POTs: The revolution will not be optimized?

Protective Optimization Technologies

Seda Gürses

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In the 90s, software engineering shifted from packaged software and PCs to services and clouds, enabling distributed architectures that incorporate real-time feedback from users. In the process, digital systems became layers of technologies metricized under the authority of objective functions. These functions drive selection of software features, service integration, cloud usage, user interaction and growth, customer service, and environmental capture, among others. Whereas information systems focused on storage, processing and transport of information, and organizing knowledge —with associated risks of surveillance— contemporary systems leverage the knowledge they gather to not only understand the world, but also to optimize it, seeking maximum extraction of economic value through the capture and manipulation of people’s activities and environments. The ability of these optimization systems to treat the world not as a static place to be known, but as one to sense and co-create, poses social risks and harms such as social sorting, mass manipulation, asymmetrical concentration of resources, majority dominance, and minority erasure. In the vocabulary of optimization, these harms arise due to choosing inadequate objective functions. During the talk, I will provide an account of what we mean by optimization systems, detail their externalities and make a proposition for Protective Optimization Technologies.