Leading Technology and Society Researcher Joins Georgetown for the Year To Fuel Cross-Campus Innovation

A leading expert and researcher at Microsoft Research who studies the intersection of technology and society has joined Georgetown as a visiting distinguished professor, accelerating a university-wide initiative on technology, ethics, governance and public policy.

danah boyd, Georgetown's new visiting distinguished professor
danah boyd, a researcher at Microsoft Research who studies the intersection of technology and society, has joined Georgetown for the year as a visiting distinguished professor.

danah boyd will help drive cross-campus collaboration among interdisciplinary faculty members as part of Georgetown’s new Center for Digital Ethics and Tech & Society Initiative, a network of centers across the university that shape technology’s impact on ethics and policy for the public good. boyd will host lectures and seminars and teach a spring course that examines evidence-based policymaking and data. 

An internationally recognized authority on technology and society, boyd is a partner researcher at Microsoft Research, an advanced research laboratory where she studies how technology and society interact, with a focus on how structural inequalities are reconfigured through technology. boyd is also the founder of Data & Society, an independent research institute, and author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Most recently, boyd has been conducting an ethnographic study of the 2020 U.S. Census to understand how data is made legitimate; findings from this study will be published in an upcoming book.

“danah boyd is an internationally renowned leader in the interface between emerging technologies and their effects on society,” says Robert M. Groves, provost of Georgetown University. “Her participation in classes and meetings with faculty and students will make us better. Further, her experience in building new organizations will be useful as we launch the Center for Digital Ethics.”

‘World-Class Thinker’

boyd’s work will support Georgetown’s newly launched Center for Digital Ethics, a central hub for digital ethical research and innovation within the university’s Tech & Society Initiative. boyd’s own multi-faceted background, research and experience will help catalyze connections between scholars and practitioners focused on the intersection of technology and policy, says Paul Ohm, chair of the Tech & Society Initiative’s Steering Committee and a professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center.

“danah boyd is exactly the kind of world-class thinker and doer we need to help scholars and practitioners address some of the world’s most pressing issues, from privacy and surveillance to speech and democracy to racial justice and civil rights,” he said. “I am so thrilled she will be serving as a distinguished visiting professor this year to help us lay a strong foundation for the future of our Center for Digital Ethics and Tech & Society Initiative.”

In boyd’s first few days at Georgetown, we Zoomed with her to learn what fuels her interest in technology and society, why she was drawn to Georgetown, and why it’s more important than ever to study technology and policy with an ethical lens.

Q&A With danah boyd

“I hope to start a fire in a productive way to help cook ideas.”danah boyd, Visiting Distinguished Professor

How did you first become interested in the intersection of technology and society?

I was a kid who was on the internet early, in 1993, when the world wide web was not yet a thing. It was exciting that this beeping, ridiculous-sounding thing attached to a telephone could connect you to people around the world. I remember thinking, wow, computers can be made up of people! For me, technology was connected with sociology from the beginning. 

My entire career has been about moving between layers of technical infrastructures, human practices and social structures. 

I studied computer science as an undergraduate to build the technical systems that were so empowering to me as a young person. In graduate school, I started visualizing networks of people that formed online, first as traces from Usenet and email and then the networks that formed on social media start-ups like Friendster and MySpace. I then turned to understand how people—and especially teenagers—engaged with social media. After graduate school, I went to Microsoft Research where I began studying the “big data” phenomenon and went deeper into my studies of privacy. In 2013, I founded a research institute, Data & Society, to collaborate with more people trying to make sense of sociotechnical issues. For the past few years, I’ve researched how the 2020 U.S. Census sought to produce democracy’s data infrastructure, one of most significant pieces of data that’s produced in this country. 

What do you want the Georgetown community to know about you?

I’m a researcher through and through, curious to the core, fascinated by different methods and ways of seeing the world. That’s what gets me up every day. A former undergraduate advisor once told me that as researchers, we have the luxury and privilege of doing research, and we have a responsibility to profess and communicate what we learn in order to give back. I want to learn and keep gifting knowledge to help others unlock puzzles they are struggling with. 

As a scholar, I’ve done a terrible job of staying in a single discipline or staying focused on a single topic. That’s also one of the reasons why I’m excited to come to Georgetown. There are so many interesting, curious, smart and informed people who approach scholarship from different perspectives. I’m excited to work with passionate students and learn from different members of the Georgetown community. Coming to Georgetown is like letting a kid in a candy store. 

What drew you to join Georgetown and its Center for Digital Ethics and Tech & Society Initiative?

I’ve known and admired Georgetown faculty across different disciplines for years. The Law Center has the largest ecosystem of privacy legal scholars out there. The computer science department includes experts in differential privacy. There are multiple centers that approach sociotechnical issues with a civil rights, racial justice and/or social justice perspective. There are Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars who understand government and how to think about policy. I’m excited to work with all of these different scholars and researchers, and help create bridges if possible.

Georgetown’s backyard is the federal government. There’s such a need for a more robust conversation about the relationship between ethics, policy and technology—and so I’m excited that this is something that the faculty are excited to come together to address. Plus, frankly, I’m excited to work with so many scholars who are committed to a healthier, more just social world through their research.

Why is it important to study technology, policy and society with an ethical lens now? Why is this field important for Georgetown University students to study?

I think many different disciplines are starting to recognize that technology is part of society, and it always has been. Technology is not a separate thing. Technology is affecting every sector, every industry, every organization’s structure. Technology has also been integrated into democratic governance for forever. Grappling with the relationship between the government and different kinds of innovation is central to be able to address large-scale challenges.

The key to thinking about ethics in this moment is to resist the idea that technology is neutral and apolitical and separate. Technology is entangled with our social values and commitments; it’s entangled with power, and therefore, ethics is an inherent part of the conversation whether or not you’ve chosen to ignore it. Ethics isn’t a checklist but a way of seeing the world. 

The governance of technology happens at every level, from design to policy. The choices that people make in how they design, build, use and govern technology close out different possible futures. As such, these are choices shaped by ethical commitments. We must all be more conscientious about how we move through this world and how we build and leverage the tools available to us. When you shape people and practices, you shape outcomes. Georgetown is deeply committed to helping students grapple with values, ethics and morality with an eye toward building a more just world. As such, I’m excited that Georgetown is investing in a Center for Digital Ethics and the Tech & Society Initiative more generally. 

Editor’s Note: danah boyd legally changed her name to all lower-case. She shares more about this decision on her website.

This article was originally published by Georgetown University. Please follow the link to read the full story.