Words matter


Many were quick to point out that ‘social distancing’ was a poor choice of words, including the President of our university. What we need in times of pandemic is ‘physical distancing’ accompanied by social solidarity. I have seen the latter cleverly described as viral solidarity. This is a nice play on solidarity during the spread of infectious disease while at the same time being an expression of hope as people behave in socially responsible ways out of concern for others. We can hope that such behaviour is also contagious.

These are reminders that words do matter, and one of the vital contributions to be made by social scientists and humanities scholars to public debate.

I had another reminder of the power of words in recent weeks. In what we now sometimes describe as ‘other news’, I received an invitation to join a national strategy group to examine the social and economic potential of artificial intelligence (AI). I was invited to represent ‘niet technische wetenschap’ (non-technical science). Other researchers were invited for their expertise in fundamental AI and applied AI. I was clearly expected to represent everything from media studies to anthropology to law and history to help the public ‘accept’ AI. I’m a big believer in interdisciplinarity especially when it comes to understanding the complex, non-linear relationships between science, technology and society, but there are limits to what I can reasonably claim as expertise.

Let me loosely translate the invitation: ‘Dear Professor. We would like you to join our committee, to do endless hours of unpaid work because of your expertise in everything the core group neither understands nor takes particularly seriously. We want you to help us persuade the ‘ignorant’ public of the benefits of AI. Because you are a woman and a foreigner, we expect that you will be honoured to join our group of old Dutch men.’

It is hard to feel honoured when you are defined by what you are not. Good invitations emphasise what the person might bring to the project. It really is rude to ask people because they are, for example, not men, not white, not technical. This is what the humanities and the social sciences mean by ‘othering’.

Sally Wyatt, Professor Digital Cultures at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences


Words matter
Sally Wyatt