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Accuracy or Fairness

David Cowles

Jun 6, 2024

“Imagine a world in which a viewer can effectively change history just by changing the channel.”

Once in a while, a single sentence can turn your whole world upside down. Recently, I came across such a sentence online. I can’t attest to its veracity, but in a sense that doesn’t matter. What matters is that someone would actually write it, true or false.

“Nvidia is trying to strike a balance between accuracy and fairness in AI.” In other words, it is now possible, excusable, even laudable to sacrifice a certain amount of truth (accuracy) in favor of ideology (fairness).

Wow! We all know it’s happening, but to come right out and say it…that’s brazen! This now officially sanctioned practice of lying to ease our social consciences (e.g. regarding male privilege, slavery, and racism generally) has an unintended consequence: the end of ‘history’ per se! 

Not the end of ‘historical process’ (like quiet Fukuyama) but the end of ‘historical writing’. More precisely, it is the reclassification of all future histories as historical novels. 

As a boy, I remember our local library being divided into two ‘wings’: Fiction on one side, Non-Fiction on the other. In the library of tomorrow, if there are libraries, if there is a tomorrow, Non-Fiction may be confined to a single shelf.

There is no doubt that the role of women, African Americans, and other ethnic minorities has been shamefully neglected by academic historians. Uncovering the true role of the marginalized in history is a worthy project. 

But we are at cross purposes. On the one hand, we want to expose the horrors of racism and misogyny. We can’t tell often enough our stories of the slave trade, ante-bellum plantation life, the holocaust, and the physical, sexual, social, and economic exploitation of women.

On the other hand, these well intentioned narratives can have the unintended and undesired effect of making such horrors seem part of the natural order. Sensitive to this concern, the media has begun sanitizing history by portraying more women and minorities in positions of power than was actually the case. 

A social event that might have included only white males is ‘recast’ to include a healthy mix of women and people of color. Atlantic society post 1492 is ‘reimagined’ as something much closer to what could have been, should have been, and presumably would have been, absent racism and sexism. So what’s wrong with that?

Well, AI’s efforts to ‘colorize our world’ do often go unnoticed…but not always. How about the time AI decided to inject racial diversity into a particular social situation…that turned out to be a KKK meeting! 

The BBC is shaking up their formula for historical mini-series to portray women and persons of color in anachronistic positions of influence. No doubt some were! But the essence of the postmodern social critique is the conviction that these marginalized groups did not always participate fully in the economic and social life of society. 

The BBC is portraying society the way it might have been rather than the way it was. Exposing viewers to a vision of society where race and gender do not condition one’s relations (access) to the ‘means of production’ may also have a positive consequence: it gets us used to, and comfortable with, diversity.

But it may also be the ultimate expression of institutional racism. It undercuts the postmodernist critique by suggesting that ‘historical conditions were not really as bad as they have been portrayed’.  This is just the sort of thing that can lead to ‘holocaust denial’.

Plus, it underscores the fundamental tenet of racist/sexist ideology: “Women and minorities only appear to succeed because of affirmative action and/or statistical distortion.”

The politically correct class needs to get its story straight. Were minorities prevented by various forms of dehumanizing discrimination from assuming the roles they might otherwise have played in history…or not? If so, portraying the past as ‘better than it was’ undercuts the fundamental premise of that social criticism.

Should we focus our efforts on ensuring that previously marginalized constituencies have equal access to the levers of power? Or do we just need to uncover and recognize the previously neglected contributions these groups have already made? Or in the interests of broader social ‘good’, should we impute an historical role to minorities that they may not have played IRL?

Allegedly, Nvidia runs two algorithms. One is intended to mimic the actual historical event as closely as possible; the other is designed to reimagine that same event assuming a society free of race or gender bias. A further algorithm then blends the two.

One can imagine bizarre scenarios. “We’re doing this documentary for the BBC so dial-in a heavy dose of ‘fairness’; this other project is for Fox so tamp-down on the race and gender stuff.” 

It is bad enough that the content of today’s news is primarily a function of its source (media). Now imagine a world in which a viewer can effectively change history just by changing the channel.  

Of course, history has always been subjective, even biased. Interpretation and spin are one thing, but it’s quite another to change the circumstances of an event to suit a particular social agenda…and then to brag about it. “Job well done!”

All society, as far as we know, is based on the premise that there is a certain level of objective reality that we all share. Brute fact, the human condition, facticity, etc. Now that premise is called into question. Nothing is ‘settled’; everything is subject to revision. 

In such a world why believe anything? Why not believe whatever I’m comfortable believing, however outrageous and anti-social it might be. If I want to believe that birds are really drones, there’s nothing you can say or do that would prove me wrong. “All your data is corrupt. I’ll believe what I want to believe…and you can’t stop me!”

It really is a brave new world!



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