Refusal in Data Ethics: Re-Imagining the Code Beneath the Code of Computation in the Carceral State

  • Chelsea Barabas Massachusetts Institute of Technology


In spite of a growing interest in ethical approaches to computation, engineers and quantitative researchers are often not equipped with the conceptual tools necessary to interrogate, resist, and reimagine the relationships of power which shape their work. A liberatory vision of computation requires de-centering the data in “data ethics” in favor of cultivating an ethics of encounter that foregrounds the ways computation reproduces structures of domination. This article draws from a rich body of feminist scholarship that explores the liberatory potential of refusal as a practice of generative boundary setting. To refuse is to say no—to reject the default categories, assumptions and problem formulations which so often underpin data-intensive work. But refusal is more than just saying no; it can be a generative and strategic act, one which opens up space to renegotiate the assumptions underlying sociotechnical endeavors. This article explores two complementary modalities of refusal in computation: “refusal as resistance” and “refusal as re-centering the margins.” By exploring these two modes of refusal, the goal of this paper is to provide a vocabulary for identifying and rejecting the ways that sociotechnical systems reinforce dependency on oppressive structural conditions, as well as offer a framework for flexible collective experimentation towards more free futures.


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Original Research Articles