Interview with filmmaker Shalini Kantayya
Shalini Kantayya is the American filmmaker and environmentalist behind the poignant documentary Coded Bias. In the film, Joy Buolamwini (MIT) starts an investigation into the implicit biases in artificial intelligence and discovers that many algorithms that are mainly made by white men, respond differently – or not – to people who aren’t. Joy and other women fight for justice in today’s automated society. With this documentary Kantayya joins the fights against injustice. How does she approach it?
How did you first hear about Joy Buolamwini and her research?
I think I may have first seen it in a TED talk. I started reading the work of Cathy O’Neil and Safiya Noble and so many others. That made me stumble in the rabbit hole of the dark world of technology.
Was Joy your introduction into the subject or any of the other writers?
I was researching writers on the theme at the same time as I met Joy. She was incredibly astute and also doing incredible work to raise awareness and to educate and empower communities that were marginalized.
But you had already an idea for this documentary before this meeting?
Yes, that’s right.
When did you decide to make Joy the entry point to this story?
You always pursue certain characters to make a documentary. I think it was when we documented her going to Capitol Hill that I knew that we had a documentary story.
Did you shoot other stuff before you got to her?
No, my shooting was very focused for this documentary. I completed the film in under two years, which is short for an independent documentary.
Did you have an interest in technology before this project or did the civil rights angle bring you to it. Or both?
Oh, both! As an activist filmmaker much of my work explores disruptive technologies and how they impact the most vulnerable among us. My previous film, Catching the Sun, was about how small scale solar energy could uplift the working class and communities of color. That was much more Utopian. Coded Bias explores a different kind of disruptive technology for civil rights.
This film is more dystopian, at least in the premise. When you hear so much about the dark side of technology, do you feel it is hard to keep optimistic?
I’m very optimistic! My film is about a small group of people changing the world. In the making of this film I saw how a few people can already make a difference.
Our slogan is Our Future in the Making. It seems you think we can make a better future.
Absolutely! We are having a moonshot moment where we are just at the beginning of the conversation. We have an opportunity to stand up for data rights. You in Europe have already a conversation going about that and in the US I really hope we can start this conversation as the home of all these technology companies.
“The real conversation begins when the light goes up and you talk to the person next to you.”
You said you were very focused while making this documentary, but was there still something worth mentioning that you learned about biased technology during the making process, that couldn’t be in the final film?
There is so much worth mentioning. I always tell people to read all the books by the people featured in the film. And like I said it is just the beginning of the conversation. The real conversation begins when the light goes up and you talk to the person next to you. A lot of it is raising public understanding about how these systems work and the science behind them. That’s why I’m grateful to festivals like InScience that put the communication of science through cinema, as I think these go hand in hand. The topic is just massive and I hope that after seeing Coded Bias people will follow their own intellectual curiosity.
There are a lot of characters and elements to your story, but still the film feels very accessible and flows very well. How did you manage that?
It was a really hard process to make the film make sense, but Joy’s story was a gift, because it gave us a narrative. When we shot the opening where Joy discovers the technology she uses on her project is biased and she goes to the capital I knew that there was an arc to hang the story on. Her friendship with Cathy and how these female data scientists join forces, that all was part of the narrative of the film.
This is perhaps a more personal question, but as a woman of color, did you ever experience some of the negative aspects of technology yourself?
Yes, there is one company where I am on some algorithmic list, where I send documentation but I don’t get any response. I have tried to contact them, I am sending them documentation but to no avail. Also, when I try to find one Indian recipe online, my whole YouTube recommendation becomes completely Indian. YouTube stereotypes me with only a certain type of content I am supposed to be interested in, as if I only have one taste, while in reality I have a broad taste.