Harry Halpin: Technical Problems As Social Problems in Disguise: From the Web to Blockchains and Beyond

Start Time: 

Thursday, December 7, 2017 - 2:30pm


Manning Hall 001

Join SILS for a special presentation by Harry Halpin to discuss technical problems as social problems. Halpin is set to deliver his talk, "Technical Problems As Social Problems in Disguise: From the Web to Blockchains and Beyond," on Thursday, Dec. 7, from 2:30-3:30 p.m. in Manning Hall 001.

Abstract: Behind many technological protocols are hidden social assumptions, and empirical methods in data science can be used to test and validate these assumptions. For example, my research in data science shows how the traditional "top down"  assumptions of metadata schemes on the Semantic Web break down in the messy real-world of human activity on the Web, and how stable consensus around classification can be formed via "bottom up" collaborative tagging. However, our technologies are not designed for today's adversarial environment, where privacy and security are becoming increasingly vital. Yet my current ethnographic research shows that the assumptions of the developers of encrypted messaging products like WhatsApp and Signal fail to meet the needs of high-risk activists from Russia to Syria. I'll explore how participatory re-design of these protocols, with the help of blockchain technology, can offer a way forward not just for human rights activists, but everyday problems in topics as diverse as bias in big data and healthcare.

Harry HalpinBio: Harry Halpin is a Research Scientist on privacy-enhanced data science using blockchain technology at the MIT Sociotechnical Research Center. He is also a visiting Researcher at Inria (Institut national de recherche en informatique et en automatique), where he is project co-ordinator of the European Commission's NEXTLEAP project on decentralizing encrypted messaging. Previously, he led the Web Cryptography Working Group as security standardization lead in the Technology and Society Domain of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and was a program manager at Duke University where he helped Cathy Davidson launch HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory). He received his award-winning Ph.D. in Informatics from Edinburgh University, completed his postdoctoral work under philosopher Bernard Stiegler at Centre Pompidou, and is the author of the book "Social Semantics."