IIn November 2019, which now seems like an eon ago, I wrote about an interesting correlation that I had come across. It was that the most insightful critics of digital technology implemented by tech companies were women. I listed 20 of them and added that I did not make any claims about the statistical representativeness of my sample. It could have simply been the result of confirmation bias: I read more tech comments than are good for anyone, and it could be that the things that stick in my memory resonate with my views.
Sixteen months later, I discovered that my list of formidable female tech critiques has expanded. Now includes (in alphabetical order): Janet Abbate, Lilian Edwards, Maria Farrell, Timnit Gebru, Wendy Hall, Mar Hicks, Kashmir Hill, Lina Khan, Pratyusha Kalluri, Rebecca Mackinnon, Margaret Mitchell, Safiya Noble, Kavita Philip, Mitali Thakor, Corinna Schlombs, Dina Srinivasan and Carissa Véliz. If any of these are unfamiliar to you, any good search engine will point you to their work. Again, the usual caveats apply. I’m not claiming statistical representativeness, just that, as someone whose daily jobs involve reading a lot of tech reviews, these are the thinkers who stand out.
What does this interesting correlation tell us? Much, as it happens. The first conclusion is that the industry that is reshaping our societies and undermining our democracies is overwhelmingly dominated by males. However, with a few honorable exceptions, male critics seem relatively calm or phlegmatic about this particular aspect of the industry; They seem to see it as inevitable and move on to more seemingly urgent concerns.
The chronic lack of gender diversity in technology has been well known for centuries, and in recent years many of the companies have admitted the problem and vowed to do better. But progress has been painfully slow. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they still see it, as they see, say, hate speech, as a public relations problem that must be handled rather than as a structural problem that requires radical reform.
My hunch is that as much as the industry moans about gender diversity, it doesn’t really see it as a real problem. Male-dominated businesses still receive more than 80% of their venture capital funding, and the money often goes to entrepreneurs who promise to create products or services that purportedly address the real needs of consumers. The problem is that male founders, especially engineers, are not known for understanding the problems that women experience, and this is how we get there. absurd like Apple that originally didn’t include menstrual cycle tracking on its smartwatch or iPhone Health app. Wow! Women have periods! Who knows?
The strange thing is how irrational this type of gender blindness is from a commercial point of view. After all, like the Economist putsalienating half of your customers is not a smart way to do business. Tailors and dressmakers discovered long ago that men and women came in different shapes and sizes. However, the news does not seem to have reached Palo Alto or Mountain View yet, where they are busy designing virtual reality headsets that make more women than men feel sick, perhaps because 90% of women have pupils closer together than the default setting of typical headphones. The same goes for smartphones that are too big to fit comfortably in the average woman’s hand.
So now we have a networked world dominated by an industry that oozes arrogance and technical opulence combined with a profound ignorance of what life is like for most people. The tech elites who create the products and services are unlikely to have experienced social exclusion, racism, misogyny, poverty, or physical abuse. And in particular, they have little idea of what life is like for women, although, given the scandals about sexual harassment at tech companies, you would have thought they might already have some idea. Under those circumstances, it’s no wonder that the people who are likely to be the most insightful critics in the industry are smart, well-educated women.
Then there’s racism, a topic rarely discussed in polite tech circles. Many of the staunchest critics of technology and its implementation by Silicon Valley are women of color. That’s no accident, because in particular they are understandably attentive to the ways in which, for example, facial recognition and machine learning technology embodies the biases embedded in the data sets that trained them. Silicon Valley is busy making, and making a profit, machines that will monitor and control people. But the engineers who build the material have little understanding or contact with the communities that have endured the brunt of machine learning surveillance, often women, black, indigenous, LGBT +, poor or disabled. And they never consult them before installing such systems. Democracies need intelligent, informed, and critical perspectives on the power asymmetries implicit in these abusive technologies. The good news about my academics roster is that they are clearly up to the job.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism