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Public Computing Intellectuals
in the Age of AI Crisis
Randy Connolly
Professor Mathematics & Computing
Mount Royal University
We live in “an era
of escalating,
overlapping crisis”
Nancy Fraser & Rahel Jaeggi. 2018. Capitalism: A conversation in critical theory.
John Wiley & Sons.
Artworks adapted from Bülent Gültek, http://bulentgultek.xyz
Technological
change inevitably
brings anxiety
with it.
“Top AI researchers and CEOs warn against ‘risk
of extinction’”
“Elon Musk among experts urging a halt to AI
training”
antiracist.org/a-i-s-dirty-secret-digital-sweat-shops
But crisis (or concern about it) can
also be a potential turning point, a
critical moment that allows us (my
academic discipline, our society) to
question the trajectory of its current
path.
Crisis presents the academic
discipline of computing with a
rare opportunity “to interrogate
the normativity currently in
place and take actions for
change”.
Michalinos Zembylas, Mark Baildon, and Dennis Kwek. 2022. Responsive education in times of crisis.
Asia Pacific Journal of Education 42,
My essay (and talk) uses the AI
crisis (real or imagined) to
make an argument for an
expanded conception of
academic computing and the
role of liberal education in that
transformation.
The issues with this technology lie not in the
realm of philosophy, addressable
straightforwardly through ethics or codes of
conduct, but in the social realm, and thus are
best interrogated with the lenses of the
social sciences.
Section 1 of 4
Provides some recent examples of a type of
critical interrogation of AI that we need more
of it; these examples focus on revealing the
relations of power that wrap any
technological artifact.
Section 2 of 4
Presents a novel categorization of academic
computing’s epistemological field, one
which includes not only the discipline’s usual
instrumental forms of knowledge but
reflexive knowledge as well.
Advocates for a conceptual archetype—the
Public Computer Intellectual—as a way of
practically imagining the expanded
possibilities of academic practice in my
discipline.
Section 3 of 4 Section 4 of 4
EXPANDING THE
HABITUS OF
ACADEMIC COMPUTING
Disciplinary subdivisions of labor
exist in all fields
This is also true of academic computing …
Liberal education
can fit into a
unique place in
that division of
computing
labour.
Computing educators
inhabit a slightly different
habitus from practitioners in
computing.
Habitus is typically understood as the
values, dispositions, and practices that
agents gain, partly from their personal
histories and partly from their
membership in a social, cultural, or
technical field.
So what is the “normal” habitus for those in computing?
How might we in computer education differ?
Academic Audience Extra-Academic Audience
Instrumental
Knowledge
Professional Computing
Research that defines
theories, addresses
questions, presents
solutions.
Industrial Computing
Application of research, external
funding, entrepreneurial
monetization, filing patents,
consulting, model curricula.
Academic Computing’s Habitus
Reflexive
Knowledge
Academic Audience Extra-Academic Audience
Instrumental
Knowledge
Professional Computing
Research that defines
theories, addresses
questions, presents
solutions.
Reflexive
Knowledge
Industrial Computing
Application of research, external
funding, entrepreneurial
monetization, filing patents,
consulting, model curricula.
Critical Computing
Internal debate within and
between research
programs, normative
critique.
Public Computing
Teaching, presenting for non-
specialists, creating instructional
material, social media
interaction, connecting discipline
to concerns of wider world.
Academic Computing’s Habitus
Academic Audience Extra-Academic Audience
Instrumental
Knowledge
Professional Computing
Research that defines
theories, addresses
questions, presents
solutions.
Reflexive
Knowledge
Industrial Computing
Application of research, external
funding, entrepreneurial
monetization, filing patents,
consulting, model curricula.
Critical Computing
Internal debate within and
between research
programs, normative
critique.
Public Computing
Teaching, presenting for non-
specialists, creating instructional
material, social media
interaction, connecting discipline
to concerns of wider world.
Academic Computing’s Habitus
Academic computing
needs to include
much more of the
reflexive dimension in
its “normal” work.
THE
PUBLIC COMPUTER
INTELLECTUAL (PCI)
“All humans are
intellectual but not all
humans have in
society the function
of intellectuals.”
– Antonio Gramsci
Prison Notebooks (1929-1935)
“The intellectual … is neither a pacifier
nor a consensus builder, but someone
whose whole being is stalked on a
critical sense, a sense of being
unwilling to accept easy formulas, or
ready-made cliches … [and who is]
actively willing to say so in public.”
Reception = a willingness to carefully unearth the
messages being communicated by some cultural
artefact
Resistance = a willingness to be
publicly uncomfortable with those
uncovered messages when they
conflict with the good of the less
powerful.
The task of a public intellectual is
thus “to be both insider and
outsider to the circulating ideas
and values that are at issue in our
society”.
Being both an insider
(knowledgeable about computing)
and an outsider
(publicly uncomfortable with computing)
is what a PCI should be.
The Public Computer
Intellectual is not
catalyzed by
computing but by
the liberal arts.
To repeat, this is what computing
needs in an age of AI crisis …
… a liberal arts perspective based
on disciplinary/insider close-
reading (reception) that
interrogates the value premises of
the academic computing field and
thereby takes a stand as an outsider
for the needs of the public
(resistance) instead of the needs of
the profession.
However, we live in a
society fractured into
divided, sometimes hostile,
publics.
WHICH PUBLIC
Instrumental
Knowledge
Reflexive
Knowledge
But not every
academic wishes
to have a public
presence.
The (Almost) Public Computer Intellectual - (A)PCI
CONCLUSION
But now it is academic
computing’s moment in the sun.
We have a duty and
responsibility to add our voice,
our expertise, to these debates.
We can no longer “return to
normal” and think of the
computing discipline as just a
technical one akin to the
natural and engineering
sciences, operating according
to unproblematic natural laws.
THANK YOU!
RANDY CONNOLLY, (A)PCI
PROFESSOR
MATHEMATICS & COMPUTING
rconnolly@mtroyal.ca

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Public Computing Intellectuals in the Age of AI Crisis

  • 1. Public Computing Intellectuals in the Age of AI Crisis Randy Connolly Professor Mathematics & Computing Mount Royal University
  • 2. We live in “an era of escalating, overlapping crisis” Nancy Fraser & Rahel Jaeggi. 2018. Capitalism: A conversation in critical theory. John Wiley & Sons. Artworks adapted from Bülent Gültek, http://bulentgultek.xyz
  • 3.
  • 5. “Top AI researchers and CEOs warn against ‘risk of extinction’” “Elon Musk among experts urging a halt to AI training”
  • 6.
  • 8. But crisis (or concern about it) can also be a potential turning point, a critical moment that allows us (my academic discipline, our society) to question the trajectory of its current path.
  • 9. Crisis presents the academic discipline of computing with a rare opportunity “to interrogate the normativity currently in place and take actions for change”. Michalinos Zembylas, Mark Baildon, and Dennis Kwek. 2022. Responsive education in times of crisis. Asia Pacific Journal of Education 42,
  • 10. My essay (and talk) uses the AI crisis (real or imagined) to make an argument for an expanded conception of academic computing and the role of liberal education in that transformation.
  • 11.
  • 12. The issues with this technology lie not in the realm of philosophy, addressable straightforwardly through ethics or codes of conduct, but in the social realm, and thus are best interrogated with the lenses of the social sciences. Section 1 of 4 Provides some recent examples of a type of critical interrogation of AI that we need more of it; these examples focus on revealing the relations of power that wrap any technological artifact. Section 2 of 4 Presents a novel categorization of academic computing’s epistemological field, one which includes not only the discipline’s usual instrumental forms of knowledge but reflexive knowledge as well. Advocates for a conceptual archetype—the Public Computer Intellectual—as a way of practically imagining the expanded possibilities of academic practice in my discipline. Section 3 of 4 Section 4 of 4
  • 14. Disciplinary subdivisions of labor exist in all fields This is also true of academic computing …
  • 15. Liberal education can fit into a unique place in that division of computing labour.
  • 16. Computing educators inhabit a slightly different habitus from practitioners in computing. Habitus is typically understood as the values, dispositions, and practices that agents gain, partly from their personal histories and partly from their membership in a social, cultural, or technical field.
  • 17. So what is the “normal” habitus for those in computing? How might we in computer education differ?
  • 18.
  • 19. Academic Audience Extra-Academic Audience Instrumental Knowledge Professional Computing Research that defines theories, addresses questions, presents solutions. Industrial Computing Application of research, external funding, entrepreneurial monetization, filing patents, consulting, model curricula. Academic Computing’s Habitus Reflexive Knowledge
  • 20. Academic Audience Extra-Academic Audience Instrumental Knowledge Professional Computing Research that defines theories, addresses questions, presents solutions. Reflexive Knowledge Industrial Computing Application of research, external funding, entrepreneurial monetization, filing patents, consulting, model curricula. Critical Computing Internal debate within and between research programs, normative critique. Public Computing Teaching, presenting for non- specialists, creating instructional material, social media interaction, connecting discipline to concerns of wider world. Academic Computing’s Habitus
  • 21. Academic Audience Extra-Academic Audience Instrumental Knowledge Professional Computing Research that defines theories, addresses questions, presents solutions. Reflexive Knowledge Industrial Computing Application of research, external funding, entrepreneurial monetization, filing patents, consulting, model curricula. Critical Computing Internal debate within and between research programs, normative critique. Public Computing Teaching, presenting for non- specialists, creating instructional material, social media interaction, connecting discipline to concerns of wider world. Academic Computing’s Habitus
  • 22. Academic computing needs to include much more of the reflexive dimension in its “normal” work.
  • 24. “All humans are intellectual but not all humans have in society the function of intellectuals.” – Antonio Gramsci Prison Notebooks (1929-1935)
  • 25.
  • 26. “The intellectual … is neither a pacifier nor a consensus builder, but someone whose whole being is stalked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made cliches … [and who is] actively willing to say so in public.”
  • 27. Reception = a willingness to carefully unearth the messages being communicated by some cultural artefact
  • 28. Resistance = a willingness to be publicly uncomfortable with those uncovered messages when they conflict with the good of the less powerful. The task of a public intellectual is thus “to be both insider and outsider to the circulating ideas and values that are at issue in our society”.
  • 29. Being both an insider (knowledgeable about computing) and an outsider (publicly uncomfortable with computing) is what a PCI should be.
  • 30. The Public Computer Intellectual is not catalyzed by computing but by the liberal arts.
  • 31.
  • 32. To repeat, this is what computing needs in an age of AI crisis … … a liberal arts perspective based on disciplinary/insider close- reading (reception) that interrogates the value premises of the academic computing field and thereby takes a stand as an outsider for the needs of the public (resistance) instead of the needs of the profession.
  • 33. However, we live in a society fractured into divided, sometimes hostile, publics.
  • 36. But not every academic wishes to have a public presence.
  • 37. The (Almost) Public Computer Intellectual - (A)PCI
  • 39.
  • 40. But now it is academic computing’s moment in the sun. We have a duty and responsibility to add our voice, our expertise, to these debates.
  • 41. We can no longer “return to normal” and think of the computing discipline as just a technical one akin to the natural and engineering sciences, operating according to unproblematic natural laws.
  • 42. THANK YOU! RANDY CONNOLLY, (A)PCI PROFESSOR MATHEMATICS & COMPUTING rconnolly@mtroyal.ca