Team Intro: Dr. Joy Lisi Rankin


February 15, 2021

In our last post of 2020, AI Now committed to ensuring that everyone involved in research, writing, editing, and operational work receives credit for their contributions. In the past, the organizational “we” often obscured the identities and hard work of the people who make up AI Now. Behind all this work are people from diverse backgrounds with differing expertise, perspectives, and analysis. So we are starting 2021 with a series of posts to showcase their work, in their own words, and to ensure that those interested in engaging with AI Now and our work know who to approach for what.

To kick off the series, we have Research Lead Joy Lisi Rankin, author of A People’s History of Computing in the United States (Harvard Univ. Press, 2018). She joined AI Now in December 2019 and leads AI Now’s Gender, Race, and Power in AI program. Check out her personal website, follow her on Twitter, or get in touch at [email protected].

Joy Lisi Rankin Illustration

What is your background and research focus?

As a historian, I am focused on mobilizing history to study how AI and algorithmic technologies have been constructed and used in the past, and how we can learn from this history to make urgently needed changes in the present.

To get a sense of your research and work, what would you suggest people engage with?

I am really proud of the recent piece I did for AI Now’s Medium page, called Whitewashing tech: Why the erasures of the past matter today. It not only focuses on my own writing and work about why history is so important to the field of AI, but showcases work of other academics, journalists, and thinkers in the field - every link in the piece is a window to further scholarship.

For fans of the game and tv show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, I wrote a piece in The New Inquiry called Where in the world is…Cathy Carlston?. It looks at how the franchise is often remembered in terms of its male creator team, yet women had more crucial roles than were ever credited.

For anyone curious about my book, A People’s History of Computing in the United States, I wrote a short excerpted piece in Slate on how 1960s Dartmouth computing pioneers gave rise to the macho tech culture we see today.

How does your work relate to AI?

I’m interested in looking at who we think of as an innovator, and who is leading the forefront of technology. I also always ask the question: who benefits from technology and who might get harmed? Often it’s those most harmed who get left out of the conversations. For me, the answers to those questions always shine light on the complexity of how technology and society shape each other.

In terms of AI, I am most interested in questions of privilege: who is making AI tech and who is excluded? And what does asking these types of questions say about the contours of power with respect to race and gender and ability?

What is some work that is inspiring you right now?

I love the book Data Feminism by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein. They have so many rich examples that deal with how the ways in which data is constructed (and made and displayed) holds so much power. I’m really into the idea that datasets have history.

I also love my colleague Erin McElroy’s work on the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project.

Who is an advocate, scholar, or researcher you look up to and why? Has any of their work particularly inspired you?

It’s so hard to pick just one! Rashida Richardson comes to mind - not a particular piece of her work, but I deeply admire the way she approaches work with integrity, rigor, intelligence, kindness.

I should also mention Meredith Whittaker, who is one the main reasons I came to work at AI Now. I admire the way that she is able to synthesize and articulate a lot of complex concepts and mobilize people around them to create change in the real world.

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our mailing list in our homepage.