Reinvigorated Sara Fine Institute confronts technology’s impact on society

Dr. Sara Fine, a professor emeritus of information sciences at Pitt, was deeply invested in uncovering the ways that technology shapes lives. To continue her legacy, Pitt developed the Sara Fine Institute in 1999 to engage members of the Pitt community with the humanistic and social study of technology. Through the Institute, members of the University community would actively engage in the meaning of their work through presentations from fellow researchers and professionals.

Nora Mattern, SCI teaching assistant professor and recently appointed SFI director, says the Institute has initiated the next step in its evolution, with programming that focuses on the relationships between people, society, and technology and the use of technologies and data for the public good.

“I’m really interested for us to explore ethical and social justice dimensions of technology, the benefits and the harms that technology can create, but with the aim of us creating a culture within the University of Pittsburgh that’s focused on being mindful, deliberate creators of technology,” Mattern says.

In fall 2020, SFI launched the Social Justice and Tech Reading Group, co-sponsored by the Research, Ethics, and Society Initiative of Pitt’s Center for Bioethics and Health Law. Each term, students, faculty, and staff from throughout the University will come together for the reading group to discuss a hand-selected text. These books will relate to technology’s role in advancing society, while speaking to a current theme or issue relevant to that moment in time. In spring 2021, the group discussed Ruha Benjamin’s “Race After Technology,” which addresses how emerging technologies can worsen social inequity and reinforce racial bias.

But these themes go beyond the School of Computing and Information — just as developing technology has an impact on all individuals in different ways. By collaborating with experts from other disciplines, the community can access all kinds of technological implications — from sociologists discussing ethical implications to medical professionals analyzing health significances.

“We can’t really think about the ethical or political or societal implications of data and technology without ensuring that the perspectives and the conversations are the perspectives of individuals from across the University being brought together,” Mattern says.

The reading group serves as just one example of the Institute creating space for these important discussions. SFI has also launched a series of guest lecturers to further discuss the relationships between people and technology.  These speakers will come from all kinds of disciplines, thus presenting several different perspectives on an issue. Sarah Williams, faculty member at MIT and author of “Data Action: Using Data for Public Good” (MIT Press, 2020) spoke in the spring 2021 semester.

Convening in these ways asks students and professionals to analyze how their work can serve as a benefit or detriment to equity and inclusion, as well as other expectations of the greater University community and society at large. Mattern says creating this supportive, active learning environment will shape the course of further technological development to come.

“We’re not only passively engaged with these topics,” Mattern says. “We’d like to ensure that we’re thinking about how we ourselves as members of this University community can take action, draw lessons from research happening in this space, and contribute to the exploration of these issues and maybe confronting some of these issues.”