Bits on Bots: Doctor Who, Dolly Parton, and the Timey Wimey Challenge of Digital Bias

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JDuncan Headshot.jpgJennifer Duncan has been teaching English for twenty years, first at Chattanooga State Community College in Tennessee and now at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College in Atlanta, GA where she is Associate Professor of English.  For the last ten years, she has focused exclusively on online teaching concentrating on creating authentic and meaningful learning opportunities for students in composition and literature courses.

 

In the Doctor Who episode “Silence in the Library,” the Doctor and his companion, Donna, visit the Library, a planet containing printed copies of every book ever written in all of time and space. AI Image Generated by Craiyon.comAI Image Generated by Craiyon.com Unfortunately, when they arrive, the Library is entirely empty—except, of course, for the intergalactic book worms—Vashta Nerada—who have lived in the books for generations and which now awaken to eat anyone who visits the library. There’s also a second threat from the Library itself which “saves” people by uploading them into information nodes—robotic library assistants who wear the faces of those they have consumed and offer vague answers to questions which require lots of follow ups from the Doctor to offer any real information.

Essentially, this is how GenAI tools like ChatGPT work. They were created by scanning vast amounts of online information indiscriminately, so, while containing lots of knowledge, they also contain both threats faced by the Doctor. In this case, Vashta Nerada serve as my metaphor for the bias sleeping in our texts throughout history. Why is ChatGPT so biased? Because it’s reflecting back to us the bias that was always hidden in our texts—in the gender stereotypes of textbooks, in the disproportionate representations of minorities in police reports, in the negative biases that have always been around for us to ignore or claim that they represent only a fringe point of view. The GenAI data collector consumed the mass of texts available to it and reflected those biases back to us. Like those information nodes, it shows us our own weakness by way of vague answers that require us to ask the follow up questions, expose the bias, and find what we really want which is, hopefully, the best of us instead of the worst.

It's like a child who learned to read and was then given access to everything in a vast library with no assistance, no direction, and no guardrails to evaluate or understand what they consumed.

When my son was born, we were residents of Tennessee, so he was automatically enrolled in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Every month, we received a new book in the mail, and they were great books! From The Little Engine that Could to Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come! these carefully curated book lists reach children as they develop intellectually and guide them as they develop their worldview. Kids learn to rely on friends in Kitty Up, that every creature needs rest in Panda Whispers, and that mom needs a minute in Llama Llama Red Pajama!

So where does this tale of two libraries leave us? Like the Doctor and Donna confronting hidden dangers in the Library, we must confront the biases ingrained within the texts and systems that shape our culture and our digital landscape. But like Dolly’s Imagination Library, we have the opportunity to curate our students’ digital literacy skills, guiding them toward a better understanding of the flaws in our culture and in GenAI technologies.

It might even be possible to cultivate a generation of discerning learners capable of embracing the complexities and contradictions of our modern age, much like the Doctor traveling through time and space armed with nothing more than curiosity, optimism, and a commitment to truth. The challenge seems impossible—especially without a sonic screwdriver—but it’s worth the effort. For in the words of the Doctor, “The universe is big, it’s vast, and complicated, and ridiculous. And sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen and we call them miracles.”