#WhoWillWatchtheWatchers? IICM Symposium


“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Bruno Latour & The Need for a New Critical Science of ‘Science & Technology’ Symposium

Authors and organizers: Dr. Basilio Monteiro (Director, IICM)
Dr. Natalie Byfield (The Department of Sociology & Anthropology of St. John’s University)

“Who Will Watch the Watchers: Bruno Latour & The Need for a New Critical Science of ‘Science & Technology’,” a jointly organized symposium by the Institute for International Communication and the Department of Sociology & Anthropology housed respectively in the Collins College of Professional Studies and St. John’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, brought together researchers who have different epistemological approaches to the study of contemporary technologies and people’s relationships to those technologies.

Taken as a whole, the day-long series of presentations and the discussions they generated raised important questions about the science behind the technologies and how the deployment of those technologies reproduced hierarchies of inequality, in particular along the lines of race and class. Ultimately the discussions make clear researchers in science and technology and the social sciences must seek out ways to communicate to address the frightening implications of the unfettered logics of state and private interests that now oversee the advancements in technology and automation.

Thus, we use the Latin phrase: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The Roman poet Juvenal from his Satires (Satire VI, lines 347–348) is literally translated as “Who will guard the guards themselves?” The original context deals with the problem of ensuring marital fidelity and the impossibility of enforcing moral behavior on women when the enforcers (custodes) are corruptible. This phrase is now commonly used to refer to the problem of controlling the actions of persons in positions of power, an issue which concerned Plato (Republic). Some scholars have suggested that the phrase may have been inserted sometime in 1800s by a student at Oxford University.

It is interesting to note that “Who Watches the Watchers” is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation involving a group of anthropologists who are observing a primitive culture from a concealed location, but are revealed following an accident. In Dan Brown’s novel, Digital Fortress, the phrase appears engraved in a ring owned by Ensei Tankado, a former NSA employee who disapproved of the NSA’s intrusion into the people’s private lives. The phrase is aimed at the NSA, who check for any information on emails sent over the web that endanger national security. The phrase asks who will keep the NSA in check, as they do others.

We invoked Bruno Latour in this symposium “ ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ Bruno Latour & The Need for a New Critical Science of ‘Science & Technology’,”

because he argues that the notion of objectivity, that is central to a modernist conception of science and is rejected by postmodernism, should be replaced with a new concept, which is a very specific kind of association of humans and non-humans. This concept is neither modernist nor postmodernist. The Symposium’s discussions reminded us that Latour conceptualization of the non-human is to be viewed broadly. Latour’s treatment of the term “non-human” includes “things” like practices/techniques/technologies we produce. When viewed through the lens of race, we can see how practices/techniques/technologies of western modernity rendered the “non-white” as “non-human.”

Latour has an interesting way of coaxing out ideas from the shadows, which were already lurking, but not widely discussed because they challenged false idolatry. However, a comprehensive social study of science must go much further to reveal the broader dynamics at play in the community. What motivate scientists to do their work? Why is much of science still consumed by academic pedigree and other anachronistic social forms? Why does science rank poorly among professions in regards to gender, racial, and economic diversity? Why do so many scientists rush to publish their results, trying to be the first to plant a flag in a particular domain (as if being first matters in pursuit of truth)? Why do scientists occasionally publish fraudulent results? How do institutional forces involved in funding, hiring, promotion, granting awards/honors, etc., influence and shape the culture of the scientific community? Why do scientists continue to allow mega-publishing corporations to exploit their products and assume control over all of scientific dialogue?

Latour’s original critique was about power and the production of knowledge, not a critique of scientific findings in and of themselves. Blind faith in institutions that produce knowledge obfuscates the dissonance between the way scientists see a thing and that thing in itself (i.e. reality). This never meant that one could simply interpret reality as one chooses, but rather that all interpretations should be subject to skepticism.

The symposium was a provocation to engage in a cross-disciplinary dialogue, and to seek collaborative intellectual adventures.

Prof. Giuseppe Zollo of the University Federico II of Naples, Italy expounded on Bruno Latour and the enigma of reality in the age of complexity. In his presentation Giuseppe Zollo reviewed Latour’s work form the point of view of complexity science. Concepts such as emergence, attractors, and self-organization can be used to understand Latour’s epistemological approach according to which science is a possible way to see reality but not a way to claim the revelation of an objective and absolute reality. Zollo offered art and aesthetic reasoning as means to support, discovery, and understanding while keeping our mind open to new interpretations and revisions as well as safe from sterile relativism.

Dr. Mark Juszczak professor at The Collins College of Professional Studies, St. John’s University discussed how Latour’s construct of the Black Box affords us the opportunity to investigate the production of science as a ‘before’ and ‘after’ event: science in action and ready-made science. This distinction, and the implications it has for truth, is particularly relevant in the emergent field of data science – whose very architecture as a scientific discipline comes under scrutiny when viewed through the Black Box. This paper is an exploration of fit – the extent to which some of the underlying structures of data science both fit in the Black Box and fit in the category of science as Latour defines it.

DSC_4130Dr. Ruha Benjamin, of Princeton University, discussed the work in her new book, Race After Technology: Abolitionists Tools for the New Jim Code. She compelled us to contend with “coded bias and imagined objectivity” in technologies and automation today. Presenting the concept of “New Jim Code,” she showed how range of discriminatory designs encode inequity by explicitly amplifying racial hierarchies; by ignoring but thereby replicating social divisions; or by aiming to fix racial bias but ultimately doing quite the opposite. She made a compelling case for race itself as a kind of technology designed to stratify and sanctify social injustice in the architecture of everyday life.”Dr. Benjamin  warns of a digital caste system and argued that “automation, far from being a sinister story of racist programmers scheming on the dark web, has the potential to hide, speed up, and deepen discrimination while appearing neutral (when) compared to the racism of a previous era. Ultimately, Dr. Benjamin encourages us to challenge the “techno-driven analyses of technology.”

Mr. Angel Diaz, JD, of Brennan Center for Justice, NYU School of Law, discussed the broad array of largely unchecked surveillance technologies used by the New York Police Department and their detrimental impact on civil liberties in his presentation titled NYC Under Watch: Police Surveillance and Public Accountability. The technologies included, among others, Facial Recognition, Video Analytics, Social media monitoring, Cell Site Simulators, Automatic License Plate Readers, Surveillance Towers, DNA Databases, X-ray Vans, Gang Database, Predictive Policing, Domain Awareness System, Drones, ShotSpotter, Chemical Sensors, and Body Cameras. His talk highlighted, among other things, the public-private partnership between the government and private companies that allowed private entities access to NYPD surveillance data. Mr. Diaz noted that the POST Act, a bill introduced in 2017 in the New York City Council to “increase transparency and oversight over the NYPD’s use of sophisticated new surveillance technologies and information sharing networks” has not been passed.

Dr. Natalie Byfield of St. John’s College of Arts and Sciences, St. John’s University presented her research on Algorithms and Policing and discussed the emergence of predictive policing in New York City. She noted how the global political economy of information/surveillance capitalism, in which data is ascendant, supports historically racialized policing and surveillance that gathers extraordinarily large and varied amounts of data on individuals who have not committed a crime. Dr. Byfield highlighted this through an analysis of the NYPD Stop and Frisk data collected during the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She argued that the application of predictive analytics to this data put police in the position of being the new race scientists. She contended that police, in this process of contemporary process of criminalization, develop racially-derived categories, classifications, and associations that are kept from the public in the black box of algorithms.

Dr.  Robert Tomes of The Collins College of Professional Studies, St. John’s University, explored the Political Economy and Information Capitalism, by looking at the long arch of history and particularly within the context of the United States of America.

These discussions had broad implications from two angles: the first is the more obvious one – that of the proverbial big brother. The approach we took, however, is that of a sociology of data science itself: not to merely critique the omnipresence of data and metadata gathering, but to critique the foundations of the field itself and the way in which those foundations impact power.

The second angle is subtler: that of the need to critique the very tools of our daily life as social scientists. What is being done to ensure the fulcrum of power does not tip in a way that jeopardizes the dignity of humankind or the lofty goals of our better selves that we have pursued in the past century. This is again, not a critique of policy or system. Rather, we are looking for researchers who are and who have studied the very fundamental relationship between science, technology and the advancement of social science – and have begun to ask critical questions about the tandem walk. Latour’s work helps to analyze the social interactions and networks producing our science and strongly suggests we reconsider today’s scientific and technological developments in the context of their increasing use for social control.

This symposium was an acknowledgement that the science undergirding contemporary technological advancements is generated by researchers and other overlapping communities operating in coherence yet are represented as objective and devoid of social influence. The technological developments in our information society that have been underway over the last 40 to 50 years run concurrent with another set of societal conversions. Over the last 50 plus years, there has been in the Western/modern societies a transformation in the institutions that by design are supposed to foster social control either through socialization and/or forced conformity. This symposium was most concerned with the contemporaneous developments in these technologies undergirding western liberal democracies and the application of these technologies to the new culture of control that emerged in these societies.


Co- Sponsors of the event:
Academic Center for Equity and Inclusion
Department of Sociology & Anthropology
Writing Across Communities

Dean’s Office, St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Dean’s Office, The Collins College of Professional Studies

Posters created by Camara Sheppard

To see the program of the event click here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Ey-xUNGB4mVYGdaR4Vo86aj6tHS6XAkn/view

Photos from the event are available here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1oIFSqwN1803S4htYf13nJjv9Px9omQSp

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