Social Studies of Computing

Multidisciplinary Research Group at McGill University

Talks Hosted by the Research Group

(reverse chronological order)
  1. May 23, 2019: Christoph Becker on "Unjust, Unsustainable Software Systems: Is Computing Insolvent?"
  2. Oct 26, 2018: Nickolas Falkner on "Ethics First, Data First, or Business First?"

Christoph Becker on "Unjust, Unsustainable Software Systems: Is Computing Insolvent?"

May 23, 2019 at 2:30pm
MC 103

Abstract: This talk argues that computing in its current form is unable to pay its debts. To find a way out of the current insolvency, it suggests a rethinking of software systems research, education and practice. Its aim is to provoke and start a lively discussion about social justice, sustainability, design, and the interactions between computer science, social sciences, engineering, design, and the humanities.

Fifty years after the founding of software engineering, the boundaries between software and its social and environmental contexts are rapidly dissolving. Despite its entanglement with the social world, however, computing research and practice regularly respond to the recognition of harms using their own tools only: problem solving, computational thinking, divide-and-conquer, quantification, prediction, algorithmic optimization, machine learning... ironically, the results are often predictable. From racial profiling to Airbnb’s impact on housing inequality, from the Volkswagen emissions cheat to Youtube’s radicalizing recommender systems, one does not have to be a pessimist to see that computing's debts to our societies are mounting. These debts - the hidden, delayed and remote effects of systems design decisions on the world - continue to be externalized: offloaded and paid by others. Within the computing discourse, little attention is paid to warnings from other disciplines: The ideology of software technology, and its focus on efficient “problem solving”, makes us blind to the obvious until it becomes apparent to all. How long can that be tolerated?

The talk describes this speaker’s struggle to articulate a just and sustainable systems design practice and highlights some of the epistemic, academic, industrial, political and methodological barriers encountered. The talk argues that in its current form and context, computing theory and practice are structurally and systemically incapable of paying down their debts to societies and the planet. Computing needs help, and that help is already available. Systemic interventions in the psychology, sociology, philosophy, and methodology of software-intensive systems design can help computing to get out of its debt crisis, but there is a lot of work to do.

Bio: Christoph Becker is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Information of the University of Toronto. Following degrees in computer science, software engineering and business informatics from Vienna University of Technology in Austria, he has published widely in software systems, digital libraries, and digital curation; created award-winning decision support tools for scalable digital curation in collaboration with international consortia of universities, cultural heritage organizations and commercial partners; and developed open methods to evaluate digital preservation processes and capabilities. As co-founder of, he advocates a new interdisciplinary approach to software systems research that emphasizes long-term perspectives on socio-technical systems design. As Director of the Digital Curation Institute, he brings together graduate students, appointed fellows, faculty colleagues and partners to conduct research at the intersection of digital curation and systems design (, supported by grant-funded state-of-the-art computing infrastructure and collaboration space.

Nickolas Falkner on "Ethics First, Data First, or Business First?"

Oct 26, 2018 at 2:30 pm
Trottier 2100
Also part of the School of Computer Science colloquium series

Data gathering is now commonplace in cities but the rise of increasingly effective analytics and machine learning mean that we are uncovering many things about a populace who don’t realise how much information they give away on a daily basis. Recently, a member of the independent advisory board overseeing Sidewalk Lab’s work in Toronto resigned, citing the parent company’s greed for data and the hosting organisation’s indifference to the problem. There are, however, solutions that allow us to investigate and measure activity without wholesale attacks on personal privacy or requiring the notional data stewards to be “good people”.

Speaker Bio: Nick Falkner received his PhD in Computer Science from the University of Adelaide, South Australia, in 2007, after a career in the computing industry and winemaking. He is currently the Director of the Australian Smart Cities Consortium and an Associate Professor in Computer Science at the University of Adelaide, tenured since 2012, specialising in networks, data security, ethics, and educational research around student motivation and learning models. He is a recognised leader in innovation around multi-disciplinary problem solving and works with challenging problems in the areas of human habitation and global education. A/Prof Falkner is a highly awarded instructor and has developed a number of courses around ethical and security issues in the network context.