What Would Technology Not Designed By White Guys Look Like?

Illustration: Norah Stone
The men who hold the keys to Silicon Valley right now hold the keys to the world. They’re deciding what we see and where we see it. They’re deciding what news we get, and even how we vote.
This kind of power poses moral and ethical dilemmas. For example, how do you stop advertisers using racial profiling to exclude minority groups through your carefully engineered marketing services? Or what do you do if the police demand you remove videos of a shootout from your live-streaming platform, even though that content is owned by someone else and it’s in a public domain?
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These aren’t hypothetical questions, and they are very complicated to answer. But while Silicon Valley and other tech hubs around the world continue to house workforces dominated by white guys, the challenge of answering them in a way that acknowledges the diverse user base of the products they’re creating will be impossible. For everyone’s needs to be addressed by tech companies, those people need to be represented in tech companies.
“There’s a tendency in the technology world to think that everyone thinks the same way,” suggests Michael Connor, the Executive Director of OpenMIC (Open Media and Information Companies Initiative) who recently published a report called 'Breaking The Mold', which argues for the need for companies to invest in racial diversity in tech.
“The danger is that so much of the technology comes from a relatively small group of people, who are located in a very small part of the world in northern California, and it’s dominated by white men,” he continues. “That’s the harsh reality and that’s not good.”
Increasingly, tech companies are facing up to their limited workforces – in 2015, Pinterest made a bold move to share their hiring goals publicly, seeing it as the best way to secure success. “When you make goals the same way you set revenue goals or growth goals, it makes you very accountable,” says Pinterest’s Head of Diversity, Candice Morgan. “That means that you mean business. We also measured that accountability early.”
The targets included making sure women made up 30% of the engineers they hired, having people from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds make up a further 8% of those hires, and having people from those backgrounds make up at least 12% of all other hires.
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This wasn’t just good PR – there’s a business imperative to serving an increasingly diverse global population with a diverse workforce. “There’s a pretty robust community of investors and people in the business community who believe companies should invest in corporate social responsibility steps themselves, rather than wait for government legislators to take control,” says Michael. “Otherwise, the value of these companies will erode and new companies will come along who are sensitive to these needs.”
The ‘pipeline problem’ is often cited as a reason for not hiring enough people of different ages, genders or race. That’s a cop-out, says Candice. “It’s not enough to say there aren’t enough people out there so I’m not going to try. Is it true there are less women studying computer science? Yes. But does that mean it’s okay that only 15% of people across the board are women? Absolutely not.”
Unfortunately, Pinterest’s numbers proved too ambitious. They met two of their three targets but, for 2017, had to lower their women in engineering hiring goal. This speaks volumes. No matter how much you invest in diversity, it’s not an issue that can be solved quickly – even with the best intentions.
Candice still has a laser focus on the measurable benefits of a diverse workforce. If a product is being used by people all over the world, the company behind it needs to understand people all over the world. She relays a comment from Pinterest’s CEO: “Ben Silbermann said, ‘How can we create this world’s catalogue of ideas, if we’re not representing the perspectives of the world with the people building the product?’”
As Pinterest lets you see the world through millions of images and ideas, so you’d hope Twitter would expose you to new ways of thinking, or Facebook encourage healthy political debate. But as many of us learned the hard way last year, your timeline doesn’t present a well-rounded picture of the world around you.
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Michael, who began his career as a media journalist at the Wall Street Journal, has been on the front line of that change as it’s happened, watching how the way we consume media has changed completely. That brought hope, at first, then some reality checks. “Social media has the potential to increase diversity of thought,” he offers. “The danger is within the algorithms that the social media platforms use, that we have very little understanding of.”
“It’s been demonstrated that Facebook algorithms put you in a bubble with people that support your point of view [...] these social media platforms, the way they work, they don’t introduce you to others,” he continues, “and they’re not conducive to intelligent discussions of politics.”
Looking past the echo chamber theory, what does all this say about whose needs are being met on social media – and in the wider world of tech? So far it’s benefitted those already in power – not necessarily politically but in terms of reinforcing class barriers and stereotypes, and creating ever-increasing gaps between the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated.
There are also the subtler repercussions of how a one-dimensional tech industry reinforces closed-minded and limited views. Tinder only recently allowed users to identify as anything other than ‘male’ or ‘female’. Then there was the infamous time Apple released their health app with no period tracker. No matter how forward-thinking and fast-paced the technology industry is, the products it creates can only ever reflect the needs and views of the people behind it.
And there’s one group who consistently misses out in these conversations, argues User Experience Director and behavioural strategist John Gibbard – the old. “I feel that our empathy for an ageing population is something that's not getting sufficient attention,” he says. “It's no longer a case of just ensuring that tech is usable for older people but rather more about how tech can improve quality of life as we age.”
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Ultimately, technology holds the key to solving as many problems as it highlights. And nowhere is this more true than in recruitment. Tech can be used to anonymise the hiring process and conceal someone’s age, race or gender. Also, the transparency which we demand from these companies is setting a standard for how other institutions behave. “By tech companies starting to release data around diversity you’re now starting to see other, older companies do the same kind of thing,” points out Candice. “That would have been unprecedented before.”
But what happens in the meantime, while tech continues to hold up an ugly mirror to the world we live in? “I have a number of concerns,” says Michael. “Some of them are societal, that some demographic groups – particularly people of colour – that their needs and interests will not be addressed.” Will the homogeneity of the internet encourage more group thinking, as it polarises public opinion and reduces political debates to 140-character tweets? Will cultures be erased and forgotten?
Recently, the white guy who invented the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, called for us to take back control, and to help build the web we want. He called out loss of privacy, the spread of misinformation and the need for transparency in political advertising. Because 28 years after he submitted his original proposal for the world wide web, the products built off the back of the internet still haven’t given us the digital utopia that we dreamed of.
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