Payal Arora is appointed as Full Professor at ESPhil

Academic profile of the Chair

The Chair will be embedded at the intersection of the philosophy of media and the philosophy of technology. It is closely related to one of the key research themes of ESPhil, namely “the constitution of subjectivity” which explores how the contemporary economic and ecological crises, together with the increasing technological complexity of our life-world, necessitate a redefinition of our relationship with nature and ourselves. At stake are the legacy of social liberation and emancipation articulated by Enlightenment humanism and our capacity to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions. The special focus of the Chair will be on global ethics and digital cultures. Outside academia, there is likewise a growing interest among policy makers, civic activists and technology companies in media issues, e.g. the ethical and social implications of AI, the impact of automated decision-making in our everyday lives and systems of governance, and the globalization of values in technology design for an inclusive digital culture. This has become more prescient as markets have shifted their attention to developing countries who are overtaking the users in the West. Given these potentially game-changing developments, there exists a significant demand among academics and societal stakeholders for more research, education and scholarly debate from the lens of global ethics. Therefore, it is the objective of the Chair to stimulate research and enhance our understanding of the structure and dynamics of global values as technology scales across borders. Possible topics include: (a) the role of culture in platform design and the ways in which it fosters conditions for social inclusion and exclusion, (b) the development of global standards for a diverse socio-cultural and media landscape, (c) analysis of how advanced algorithms may facilitate and (re)distribute power and possibly create a common public space, (d) the importance of trust in the global digital economy, (e) the impact of the automated digital realm on autonomy and free will, and (f) the ways in which AI interventions make us rethink notions of citizenship, justice, taste, choice, knowledge, and governance.

Addressing any of these questions entails a multi-disciplinary and a transnational approach, which is precisely what the Chair intends to stimulate. This means, collaboration with other EUR faculties and schools (ESE, RSM, ESL, ISS) but also other initiatives such as design thinking, the Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity initiative and the collaboration with TU Delft. Despite the increasing interest and investment in digital media and ethics, our current knowledge is still highly fragmented and shows large gaps as the development of values in the design field continues to be framed by interests, concerns, perspectives and mindsets of a small subset of privileged stakeholders. The Chair will situate these investigations within broader philosophical, historical, socio-economic and cultural contexts. Therefore, in her own research, the Chair will focus on the following, inter-related areas of study:

  • AI for Social Good

The term ‘AI for Social Good’ has recently been embraced by the popular media as global aid agencies, philanthropic foundations, civic activists, and governments are starting to instrumentalize AI for empowering entire communities at the margins. The notion of ‘good’ is obfuscated under well-meaning tech-solutionism discourse. There is an underlying assumption of universal ‘good practice’ to use AI to redistribute resources, to strengthen political participation, to make transparent systemic abuse and corruption and to replace human prejudice with machine neutrality. In other words, AI is being viewed by these organizations as critical ‘smart’ systems to tackle some of the world’s most confounding social problems. However, without grounding these broad expectations in more precise and contextual ways, this discourse is likely to go towards the pathway of another media hype and techno-utopianism that has engulfed the history of technology.

The Chair will critique ‘doing good’ in this project through the following lines of query:

  • What constitutes as ‘doing good’ and to what extent can AI be a ‘moral machine’?
  • In what ways can the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) serve as a guideline to bring the world onto a more equitable, prosperous, and sustainable path through AI?
  • How is the ‘good’ sustained through these data-driven innovations as they get implemented for everyday governance?
  • How do we reconcile the bridging of the digital and data divide with the including of the marginalized majority into the system of ‘surveillance capitalism?’ How is ‘inclusion’ (re)framed through this lens?
  • What does public trust and confidence look like in diverse socio-economic contexts?
  •  What kinds of regulation can streamline and standardize good practice as people, ideas, and data flows across borders?

The Chair will contribute to this debate by adding the global ethics perspective and by interrogating cultures and values around AI by taking the de-colonial approach.

In terms of education, she aims to strengthen the global ethics perspective in courses and thesis supervision. ESPhil offers a unique Double Degree program in English for students who wish to obtain a second degree in philosophy. This program demands an interdisciplinary and international approach in the classroom. The Chair aims to make a significant contribution to this new initiative given her cross-disciplinary expertise and her excellent teaching track-record. In 2017, she won the University Education Prize based on her innovative approach in the classroom.

CV

Payal Arora is a digital anthropologist and Author, Consultant, Founder, Editor, and Professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam. She holds the Chair in Technology, Values, and Global Media Cultures at the Erasmus Faculty of Philosophy. Her expertise lies in digital media experience and user values among low-income communities worldwide and comes with more than a decade of fieldwork experience in such contexts. She is the author of a number of books including the award-winning ‘Leisure Commons’ and most recently the “The Next Billion Users” with Harvard Press. Engadget (Top 5 in the ‘Technorati top 100’ and Times endorsed ‘best blogs on tech’) stated that her Harvard book is “the most interesting, thought provoking books on science and technology we can find.” Forbes named her the “next billion champion” and the right kind of person to reform tech. Several international media outlets have covered her work including the BBC, The Economist, Quartz, Tech Crunch, The Boston Globe, F.A.Z, The Nation and CBC. She has consulted on tech innovation for diverse organizations such as UNESCO, KPMG, GE, and HP and has given more than 165 presentations in 102 cities in 52 countries including a TEDx talk on the future of the internet. She is the founder of Catalyst Lab, a digital activism organization and sits on several boards such as Facebook SS1 Asia Committee, Columbia Univ. Earth Institute and World Women Global Council in New York. She has held Fellow positions at GE, ZEMKI, ITSRio, and NYU and is a Section Editor for Global Perspectives, a new University of California Press journal. She was born in India, is also American and Irish and lives in Amsterdam. She considers herself a global citizen.