Why are Alexa, Cortana, and Siri (and likely your car’s GPS) all female? Because a cultural stereotype has been baked into new technology by engineers who tend to be male and privileged, and who are probably more accustomed than most to having women in service roles (mother, teacher, housekeeper). This is just one of the interesting observations in Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s recent book, Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech. Reading this well-written little volume might make you more aware of how technology is picking up our sloppy thinking, lazy stereotypes, and unchecked biases and baking them into the future, all because there isn’t enough diversity in the technology space to stop it from happening.
There has been a spate of excellent books outlining the risks of unquestioned technology and bro-centric engineering cultures, as well as books analyzing how algorithms inherit biases of the past they seek to understand and therefore recreate. Wachter-Boettcher’s book is a welcome addition, as she brings many practical insights.
One passage that gripped me early on talks about how using personas in marketing and product development exercises is fraught with conceptual conflations that can introduce and perpetuate stereotypes. Personas, if you haven’t used them, are meant to help product teams understand and empathize with various customer types — executives, students, busy parents, late-shift workers, what have you. It varies by product and market. The typical design incorporates goals the customer may have with the product as well as demographics, including a representative picture of the customer to increase empathy. This is where things go awry, as introducing demographics and pictures means introducing stereotypes. The visual aspects are particularly prone to this. Wachter-Boettcher’s sensible practice has become to focus on the goals and to eliminate the demographics and photos, as they can be misleading while introducing stereotypes.
There are arresting examples of problems users encounter which are alienating and diminishing, such as forms that perpetuate racism and foment harassment, data entry fields that don’t accommodate real names (e.g., names with diacriticals, hyphenated names, long names), code that keeps women out of certain rooms for no good reason, and even an insistence on real identity when people have assumed identities for work (e.g., actors and other performers).
Of course, social media comes under scrutiny — in a detailed way and with stories I either hadn’t seen or fully appreciated before. Wachter-Boettcher’s chapter “Built to Break” is a tour de force on its own, tackling Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, and the design blindness and arrogance flowing from a lack of diversity among the engineers and founders, and how the resulting problems have been exploited and weaponized. The book is quite recent, having been published at the very end of 2017, so the stories feel fresh.
Regarding Reddit, journalist Sarah Jeong is quoted describing it “a flaming garbage pit,” while calling out the platform for one particularly disingenuous stance:
Reddit’s supposed commitment to free speech is actually a punting of responsibility. It is expensive for Reddit to make and maintain the rules that would keep subreddits orderly, on-topic, and not full of garbage (or at least, not hopelessly full of garbage).
Wachter-Boettcher offers an alternative to the famous exhortation from Mark Zuckerberg (“move fast and break things”), urging technologists to “slow down and fix stuff.” This means not prioritizing programming skill over everything else. Rather, it means elevating people with editorial and ethical judgment, media literacy, and historical context into roles where they can oversee what the engineers produce and the effects these products and platforms are having.
It means elevating people with editorial and ethical judgment, media literacy, and historical context into roles where they can oversee what the engineers produce and the effects these products and platforms are having.
To the initial point about the proclivity for technologists to use female voices in service applications, Waze thought harder about it, and introduced two non-sexist solutions — allowing users to record their own voices, and using celebrity voices now and then (Shaquille O’Neal’s version was particularly delightful). You can slow down and fix stuff, or at least avoid blatant social faux pas.
There is also a useful history of diversity in tech buried in the narrative. As Wachter-Boettcher writes:
Originally, programming was often categorized as “women’s work,” lumped in with administrative skills like typing and dictation (in fact, during World War II, the word “computers” was often applied not to machines, but to the women who used them to compute data). As more colleges started offering computer science degrees, in the 1960s, women flocked to the programs: 11 percent of computer science majors in 1967 were women. By 1984, that number had grown to 37 percent. Starting in 1985, that percentage fell every single year — until, in 2007, it leveled out at the 18 percent figure we saw through 2014. That shift coincides perfectly with the rise of the personal computer.
If that last sentence felt like the start of an epiphany, then you should read this book, because it’s full of such moments.
From social media inadvertently reminding people of traumas and tragedies to the hoofbeats of data mining companies now working as quasi-government sources, Technically Wrong is worth reading. Coming in at a sprightly 200 pages and well-referenced and well-indexed, Wachter-Boettcher’s book is an economical read that’s solidly sourced and useful to have on your shelf for future reference. Buy a copy for your favorite coder or technologist or C-suite decision-maker, so they can start fixing stuff.