The Communication Research Center hosted Dr. Danah Boyd for the Spring 2018 Distinguished Lecture series on April 18, 2018. In the BU Photonics Center, Dr. Boyd delivered a 60-minute talk titled “Discovering Vulnerabilities in Sociotechnical Society.”
Dr. Danah Boyd is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, as well as the founder and president of the research institute Data & Society. Her research focuses on examining the intersection between technology and society. She has written and co-authored multiple books, such as Participatory Culture in a Networked Era.
Dr. Boyd began her presentation by discussing the idea that though Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have become an obsession in recent years, most of the public is not aware of what these terms actually mean. She explained how Big Data have stopped having anything to do with “bigness” or data. They are rather endorsed by “hype and hope”–and have now become about how garnering more information about people will help solve all the impractical problems of the society.
Dr. Boyd also explained the switch from Big Data to AI. It happened when the industry realized that Big Data were being equated with Big Brother. Members of the industry found the comparison inappropriate and changed terms to make it all about AI. She further stated that the data that are collected for AI are collected from people and are utilized to shape the practices of people.
Dr. Boyd’s presentation was full of information regarding data abuse and how it leads to the abuse of people. She explained how technology–when combined with criminology and policing–has consequences and that it is necessary to focus on the end goal. She then described how the scheduling software that is used by the retail industry is not geared toward the employees. The software actually tries to maximize employees in specific places and does not allow workers to work with the same colleagues over and over because that would mean a higher likelihood of unionization.
“My favorite part was towards the end when she started talking about all the things people have done on the internet with an agenda and how one needs to be wary of it,” Shalmarie Mercado, a BU COM graduate student, said. “On the contrary, she also spoke about how many people create things with the expectation of creating something wonderful, but then they do not know what other people might do with it.”
The event’s audience included mostly BU COM students, professors, and technology enthusiasts.
“As a technology student in the past who is data-savvy and passionate about augmented reality, I found the lecture quite interesting,” Sruthi Dhulipala, a public relations student, shared. “Understanding the reality of big data and using our digital footprint from a communications point of view was a unique experience to me. I really enjoyed Dr. Boyd’s insights on how data controls the human loop in the current era.”
The most notable aspect of the talk was that although it was technology and science based, Dr. Boyd geared it toward a general audience. She made sure that even a member of the audience without a tech background would understand her views and concerns. It was interesting and enjoyable to members of the audience with or without prior knowledge of the topic.
As a speaker, Dr. Boyd was captivating, humorous, and lively.
“Her delivery of the presentation was well structured, fast paced, and thought provoking,” Yiyan Zheng, a graduate student from the mass communication (MS) program said. “Lots of vivid examples were illustrated so that the audience could sense and be alerted that this is something tightly associated with their lives.”
The presentation was thought provoking. It made the audience wonder about how many data it unknowingly gives out and the repercussions of doing so. Dr. Boyd’s talk provided knowledge regarding the topic, but also created awareness regarding the entire data-collection-and-generation phenomenon.
“I really liked how despite talking about something technical, she brought a very social and at some level philanthropic angle to it,” Saniya Farooqi, a marketing research student, said.
Wuqu Cao, a public relations graduate student, wondered about transparency following the talk. “If transparency is not the key, how can ordinary people get closer to the truth?”
The presentation was followed by a Q&A session where Dr. Boyd gave in-depth answers to questions regarding epistemology, illegal data collection, and various uses of the data that are collected. Everyone seemed satisfied with the answers they received.
The Communication Research Center periodically invites speakers. Those interested can get further information here.
Prachi Kabir, Staff Writer
Prachi is a Communication Studies graduate student from India who believes good research is more exhilarating than a good read. Needless to say, she is an avid reader, wannabe wine aficionado, professional daydreamer and hopeful to make a career in PR. Apart from reading, she loves sleeping and eating in no particular order.