Information Justice

How can an information-driven society be just? Many of those concerned with the ethics of data focus on control over data, and argue that if data is only controlled by the right people then just outcomes will emerge. There are serious problems with this control metaparadigm, however, especially related to the initial creation of data and prerequisites for its use. Using a series of case studies drawn from the my experience in higher education data analysis, this project posits an alternative: a theory of information justice that subsumes the question of control and relates it to other issues that influence just social outcomes.

Data does not exist by nature. Bureaucratic societies must provide standardized inputs for governing algorithms, a problem that can be understood as one of legibility. This requires, though, converting what we know about social objects and actions into data, narrowing the many possible representations of the objects to a definitive one using a series of translations. Information thus exists within a nexus of problems, data, models, and actions that the social actors constructing the data bring to it. This opens information to analysis from social and moral perspectives, while the scientistic view leaves us blind to the gains from such analysis—especially to the ways that embedded values and assumptions promote injustice.

I have in mind two principles of justice for the problem of information. The first, information pluralism, embraces, rather than problematizes, the “messiness” of data to ensure that the data itself does not reflect social injustices. Rather than seeing conflicting data as inherently erroneous it encourages information systems to be designed to incorporate and highlight differences in data, identifying them as moments of conflict among assumptions and values to be resolved through social rather than algorithmic solutions. It incorporates the myriad values that compete for the attention of technologists: openness, efficiency, privacy, security, benefit. It can be joined to a kind of participative pluralism, where information systems are designed with the participation of all actors who are part of the system, including those who will serve as the data points and as the objects of decisions based on the information.

Information injustice thus draws attention to the normative integrity of the information. The assumptions and embedded values of the information nexus play a central role in in the collection and use of information. The normative validity of information ensures that a valid chain of argument exists linking the observed behavior, measurement of it, its status as an operationalization of a construct, its generalizability, and its uses in both inference and practice. Flaws in the argument point to areas where an unidentified assumption has influenced the process and needs to be evaluated. The normative validity of information is specific to the information nexus, presenting problems that occur when information flows from one nexus to another. Changes in the information context that are not supported by its existing validity argument undermine its contextual integrity, requiring justification distinct from that which justifies existing practices.

How, then, might we might pursue information justice? A central premise of this project is that the technical is social. But the reverse is true as well: the social is technical. Different technical structures may inhibit or promote information justice by making some practices possible and others impossible. Several technical elements of data systems could promote information justice, especially information pluralism. At the same time, however, those technical solutions will not implement themselves, and the social actors that must do so have a poor track record on information justice. Social pressure on technical decisions is surely needed, and the success of both depends as well on shifts in political structures already taking place in advanced industrial democracies. I will thus explore a series of projects that create new technical and social spaces and practices for information that might move us in the direction of information justice.