ghosts of the past. She put this in a wider context of the history of science with the value system it propagates (Francis Bacon, my one-line summary of the lengthy quote: science as a means to conquer nature so that man can master and control it), and the ethics of SET: SET outcomes have, and have had, some dark results, where she used the examples of the atom bomb, gas chambers, how SET was abused by the white male belittling the native and that it has been used against the majority of people in South Africa, and climate change. She sees the need for a “broader SET”, meaning ethical, and, (in my shorthand notation) with social responsibility and sustainability as essential components. She is putting this into practice by stimulating transdisciplinary research at her research group, and, at least and as a first step: people from different disciplines must to be able to talk to each other and understand each other.

To me, as an outsider, it was very interesting to hear what the current state of affairs is regarding women in SET in South Africa. While there were complaints, there we also suggestions for solutions, and it was clear from the data available that some improvements have been made over the years, albeit only in certain pockets. More people registered for the symposium than places available, and with some 120 attendees from academia and industry at all stages of the respective career paths, it was a stimulating mix of input that I hope will further improve the situation on the ground.


[1] Jan Petter Myklebust. THE NETHERLANDS: Too few women are professors. University World News, 17 January 2010, Issue: 107.

[2] Marinel Gerritsen, Thea Verdonk, and Akke Visser. Monitor Women Professors 2009. SoFoKleS, September 2009.

[3] Helen Hague. 9.2% of professors are women. Times Higher Education, May 28, 1999.

[4] Victoria Shannon. Equal rights for women? Surveys says: yes, but…. New York Times/International Herald Tribune—The female factor, June 30, 2010.

[5] Marcia Barinaga. Overview: Surprises Across the Cultural Divide. Compiled in: Comparisons across cultures. Women in science 1994. Science, 11 March 1994 263: 1467-1496 [DOI: 10.1126/science.8128232]

[6] Beverley A. Carlson. Mujeres en la estadística: la profesión habla. Red de Reestructuración y Competitividad, CEPAL – SERIE Desarrollo productivo, nr 89. Santiago de Chile, Noviembre 2000.

[7] Gloria Bonder. Mujer y Educación en América Latina: hacia la igualdad de oportunidades. Revista Iberoamericana de Educación, Número 6: Género y Educación, Septiembre – Diciembre 1994.

[8] Katrin Benhold. Risk and Opportunity for Women in 21st Century. New York Times International Herald Tribune—The female factor, March 5, 2010.

[9] Anon. Facing the facts: Women’s participation in Science, Engineering and Technology. National Advisory Council on Innovation, August 2009.

Yes, the protests reduce productivity of academics as well…

…and no, we’re not worried that we won’t get our bonus this year because as academics we don’t get any bonuses anyway. Just to answer two recent ‘interesting’ questions in these times of nation-wide student protests in South Africa. With everything that’s been going on here, writing a report on attending the 34th International Conference on Conceptual Modelling (ER’15) ended up lower on the list of activities, and by now it’s almost a month ago, so I’ll let that slip by, despite that it was great and deserves attention. At the time I was in Stockholm for ER’15 and afterward a week at FUB in Bolzano (Italy), nation-wide coordinated student protests were going on, and still are albeit with fewer participants. As most people who heard of it at ER, in Bolzano, and collaborators only saw a brief international news item of the violence—police using stun grenades, rubber bullets—and assumed they were some typical run-of-the-mill student protests that happen also in other countries: I think this one is different from others, and more complex. Fundamentally, the protests are about the (mostly) young generation expressing that post-apartheid South Africa hasn’t improved nearly enough—neither the societal nor the educational nor the economic dimension—and demanding a better deal. So, here’s a coloured version of some of it, mainly intended for a non-South African readership to get a bit of an idea what’s going on and put some figures into perspective w.r.t. what I assume most of you are more familiar with. I could try to put up the pretence of objectivity, but I’m probably not. Some useful sources are news24, for quick short updates of events as they unfold, and Groundup, for some in-depth articles.


Main concrete issues

Over the past years, government funding of universities has been diminishing, with the shortfall being made up by yearly fees increases, which is an unsustainable financial model and it increasingly excludes more and more qualifying students to study at a university, especially since the student financial aid scheme hasn’t kept up and the fees increases are higher than inflation rate and wage increases that are 4-7% per year. The scheduled 10% for next year was the last straw. After the first week of protests, they managed to get a commitment from Zuma on Oct 23 for 0% fees increase for next year. While this is more than we achieved back in the ’90 in the Netherlands when we were protesting against fees increases (among other things), at that time, anyone who qualified still could get just about sufficient funds to attend university for 5 years to get a (Bachelors +) Masters degree (without it, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the university either). The latter is not the case here, not even close: the scholarship (‘studiebeurs’ in NL) then there amounts to about 100000 Rand a year here now, then with the average monthly salary of 17000K gross, that’s about half a parent’s net income/year for one year of study. But the average wage is not the kind of amount that leaves extras for saving. Apparently, for a nuclear-family household, one needs a sustained income of at least 500000/year to have enough to save over the years to pay for going to university—yes, at least twice the ‘jan modaal’/average income to be able to afford it. With South Africa having a shameful Gini coefficient of 0.71, go figure how many are in that category.

This was only the first core demand. Here, as in many universities across the world, there has been a drive for outsourcing of certain types of work—cleaning, garden maintenance and the like—in a drive for pushing down overhead costs. This might have looked good on the balance sheets at the time when the decisions were made, but the ‘collateral damage’ was that the outsourced workers did not get the benefits anymore that they had as employees of the university. Notably, the fee rebate for themselves and their family members. So, this is a double whammy for workers, making it even harder for their kids to go to university, for having to pay the full fee and for generally being on the really low pay scales that make attending university totally unaffordable and out of reach. At various points in or at the end of the second week of the protests, several universities (including UCT) committed to insourcing: when the contracts with the outsourcing companies terminate, they’ll become university employees again, with the fee rebate benefits.

That’s not all. A dastardly practice that cash-strapped universities resort to in a desperate attempt to get the unpaid or only partially paid fees from students (down to the last cent), is that when students still have outstanding fees to pay, they won’t get their final exam results and won’t be allowed to graduate. But that having-completed-the-degree-but-no-parchment-to-show-for limbo is precisely preventing students to get decent-paying jobs, or even a job at all, making it harder to pay up the remaining debt; double whammy here as well. Hence, the demand of clearing such historical debt, or at least to let them graduate, so they can get a job and start paying back soon (2? 3? 5? years) thereafter. The latter is quite common in other countries, including the country where I studied. (Had they not have that pay-back-later system, many a door would have remained closed to me as well (I had to borrow money for 4 months because of delays due to a serious sports injury near the end of my studies—after the 5 years funded, see above)). This issue is mostly still unresolved in South Africa. To relate to elsewhere: there’s many a sob story about graduates in the USA with “crippling college debts”, but what’s really crippling for one’s career is being stuck with the debt but not having the proof of the degree even though you satisfied its requirements. There’s some 25-30% unemployment rate in South Africa, and a degree paper really does make a difference.


Fair play to them, and I hope they achieve the demands. I would be very hypocritical if I were to not support them, as I have benefited from those things they want to have, and I wish that all countries would have the system we had back in the 1990s. True, I was then at one of the fronts of protests against the breakdown of it, and what we had certainly was not perfect. However, compared to what it has descended into in the Netherlands and other EU countries, and the lamentable state of the funding systems (well: the lack thereof) in most countries of the world, it almost sounds like an education paradise nowadays: finish highest level of (fee-free) secondary school, sign up for a degree at a university of your preference[1], get enough funding for 5 years that covers fees, books, living expenses, and free public transport (condition: >=25% courses passed/year). It should be at least like that, if not better, everywhere.


Other issues intersecting with it

It is not just about access to higher education, though. Once in, there’s still the so-called ‘legacy of apartheid’ to put up with, which many a student wants to see changed. This sneer-quoted term surely includes the racism, which is, perhaps, the only thing non-SA readers from my generation and older may think of. Perhaps less obvious are the issues of the “dead white men”-infested curricula, especially in the humanities, or, to phrase it positively: how to change a Euro-centric curriculum to one that is more relevant to Africa? There are notable African writers, philosophers, etc etc., but they don’t feature much now.

There’s the oppressive space and naming of buildings, with the #RhodesMustFall movement but one instance of trying to change this (tl;dr: Cecil Rhodes was an über-badass among the badass colonisers, yet having a statue in a central place on campus, which has been removed earlier this year).

Government funding post-1994 has focussed primarily on making the lives of the poorest-of-the-poor less hard, by building houses, working on providing potable water, electricity, and the like. Poor students somehow were not allowed to complain, for having the privilege of going to university. However, really scraping by is hard. That’s not of the type ‘just about enough’ I mentioned above, where we could afford cheap food, clothing, and housing—the basic necessities in Maslov’s pyramid. For instance, at the university I worked before (UKZN), a call to employees was put out in exam time at the end of the year to donate money so that the destitute students would be able to get a meal/day in exam time, as the alternative for them was no food at all. It was also not unusual that students were locked out of residence for not having paid (an unlocked lecture hall serving as make-shift sleeping place). The current protests created a space where such hardships were allowed to be voiced.

Then there’s the crazy police violence. It was not part of the original narrative for the protests, but it has become part of it. Universities here have a tendency to call in the police when there are protests. Once they’re in, they take over. Unpredictable horses and ‘refreshing’ water cannons is one thing (I know of those), and even tear gas (experienced that too), but rubber bullets (!) and the (wtf!) stun grenades, that’s of a yet different level of dastardliness. To add insult to injury, the police spokesperson even declared to be proud/satisfied that the police had acted with restraint. Compared to the massacre that Marikana was (police killed 34 strikers), I guess so, yes, but that certainly ought not to be the yardstick to measure up against. Although there are reports that some more recent protests did not remain peaceful from the protester-side, they were in the early days when the police provoked with the violence. On a related note: I heard that during the protests, academics on the frontline couldn’t stop the police from charging, but a ‘buffer’ of white students could make them hesitate at least. I’ll leave that fact for you to chew on.

This is not all, but, for now, it’ll have to do for this item, lest the blog post ends up way to long.


On the academics side

On the whole, I have the impression that the majority of academics have been supportive of the initial students demands, if not from day one then in hindsight. There have been supportive open letters signed by lots of academics, and a bunch joined in the protests. I cannot recall many supportive statements explicitly from staff/academics unions, however, but this may also be due to news reporting, or perhaps there’s room for a more progressive union. Some are pushed out of their comfort zone and feel it’s a bit scary but ok actually, other desperately want to remain in their comfy bubble and are afraid. Some academics are yelled at for being just too melanin-deficient that they could not possibly support the cause (even when they actually do), but are perceived to be part of the problem; this kind of over-generalising isn’t the way to get more academics on board to support the students’ cause. There’s the term coconut (black on the outside, white on the inside); what would the reverse be? The ‘schoolkrijt’ liquorice sweets they sell at Pick ‘n Pay (white on the outside, some brown-ish mixture on the inside)? Or, better, just human.

UCT was closed for two weeks due to the protests, which was a management decision that most academics did not like. Not for disruption of the daily routine, but for the notion of closing that space where ideas are posed, discussed, analysed, debated, contested, and possibly some solutions found.

It is not at all clear whether admin staff and academics will have to cough up the shortfall due to government’s insufficient compensation of the 0% and the insourcing, so there may be an aftermath match there. The tl;dr of many articles: education is a public good, not an individualist benefit, so society should pay, and a university is not a corporation.

At the same time, we’re devising a range of scenarios to cope with changing situations (like how to handle exam disruption), inform students, adjust things (e.g., rescheduling of revision lectures, the content of the actual exam papers, setting an extra exam) and so on. This takes time away from research and from other activities academics do. Which brings me back to the post’s title: yes, our work is affected in that we don’t get as much done as we usually do, and things slip through (deadline missed, belated response to a student query). In the grand scheme of things, they are minor compared to your (from abroad) typesetted-paper-chasing/article-review-invitation/…, and I hope you can bear with the occasional slight delay in my response (for the benefit of SA).

[1] provided you chose the right exam subjects—e.g., to study computer science, you need maths, to study physics you needed physics as subject in your high school exam—and with only medicine, physio, and dentistry were numerus fixus.

Reblogging 2009: Building bias into your database

From the “10 years of keetblog – reblogging: 2009”: The tl;dr of it: bad data management -> bad policy decisions, and how you can embed political preferences and prejudices in a conceptual data model.

While the post has a computing flavor to it especially on the database design and a touch of ontologies, it is surely also of general interest, because it gives some insight into the management of data that is used for policy-making in and for conflict zones. A nicer version of this blog post and the one after that made it into a paper-review article “Dirty wars, databases, and indices” in the Peace & Conflict Review journal (Fall 2009 issue) of the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica.

Building bias into your database; Jan 7, 2009

 p.s.: while I intended to write a post on attending the ER’15 conferences, the exciting times with the student protests in South Africa put that plan on the backburner for a few more days at least.


For developing bio-ontologies, if one follows Barry Smith and cs., then one is solely concerned with the representation of reality; moreover, it has been noted that ontologies can, or should be, seen as a representation of a scientific theory [1] or at least that they are an important part of doing science [2]. In that case, life is easy, not hard, for we have the established method of scientific inquiry to settle disputes (among others, by doing additional lab experiments to figure out more about reality). Domain- and application ontologies, as well as conceptual data models, for the enterprise universe of discourse require, at times, a consensus-based approach where some parts of the represented information are the outcome of negotiations and agreements among the stakeholders.

Going one step further on the sliding scale: for databases and application software for the humanities, and conflict databases in particular, one makes an ontology or conceptual data model conforming to one’s own (or the funding organisation’s) political convictions and with the desired conclusions in mind. Building data vaults seems to be the intended norm rather than the exception, hence, maintenance and usage and data analysis beyond the developers limited intentions, let alone integration, are a nightmare.

 In this post, I will outline some suggestions for building your own politicized representation—be it an ontology or conceptual data model—for armed conflict data, such as terrorist incidents, civil war, and inter-state war. I will discuss in the next post a few examples of conflict data analysis, both regarding extant databases and the ‘dirty war index’ application built on top of them. A later post may deal with a solution to the problems, but for now, it would already be a great help not to adhere to the tips below.

Tips for biasing the representation

In random order, you could do any of the following to pollute the model and hamper data analysis so as to ensure your data is scientifically unreliable but suitable to serve your political agenda.

1. Have a fairly flat taxonomy of types of parties; in fact, just two subtypes suffice: US and THEM, although one could subtype the latter into ‘they’, ‘with them’, and ‘for them’. The analogue, with ‘we’, ‘with us’, and ‘for us’ is too risky for potential of contagion of responsibility of atrocities and therefore not advisable to include; if you want to record any of it, then it is better to introduce types such as ‘unknown perpetrator’ or ‘not officially claimed event’ or ‘independent actor’.

2. Aggregate creatively. For instance, if some of the funding for your database comes from a building construction or civil engineering company, refine that section of target types, or include new target types only when you feel like it is targeted sufficiently often by the opponent to warrant a whole new tuple or table from then onwards. Likewise, some funding agencies would like to see a more detailed breakdown of types of victims by types of violence, some don’t. Last, be careful with the typology of arms used, in particular when your country is producing them; a category like ‘DIY explosive device’ helps masking the producer.

3. Under-/over-represent geography. Play with granularity (by city/village, region, country, continent) and categorization criteria (state borders, language, former chiefdoms, parishes, and so forth), e.g., include (or not) notions such as ‘occupied territory’ (related to the actors) and `liberated region’ or `autonomous zone’, or that an area may, or may not, be categorized or named differently at the same time. Above all, make the modelling decisions in an inconsistent way, so that no single dimension can be analysed properly.

4. Make an a-temporal model and pretend not to change it, but (a) allow non-traceable object migration so that defecting parties who used to be with US (see point 1) can be safely re-categorised as THEM, and (b) refine the hierarchy over time anyway so as to generate time-inconsistency for target types (see point 2) and geography (see point 3), in order to avoid time series analyses and prevent discovering possible patterns.

5. Have a minimal amount of classes for bibliographic information, lest someone would want to verify the primary/secondary sources that report on numbers of casualties and discovers you only included media reports from the government-censored newspapers (or the proxy-funding agency, or the rebel radio station, or the guerrilla pamphlets).

6. Keep natural language definitions for key concepts in a separate file, if recorded at all. This allows for time-inconsistency in operational definitions as well as ignorance of the data entry clerks so that each one can have his own ideas about where in the database the conflict data should go.

7. Minimize the use of database integrity constraints, hence, minimize representing constraints in the ontology to begin with, hence, use a very simple modelling language so you can blame the language for not representing the subject domain adequately.

I’m not saying all conflict databases use all of these tricks; but some use at least most of them, which ruins credibility of those database of which the analysts actually did try to avoid these pitfalls (assuming there are such databases, that is). Optimism wants me to believe developers did not think of all those issues when designing the database. However, there is a tendency that each conflict researcher compiles his own data set and that each database is built from scratch.

For the current scope, I will set aside the problems with data collection and how to arrive at guesstimated semi-reliable approximations of deaths, severe injuries, rape, torture victims and so forth (see e.g. [3] and appendix B of [4]). Inherent problems with data collection is one thing and difficult to fix, bad modelling and dubious or partial data analysis is a whole different thing and doable to fix. I elaborate on latter claim in the next post.


[1] Barry Smith. Ontology (Science). In: C. Eschenbach and M. Gruninger (eds.), Formal Ontology in Information Systems. Proceedings of FOIS 2008. preprint

[2] Keet, C.M. Factors affecting ontology development in ecology. Data Integration in the Life Sciences 2005 (DILS’05), Ludaescher, B, Raschid, L. (eds.). San Diego, USA, 20-22 July 2005. Lecture Notes in Bioinformatics LNBI 3615, Springer Verlag, 2005. pp46-62.

[3] Taback N (2008 ) The Dirty War Index: Statistical issues, feasibility, and interpretation. PLoS Med 5(12): e248. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050248.

[4] Weinstein, Jeremy M. (2007). Inside rebellion—the politics of insurgent violence. Cambridge University Press. 402p.

Even more short reviews of books I’ve read in 2014

I’m not sure whether I’ll make it a permanent fixture for years to come, but, for now, here’s another set of book suggestions, following those on books on (South) Africa from 2011, some more and also general read in 2012, and even more fiction & non-fiction book suggestions from 2013. If nothing else, it’s actually a nice way to myself to recall the books’ contents and decide which ones are worthwhile mentioning here, for better or worse. To summarise the books I’ve read in 2014 in a little animated gif:

(saved last year from daskapital.nl)

(saved last year from daskapital.nl)

Let me start with fiction books this time, which includes two books/authors suggested by blog readers. (note: most book and author hyperlinks are to online bookstores and wikipedia or similar, unless I could find their home page)


Stoner by John Williams (1965). This was a recommendation by a old friend (more precisely on the ‘old’: she’s about as young as I am, but we go way back to kindergarten), and the book was great. If you haven’t heard about it yet: it tells the life of a professor coming from a humble background and dying in relative anonymity, in a way of the ups and downs of the life of an average ‘Joe Soap’, without any heroic achievements (assuming that you don’t count becoming a professor one). That may sound dull, perhaps, but it isn’t, not least in the way it is narrated, which gives a certain beauty to the mundane. I’ll admit I have read it in its Dutch translation, even in dwarsligger format (which appeared to be a useful invention), as I couldn’t find the book in the shops here, but better in translated form than not having read it at all. There’s more information over at wikipedia, the NYT’s review, the Guardian’s review, and many other places.

Not a fairy tale by Shaida Kazie Ali (2010). The book is fairly short, but many things happen nevertheless in this fast-paced story of two sisters who grow up in Cape Town in a Muslim-Indian family. The sisters have very different characters—one demure, the other willful and more adventurous—and both life stories are told in short chapters that cover the main events in their lives, including several same events from each one’s vantage point. As the title says, it’s not a fairy tale, and certainly the events are not all happy ones. Notwithstanding its occasional grim undertones, to me, it is told in a way to give a fascinating ‘peek into the kitchen’ of how people live in this society across the decennia. Sure, it is a work of fiction, but there are enough recognizable aspects that give the impression that it could have been pieced together from actual events from different lives. The story is interspersed with recipes—burfi, dhania chutney, coke float, falooda milkshake, masala tea, and more—which gives the book a reminiscence of como agua para chocolate. I haven’t tried them all, but if nothing else, now at least I know what a packet labelled ‘falooda’ is when I’m in the supermarket.

No time like the present, by Nadine Gordimer (2012). Not necessarily this particular book, but ‘well, anything by Gordimer’ was recommended. There were so few of Gordimer’s books in the shops here, that I had to go abroad to encounter a selection, including this recent one. I should have read some online reviews of it first, rather than spoiling myself with such an impulse buy, though. This book is so bad that I didn’t even finish it, nor do I want to finish reading it. While the storyline did sound interesting enough—about a ‘mixed race couple’ from the struggle times transitioning into the present-day South Africa, and how they come to terms with trying to live normal lives—the English was so bad it’s unbelievable this has made it through any editorial checks by the publisher. It’s replete with grammatically incoherent and incomplete sentences that makes it just unreadable. (There are other reviews online that are less negative)

The time machine, by HG Wells (1895). It is the first work of fiction that considers time travel, the possible time anomalies when time travelling, and to ponder what a future society may be like from the viewpoint of the traveller. It’s one of those sweet little books that are short but has a lot of story in it. Anyone who likes this genre ought to read this book.

One thousand and one nights, by Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011). Yes, what you may expect from the title. The beginning and end are about how Scheherazade (Shahrazad) ended up telling stories to King Shahrayar all night, and the largest part of the book is devoted to story within a story within another story etc., weaving a complex web of tales from across the Arab empire so that the king would spare her for another day, wishing to know how the story ends. The stories are lovely and captivating, and also I kept on reading, indeed wanting to know how the stories end.

Karma Suture, by Rosamund Kendall (2008). Because I liked the Angina Monologues by the same author (earlier review), I’ve even read that book for a second time already, and Karma Suture is also about medics in South Africa’s hospitals, I thought this one would be likable, too. The protagonist is a young medical doctor in a Cape Town hospital who lost the will to do that work and needs to find her vibe. The story was a bit depressing, but maybe that’s what 20-something South African women go through.

God’s spy by Juan Gómez-Jurado (2007) (espía de dios; spanish original). A ‘holiday book’ that’s fun, if that can be an appropriate adjective for a story about a serial killer murdering cardinals before the conclave after Pope John Paul’s death. It has recognizable Italian scenes, the human interaction component is worked out reasonably well, it has good twists and turns and suspense-building required for a crime novel, and an plot you won’t expect. (also on goodreads—it was a bestseller in Spain)


This year’s non-fiction selection is as short as the other years, but I have less to say about them cf. last year.

David and Goliath—Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants, by Malcolm Gladwell (2013). What to say: yay! another book by Gladwell, and, like the others I read by Gladwell (Outliers, The tipping point), also this one is good. Gladwell takes a closer look at how seemingly underdogs are victorious against formidable opponents. Also in this case, there’s more to it than meets the eye (or some stupid USA Hollywood movie storyline of ‘winning against the odds’), such as playing by different rules/strategy than the seemingly formidable opponent does. The book is divided into three parts, on the advantages of disadvantages, the theory of desirable difficulty, and the limits of power, and, as with the other books, explores various narratives and facts. One of those remarkable observations is that, for universities in the USA at least, a good student is better off at a good university than at a top university. This for pure psychological reasons—it feels better to be the top of an average/good class than the average mutt in a top class—and that the top of a class gets more attention for nice side activities, so that the good student at a good (vs top) university gets more useful learning opportunities than s/he would have gotten at a top university. Taking another example from education: a ‘big’ class at school (well, just some 30) is better than a small (15) one, for it give more “allies in the adventures of learning”.

The dictator’s learning curve by William J. Dobson (2013), or: some suggestions for today’s anti-government activists. It’s mediocre, one of those books where the cover makes it sound more interesting than it is. The claimed thesis is that dictators have become more sophisticated in oppression by giving it a democratic veneer. This may be true at least in part, and in the sense there is a continuum from autocracy (tyranny, as Dobson labels it in the subtitle) to democracy. To highlight that notion has some value. However, it’s written from a very USA-centric viewpoint, so essentially it’s just highbrow propaganda for dubious USA foreign policy with its covert interventions not to be nice to countries such as Russia, China, and Venezuela—and to ‘justifiably’ undercut whatever plans they have through supporting opposition activists. Interwoven in the dictator’s learning curve storyline is his personal account of experiencing that there is more information sharing—and how—about strategy and tactics among activists across countries on how to foment dissent for another colour/flower-revolution. I was expecting some depth about autocracy-democracy spiced up with pop-politics and events, but it did not live up to that expectation. A more academic, and less ideologically tainted, treatise on the continuum autocracy-democracy would have been a more useful way of spending my time. You may find the longer PS Mag review useful before/instead of buying the book.

Umkhonto weSizewe (pocket history) by Janet Cherry (2011). There are more voluminous books about the armed organisation of the struggle against Apartheid, but this booklet was a useful introduction to it. It describes the various ‘stages’ of MK, from deciding to take up arms to the end to lay them down, and the successes and challenges that were faced and sacrifices made as an organisation and by its members.

I’m still not finished reading Orientalism by Edward Said—some day, I will, and will write about it. If you want to know about it now already, then go to your favourite search engine and have a look at the many reviews and (academic and non-academic) analyses. Reading A dream deferred (another suggestion) is still in the planning.

Moral responsibility in the Computing era (SEP entry)

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy intermittently has new entries that have to do with computing, like on the philosophy of computer science about which I blogged before, ethics of, among others, Internet research, and now Computing and Moral Responsibility by Merel Noorman [1]. The remainder of this post is about the latter entry that was added on July 18, 2012. Overall, the entry is fine, but I had expected more from it, which may well be due to that the ‘computing and moral responsibility’ topic needs some more work to mature and then maybe will give me the answers I was hoping to find already.

Computing—be this the hardware, firmware, software, or IT themes—interferes with the general notion of moral responsibility, hence, affects every ICT user at least to some extent, and the computer scientists, programmers etc who develop the artifacts may themselves be morally responsible, and perhaps even the produced artifacts, too. This area of philosophical inquiry deals with questions such as “Who is accountable when electronic records are lost or when they contain errors? To what extent and for what period of time are developers of computer technologies accountable for untoward consequences of their products? And as computer technologies become more complex and behave increasingly autonomous can or should humans still be held responsible for the behavior of these technologies?”. To this end, the entry has three main sections, covering moral responsibility, the question whether computers can be more agents, and the notion of (and the need for) rethinking the concept of moral responsibility.

First, it reiterates the general stuff about moral responsibility without the computing dimension, like that it has to do with the actions of humans and its consequences: “generally speaking, a person or group of people is morally responsible when their voluntary actions have morally significant outcomes that would make it appropriate to praise or blame them”, where the SEP entry dwells primarily on the blaming. Philosophers roughly agree that the following three conditions have to be met regarding being morally responsible (copied from the entry):

 1. There should be a causal connection between the person and the outcome of actions. A person is usually only held responsible if she had some control over the outcome of events.

2. The subject has to have knowledge of and be able to consider the possible consequences of her actions. We tend to excuse someone from blame if they could not have known that their actions would lead to a harmful event.

3. The subject has to be able to freely choose to act in certain way. That is, it does not make sense to hold someone responsible for a harmful event if her actions were completely determined by outside forces.

But how are these to be applied? Few case examples of the difficulty to apply it in praxis are given; e.g., the malfunctioning Therac-25 radiation machine (three people died caused by overdoses of radiation, primarily due to issues regarding the software), the Aegis software system that misidentified an Iranian civilian aircraft in 1988 as an attacking military aircraft and the US military decided to shoot it down (contrary to two other systems that had identified it correctly) and having killed all 209 passengers on board, the software to manage remote-controlled drones, and perhaps even the ‘filter bubble’. Who is to blame, if at all? These examples, and others I can easily think of, are vastly different scenarios, but they have not been identified, categorized, and treated as such. But if we do, then perhaps at least some general patters can emerge and even rules regarding moral responsibility in the context of computing. Here’s my initial list of different kinds of cases:

  1. The hardware/software was intended for purpose X but is used for purpose Y, with X not being inherently harmful, whereas Y is; e.g., the technology of an internet filter for preventing kids to access adult-material sites is used to make a blacklist of sites that do not support government policy and subsequently the users vote for harmful policies, or, as simpler one: using mobile phones to detonate bombs.
  2. The hardware/software is designed for malicious intents; ranging from so-called cyber warfare (e.g., certain computer viruses, denial-of-service attacks) to computing for physical war to developing and using shadow-accounting software for tax evasion.
  3. The hardware/software has errors (‘bugs’):
    1. The specification was wrong with respect to the intentionally understated or mis-formulated intentions, and the error is simply a knock-on effect;
    2. The specification was correct, but a part of the subject domain is intentionally wrongly represented (e.g., the decision tree may be correctly implemented given the wrong representation of the subject domain);
    3. The specification was correct, the subject domain represented correctly, but there’s a conceptual error in the algorithm (e.g., the decision tree was built wrongly);
    4. The program code is scruffy and doesn’t do what the algorithm says it is supposed to do;
  4. The software is correct, but has the rules implemented as alethic or hard constraints versus deontic or soft constraints (not being allowed to manually override a default rule), effectively replacing human-bureaucrats with software-bureaucrats;
  5. Bad interface design to make the software difficult to use, resulting in wrong use and/or overlooking essential features;
  6. No or insufficient training of the users how to use the hardware/software;
  7. Insufficient maintenance of the IT system that causes the system to malfunction;
  8. Overconfidence in the reliability of the hardware/software;
    1. The correctness of the software, pretending that it always gives the right answer when it may not; e.g., assuming that the pattern matching algorithm for fingerprint matching is 100% reliable when it is actually only, say, 85%;
    2. Assuming (extreme) high availability, when no extreme high availability system is in place; e.g., relying solely on electronic health records in a remote area whereas the system may be down right when it is crucial to access it in the hospital information system.
  9. Overconfidence in the information provided by or through the software; this is partially alike 8-i, or the first example in item 1, and, e.g., willfully believing that everything published on the Internet is true despite the so-called ‘information warfare’ regarding the spreading of disinformation.

Where the moral responsibility lies can be vastly different depending on the case, and even within the case, it may require further analysis. For instance (and my opinions follow, not what is written in the SEP entry), regarding maintenance: a database for the electronic health records outgrows it prospective size or the new version of the RDBMS actually requires more hardware resources than the server has, with as consequence that querying the database becomes too slow in a critical case (say, to check whether patient A is allergic to medicine B that needs to be administered immediately): perhaps the system designer should have foreseen this, or perhaps management didn’t sign off on a purchase for a new server, but I think that the answer to the question of where the moral responsibility lies can be found. For mission-critical software, formal methods can be used, and if, as engineer, you didn’t and something goes wrong, then you are to blame. One cannot be held responsible for a misunderstanding, but when the domain expert says X of the subject domain and you have some political conviction that you prefer Y and build that into the software and that, then, results in something harmful, then you can be held morally responsible (item 3-ii). On human vs. software bureaucrat (item 4), the blame can be narrowed down when things go wrong: was it the engineer who didn’t bother with the possibility of exceptions, was there a/no technological solution for it at the time of development (and knowingly ignore it), or was it the client who willfully was happy avoiding such pesky individual exceptions to the rule? Or, another example, as the SEP entry questions (an example of item 1): can one hold the mobile phone companies responsible for having designed cell phones that also can be used to detonate bombs? In my opinion: no. Just in case you want to look for guidance, or even answers, in the SEP entry regarding such kind of questions and/or cases: don’t bother, there are none.

More generally, the SEP entry mentions two problems for attributing blame and responsibility: the so-called problem of ‘many hands’ and the problem with physical and temporal distance. The former concerns the issue that there are many people developing the software, training the users, etc., and it is difficult to identify the individual, or even the group of individuals, who ultimately did the thing that caused the harmful effect. It is true that this is a problem, and especially when the computing hardware or software is complex and developed by hundreds or even thousands of people. The latter concerns the problem that the distance can blur the causal connection between action and event, which “can reduce the sense of responsibility”. But, in my opinion, just because someone doesn’t reflect much on her actions and may be willfully narrow-minded to (not) accept that, yes, indeed, those people celebrating a wedding in a tent in far-away Afghanistan are (well, were) humans, too, does not absolve one from the responsibility—neither the hardware developer, nor the software developer, nor the one who pushed the button—as distance does not reduce responsibility. One could argue it is only the one who pushed the button who made the judgment error, but the drone/fighter jet/etc. computer hardware and software are made for harmful purposes in the first place. Its purpose is to do harm to other entities—be this bombing humans or, say, a water purification plant such that the residents have no clean water—and all developers involved very well know this; hence, one is morally responsible from day one that one is involved in its development and/or use.

I’ll skip the entry’s section on computers as agents (AI software, robots), and whether they can be held morally responsible, just responsible, or merely accountable, or none of them, except for the final remark of that section, credited to Bruno Latour (emphasis mine):

[Latour] suggests that in all forms of human action there are three forms of agency at work: 1) the agency of the human performing the action; 2) the agency of the designer who helped shaped the mediating role of the artifacts and 3) the artifact mediating human action. The agency of artifacts is inextricably linked to the agency of its designers and users, but it cannot be reduced to either of them. For him, then, a subject that acts or makes moral decisions is a composite of human and technological components. Moral agency is not merely located in a human being, but in a complex blend of humans and technologies.

Given the issues with assigning moral responsibility with respect to computing, some philosophers ponder about doing away with it, and replace it with a better framework. This is the topic of the third section of the SEP entry, which relies substantially on Gotterbarn’s work on it. He notes that computing is ethically not a neutral practice, and that the “design and use of technological artifacts is a moral activity” (because the choice of one design and implementation over another does have consequences). Moreover, and more interesting, is that, according to the SEP entry, he introduces the notions of negative responsibility and positive responsibility. The former “places the focus on that which exempts one from blame and liability”, whereas the latter “focuses on what ought to be done”, and entails to “strive to minimize foreseeable undesirable events”. Computing professionals, according to Gotterbarn, should adopt the notion of positive responsibility. Later on in the section, there’s a clue that there’s some way to go before achieving that. Accepting accountability is more rudimentary than taking moral responsibility, or at least a first step toward moral responsibility. Nissenbaum (paraphrased in the SEP entry) has identified four barriers to accountability in society (at least back in 1997 when she wrote it): the above-mentioned problem of many hands, the acceptance of ‘bugs’ as an inherent element of large software applications, using the computer as scapegoat, and claiming ownership without accepting liability (read any software license if you doubt the latter). Perhaps that needs to be addressed before going on to the moral responsibility, or one reinforces the other? Dijkstra vents his irritation in one of his writings about software ‘bugs’—the cute euphemism dating back to the ‘50s—and instead proposes to use one of its correct terms: they are errors. Perhaps users should not be lenient with errors, which might compel developers to deliver a better/error-free product, and/or we have to instill in the students more about the positive responsibility and reduce their tolerance for errors. And/or what about re-writing the license agreements a bit, like accepting responsibility provided it is used in one of the prescribed and tested ways? We already had that when I was working for Eurologic more than 10 years ago: the storage enclosure was supposed to work in certain ways and was tested in a variety of configurations, and that we signed off on for our customers. If it was faulty in one of the tested system configurations after all, then that was our problem, and we’d incur the associated costs to fix it. To some extent, that was also with our suppliers. Indeed, for software, that is slightly harder, but one could include in the license something along the line of ‘X works on a clean machine and when common other packages w, y, and z are installed, but we can’t guarantee it when you’ve downloaded weird stuff from the Internet’; not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. Anyone has better ideas?

Last, the closing sentence is a useful observation, effectively stretching the standard  notion of moral responsibility thanks to computing (emphasis added): “[it] is, thus, not only about how the actions of a person or a group of people affect others in a morally significant way; it is also about how their actions are shaped by technology.”. But, as said, the details are yet to be thought through and worked out in some detail and general guidelines that can be applied.


[1] Merel Noorman. (forthcoming in 2012). Computing and Moral Responsibility. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Zalta, E.N. (ed.).  Stable URL: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/computing-responsibility/.