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This Thing Called Fairness: Disciplinary Confusion Realizing a Value in Technology


The explosion in the use of software in important sociotechnical systems has renewed focus on the study of the way technical constructs reflect policies, norms, and human values. This effort requires the engagement of scholars and practitioners from many disciplines. And yet, these disciplines often conceptualize the operative values very differently while referring to them using the same vocabulary. The resulting conflation of ideas confuses discussions about values in technology at disciplinary boundaries. In the service of improving this situation, this paper examines the value of shared vocabularies, analytics, and other tools that facilitate conversations about values in light of these disciplinary specific conceptualizations, the role such tools play in furthering research and practice, outlines different conceptions of ``fairness''deployed in discussions about computer systems, and provides an analytic tool for interdisciplinary discussions and collaborations around the concept of fairness. We use a case study of risk assessments in criminal justice applications to both motivate our effort--describing how conflation of different concepts under the banner of ``fairness'' led to unproductive confusion--and illustrate the value of the fairness analytic by demonstrating how the rigorous analysis it enables can assist in identifying key areas of theoretical, political, and practical misunderstanding or disagreement, and where desired support alignment or collaboration in the absence of consensus.

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