Technology, Meet Policy, Ethics and Culture

Michigan Technological University sign with 1885, dog on rock, and melty snowflakes
Michigan Technological University sign with 1885, dog on rock, and melty snowflakes
Michigan Tech’s new Institute puts human considerations at the core of technological advances.

Change agent. Disruptor. Advocate for algorithmic integrity. Marika Pfefferkorn comes to Michigan Technological University this week to help its new Institute for Policy, Ethics, and Culture (IPEC) get the techno-cultural conversation going.

Every day we're introduced to better-performing technology. Beyond the achievements lie important human factors: who benefits, who doesn't and why? MTU's IPEC asks the questions.

The Institute is a natural outgrowth for a public research university that innovates technological advancements, says IPEC Founding Director Jennifer Daryl Slack, a humanities department distinguished professor of communication and cultural studies.

"Michigan Tech has a responsibility to weigh in on the policy issues, ethical choices and cultural values that shape our future. That's why Michigan Tech developed IPEC," said Slack. "By bringing policy, ethics and culture purposely into the center of concern, IPEC enhances Michigan Tech's leadership role in the fast-moving techno-cultural environment.

Every year, the newly formed Institute will choose one or two interdisciplinary themes to address emerging issues. IPEC rolls out its first theme, Algorithmic Culture, this week with a campus visit from thought leader and social justice advocate Marika Pfefferkorn.

Side profile of a woman with hand under her chin holding a pen intently concentrating
Through interdisciplinary research, policy and practice in education, community vitality, entrepreneurship, and innovation and technology with roots in youth development, Marika Pfefferkorn focuses on issues of racial equity and discipline disparities at federal, state and local levels. (Image courtesy Marika Pfefferkorn)

Pfefferkorn's guest lecture, "Equipping Communities in the Algorithmic Age," is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7 at Michigan Tech's Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts.

On Friday, Nov. 8, following the 7 p.m. performance of George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984  by New York City's Aquila Theater, Pfefferkorn joins Michigan Tech faculty for a panel discussion with the audience about the new technologies and analytics that govern society today.
"Marika is about community involvement. She's interested in policy-making and outreach — that is her commitment," said Slack. "She wants to make her knowledge available to make a difference in our community."

 Go. Listen. Discuss.


Admission is free to the Thursday lecture, but you still need tickets. There's a charge for Friday's event (exception: no cost for Michigan Tech students with the Tech Experience fee, and a Class Acts discount for Copper Country Intermediate School District students whose teachers have made prior arrangements). Rosza Center for the Performing Arts has all the details. 

A woman on a stage gestures while giving a talk to Thomson Reuters news service with predictive analytics, algorithms and big data on the board behind her.
Pfefferkorn presents on Big Data, Predictive Analysis and Algorithms in Education in fall 2019 at multinational media conglomerate Thomson Reuters. (Image courtesy Marika Pfefferkorn)

Pfefferkorn's mission to transform systems and improve outcomes for marginalized families and communities is closely tied to algorithms and the risk, bias and errors inherent in predictive analytics. Founder of the Coalition to Stop the Cradle to Prison Algorithm, Pfefferkorn organized a grassroots community movement to dissolve a problematic data-sharing agreement in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Her work on that project and numerous others has shown that data that doesn't take people or relationships into account creates problems, not solutions.

In addition to the talk and panel, Pfefferkorn meets with students and faculty this week as part of IPEC's conversation and examination of our increasingly algorithmic culture.

"I am excited to be a part of the conversation at Michigan Tech about emerging technological trends and the need to equip communities — rural, suburban, urban and otherwise — with the knowledge, tools and understanding to navigate successfully in an Algorithmic Age," said Pfefferkorn. 

Why We Care About Algorithms  

"Algorithms — the rules that guide the manipulation of data — affect credit ratings, health care coverage, your news feed, law enforcement practices, even airline safety (notably in the recent crashes of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft)," Slack said. "We use algorithms at universities like Michigan Tech to recruit students. And algorithms can determine those students' success in the job application process. IPEC will address how and why that matters: how algorithms are designed, the policies with which they are implemented, the ethical choices about data included and excluded, and the cultural biases that support or challenge our technical choices."

"This is a full-on interdisciplinary interrogation of the power and implications of our real techno-cultural choices and the role of computational logic in everyday life."Jennifer Daryl Slack, Founding Director, IPEC

About the Director


Algorithmic culture was chosen as the first IPEC project because it's foundational, said Slack. Two more speakers come to campus this fall to add further perspective:

- John Cheney-Lippold, author of "We Are Data: Algorithms and the Making of Our Digital Selves," presents "Algorithms, Accidents, and the Imposition of a World of Calculation" at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 18 in room 0103 of the Electrical Energy Resources Center.

- Meredith Broussard, author of "Artificial Unintelligence," presents a talk with Q&A on that topic at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, in Memorial Union Ballroom B.

"We've been teaching about algorithms and data at Michigan Tech for some time," Slack said. "John's book convinced me that we really needed to think in terms of algorithmic culture, and the way biases affect the entire culture: race, gender, other specific ways. ‘Artificial Unintelligence' takes on the big issue of autonomous vehicles — Meredith can speak directly to the kind of technological innovations being developed here."

More programming is in the works; the Institute's goal is to stay open and responsive to the needs of the times we live in.

"Regardless of what you call it — the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the biotechnological era, the digital age, or the Anthropocene, there are complex interdisciplinary issues emerging that require attention," said Slack.

"IPEC isn't a single-issue institute. The times demand something different. The times demand fast-moving flexibility to attend to issues as they emerge."Jennifer Daryl Slack, IPEC Founding Director

Up Next: Designing the Anthropocene

What does a sustainable human-technological-natural world future look like? IPEC's second project, Designing the Anthropocene, dives into the topic in spring term 2020.

"It will feature speakers who address the interlacing and cascading consequences of the evolving human and natural environment," said Slack. The issues include human and ecosystem health, climate change, the hydrological cycle, food systems, biodiversity, infrastructure, oceans and the geographic distribution of humans and other species.

"With a focus on design, IPEC speakers will encourage the community to think in terms of the policy, ethical and cultural steps necessary to design an integrated Earth-systems perspective," Slack said.

Enhancing the Way We Teach, Collaborate and Learn

While IPEC's speaker series is the most visible part of the Institute, it's one among many components, as members focus on the need to address policy unique to the emerging technological environment along with ethical and cultural challenges, implications and strategies.

"These matters are equally important for researchers, students, entrepreneurs, industries, institutions and local communities," said Slack. "IPEC is designed to address and serve all of these."

"In addition to developing research collaborations, IPEC promotes teaching and policy engagement in new and forward-looking ways," said Slack. "IPEC is developing new courses and course modules, and contributing to the enhancement of course content in policy, ethics and culture across the Michigan Tech curriculum."

An interdisciplinary PhD is in the planning process, a degree for professionals who want to upgrade their ability to integrate pressing matters of policy, ethics and culture in the new techno-cultural environment, Slack said, noting that IPEC also facilitates interactions among faculty, students and policymakers, in the interest of contributing to sound policy-making in Michigan and beyond.

"IPEC brings the right people together at the right time to leverage, learn about and develop Michigan Tech's responsiveness to new issues," said Slack. "It draws on the rich technical, scientific and humanistic talents and commitments available at Michigan Tech and makes connections with experts elsewhere in academia, industry, business, government and non-governmental agencies."


 IPEC Members


Institute participating departments include humanities, business, chemistry, computer science, forest resources and environmental science, mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics and social sciences. 



Jennifer Daryl Slack



Stefka Hristova

Sarah Green

Carlos Amador

Nancy Barr

Andrew Fiss

Soonkwan Hong

Mary Muncil Jennings

Audrey Mayer

Alexandra Morrison

William Roberts

Roman Sidortsov

Stefanie Sidortsova

Charles Wallace

Adam Wellstead

Shan Zhou

The Institute is considering future projects. "In the running for fall 2020 is ‘The simulated post-truth world,' which would consider matters such as ‘fake science' and ‘fake news,'" Slack said. "Beyond that, IPEC promises to address issues such as technology and autonomy, biotechnology and medical ethics, and surveillance and privacy. As the issues emerge, IPEC will cover them. " 

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.