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Rethinking the Public Sphere 2020-2021

Part II: Data and Democracy

This multi-year series responds to current challenges to rational public debate. Following Part I of the series in 2019-20 entitled “Race and the Promise of Participation,” which examined contemporary institutions that define public life, the 2020-21 speaker series turns to the question of how new technologies and the algorithms underlying ‘big data’ shape human experience, communication, and representation. This year’s talks examine how race and racism, equity and inequality, and gender shape and are produced by technological systems. From drone warfare and corporate data, to surveillance systems and robots, they reveal the human values and ideas embedded in technological advances. Over the course of two semesters, speakers in this series will call us to be thoughtful and deliberate when allowing artificial intelligence entry into our public spaces.





Katherine Chandler (Georgetown University, Walsh School of Foreign Service)
“Drone Publics: A Human-made Machine World”
4:00pm Thursday November 12th, 2020

4:00pm Thursday November 19th, 2020

Virtual Event – Preregister Here to Receive Zoom URL

How do drone technologies imagine an automated public sphere? This talk analyzes early experiments with drone aircraft to show how machine autonomy is predicated on the contradiction of “unmanning,” in which pilotless planes are defined by the “man” the technology claims to negate. This is highlighted in the ways race and colonialism are enmeshed with early drone experiments. I detail these early drone experiments through two archives: the autobiography of an American drone pilot from World War II, self-published with the title American Kamikaze in 1984, and the scrapbook from a photographic unit for Operation Crossroads, which tested drones for aerial filming during nuclear weapons trials in 1946. The claim for the “superiority” of the American drone in World War II was made against the “inhumanity” of the Japanese military. That neither drone system functioned did little to uncouple its supposed technological advantage from the ascendancy America claimed in the Pacific. These early experiments lead to a reconsideration of a machine-like world that unmanning upholds, indicating how contemporary drone warfare continues to overlay technological advances with moral superiority and political legitimacy on a global scale.

Katherine Chandler is an Assistant Professor of Culture and Politics in the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. She studies the intersection of technology, media and politics to research how militarism is embedded in the everyday. Her book Unmanning: How Humans, Machines and Media Perform Drone Warfare (Rutgers University Press, 2020) analyzes failed projects to build drone aircraft from 1936-1992. It excavates how race, gender and nation are the basis of the drone, showing how these politics are disavowed as the technology advances. Her current research, Drone Publics, researches contemporary drones – and the overlay of militarism, humanitarianism, and commercialism they propose – to theorize global publics. For more information, visit


Catherine D’Ignazio (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Urban Studies and Planning)
“Data Feminism”
4:00pm Tuesday January 26th, 2021
Virtual Event – Preregister Here to Receive Zoom URL

As data are increasingly mobilized in the service of governments and corporations, their unequal conditions of production, asymmetrical methods of application, and unequal effects on both individuals and groups have become increasingly difficult for data scientists – and others who rely on data in their work – to ignore. But it is precisely this power that makes it worth asking: Data science by whom? Data science for whom? Data science with whose interests in mind? These are some of the questions that emerge from what we call data feminism, a way of thinking about data science and its communication that is informed by the past several decades of intersectional feminist activism and critical thought. Illustrating data feminism in action, this talk will show how challenges to the male/female binary can help to challenge other hierarchical (and empirically wrong) classification systems. It will explain how an understanding of emotion can expand our ideas about effective data visualization, how the concept of invisible labor can expose the significant human efforts required by our automated systems, and why the data never, ever “speak for themselves.” The goal of this talk, as with the project of data feminism broadly, is to model how scholarship can be transformed into action: how feminist thinking can be operationalized in order to imagine more ethical and equitable data practices.

Catherine D’Ignazio (@kanarinka) is a scholar, artist/designer and hacker mama who focuses on feminist technology, data literacy and civic engagement. With Rahul Bhargava, she built the platform, a suite of tools and activities to introduce newcomers to data science. Her book Data Feminism (2020, MIT Press), co-authored with Lauren F. Klein, charts a course for more ethical and empowering data science practices. Her art and design projects have won awards from the Tanne Foundation,, and the Knight Foundation and have been exhibited at the Venice Biennial and the ICA Boston. D’Ignazio is an Assistant Professor of Urban Science and Planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. She is also Director of the Data + Feminism Lab which uses data and computational methods to work towards gender and racial equity, particularly in relation to space and place. For more information, visit


Ruha Benjamin (Princeton University, Department of African American Studies)
“Race to the Future? Reimagining the Default Settings of Technology & Society”
4:00pm Thursday February 25, 2021
Virtual Event – Preregister Here to Receive Zoom URL

From everyday apps to complex algorithms, technology has the potential to hide, speed, and deepen discrimination, while appearing neutral and even benevolent when compared to racist practices of a previous era. This talk explores a range of discriminatory designs that encode inequity – what she terms the “New Jim Code.” This presentation takes us into the world of biased bots, altruistic algorithms, and their many entanglements, and provides conceptual tools to decode tech promises with historically and sociologically-informed skepticism. It will also consider how race itself is a kind of tool designed to stratify and sanctify social injustice and discuss how technology is and can be used toward liberatory ends. In doing so, this talk challenges us to question not only the technologies we are sold, but also the ones we manufacture ourselves.

Ruha Benjamin is Associate Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, where she studies the social dimensions of science, technology, and medicine. She is also the Founding Director of the IDA B. WELLS Just Data Lab, and author of two books: the award-winning Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (Polity Press, 2019) and Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life (Duke University Press, 2019). Dr. Benjamin researches and teaches on the relationship between knowledge and power, race and citizenship, health and justice. For more information, visit


Sylvester Johnson (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Center for the Humanities and Department of Religion and Culture)
“Will Robots Feel Pain? The Politics of Race, the Governance of Technology, and the Future of Humanity”
2:00pm Friday April 23, 2021
Reitz Union Rion Ballroom*

*This talk is also the keynote of the UF Intersections Symposium and is currently planned as a live event. Please check back to see if the event will be moved online.

From Aristotle’s ancient conception of the soul, to Ibn Rushd’s twelfth-century analytics of the intellect, to the information theory underlying neural networks, scholars have queried the agency of things and the relationship between matter and its other spirit. Does agency inhere in material things? Can an assemblage of machine parts be a person? What distinguishes humans from mere objects? In this talk, Sylvester Johnson proposes that the use of intelligent machines (in the form of artificial intelligence or machine-learning applications) for human enhancement has crystallized these age-old conundrums in a new key. Machines are now being successfully engineered to write poetry, compose music, make moral decisions, and even program other machines. More importantly, military efforts to combine humans with intelligent machines are beginning to produce far-reaching consequences that move beyond scenarios that pit mere humans against mere machines. By considering the racial history of so-called fetishism, Johnson gives historical depth to contemporary developments in cybernetics and discusses the prospect of new frameworks for humans and non-humans that may create new possibilities of machine life.

Sylvester A. Johnson is Assistant Vice Provost for the Humanities and Executive Director of the “Tech for Humanity” initiative at Virginia Tech. He is the founding director of Virginia Tech’s new Center for Humanities, which is supporting human-centered research and humanistic approaches to guide technology. Sylvester’s research has examined religion, race, and empire in the Atlantic world; religion and sexuality; national security practices; and the impact of intelligent machines and human enhancement on human identity and race governance. Johnson led an Artificial Intelligence project that developed a successful proof-of-concept machine learning application to ingest and analyze a humanities text. He is currently writing a book on human identity in an age of intelligent machines and human-machine symbiosis.


 All events are free and open to the public.

 UF Series Funders and Co-Sponsors:

Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere (Rothman Endowment); College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Chief Diversity Officer; Informatics Institute; Bob Graham Center for Public Service; Center for Latin American Studies; African American Studies Program; Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research

For information on past speaker series, click here.