We Haven’t Gone Paperless Yet

Why the Printing Press Can Help Us Understand Data and AI


How should we understand the social and political effects of the datafication of human life? This paper argues that the effects of data should be understood as a constitutive shift in social and political relations. We explore how datafication, or quantification of human and non-human factors into binary code, affects the identity of individuals and groups. This fundamental shift goes beyond economic and ethical concerns, which has beenthe focus of other efforts to explore the effects of datafication and AI. We highlight that technologies such as datafication and AI (and previously, the printing press) both disrupted extant power arrangements, leading to decentralization, and triggered a recentralization of power by new actors better adapted to leveraging the new technology. We use the analogy of the printing press to provide a framework for understanding constitutive change. The printing press example gives us more clarity on 1) what can happen when the medium of communication drastically alters how information is communicated and stored; 2) the shift in power from state to private actors; and 3) the tension of simultaneously connecting individuals while driving them towards narrower communities through algorithmic analyses of data.

AIES ‘21: Proceedings of the 2021 AAAI/ACM Conference on AI, Ethics, and Society
Julian Posada
Julian Posada
Postgraduate Associate

Research interests include platform labor, data production, and virtual migration.