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June 25, 2019
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Gender, race and social change in tech; Moira Weigel on the Internet of Women, Part Two

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Tech ethics can mean a lot of different things, but surely one of the most critical, unavoidable, and yet somehow still controversial propositions in the emerging field of ethics in technology is that tech should promote gender equality. But does it? And to the extent it does not, what (and who) needs to change?

In this second of a two-part interview “On The Internet of Women,” Harvard fellow and Logic magazine founder and editor Moira Weigel and I discuss the future of capitalism and its relationship to sex and tech; the place of ambivalence in feminist ethics; and Moira’s personal experiences with #MeToo.

Greg E.: There’s a relationship between technology and feminism, and technology and sexism for that matter. Then there’s a relationship between all of those things and capitalism. One of the underlying themes in your essay “The Internet of Women,” that I thought made it such a kind of, I’d call it a seminal essay, but that would be a silly term to use in this case…

Moira W.: I’ll take it.

Greg E.: One of the reasons I thought your essay should be required reading basic reading in tech ethics is that you argue we need to examine the degree to which sexism is a part of capitalism.

Moira W.: Yes.

Greg E.: Talk about that.

Moira W.: This is a big topic! Where to begin?

Capitalism, the social and economic system that emerged in Europe around the sixteenth century and that we still live under, has a profound relationship to histories of sexism and racism. It’s really important to recognize that sexism and racism themselves are historical phenomena.

They don’t exist in the same way in all places. They take on different forms at different times. I find that very hopeful to recognize, because it means they can change.

It’s really important not to get too pulled into the view that men have always hated women there will always be this war of the sexes that, best case scenario, gets temporarily resolved in the depressing truce of conventional heterosexuality.  The conditions we live under are not the only possible conditions—they are not inevitable.

A fundamental Marxist insight is that capitalism necessarily involves exploitation. In order to grow, a company needs to pay people less for their work than that work is worth. Race and gender help make this process of exploitation seem natural.

Image via Getty Images / gremlin

Certain people are naturally inclined to do certain kinds of lower status and lower waged work, and why should anyone be paid much to do what comes naturally? And it just so happens that the kinds of work we value less are seen as more naturally “female.” This isn’t just about caring professions that have been coded female—nursing and teaching and so on, although it does include those.

In fact, the history of computer programming provides one of the best examples. In the early decades, when writing software was seen as rote work and lower status, it was mostly done by women. As Mar Hicks and other historians have shown, as the profession became more prestigious and more lucrative, women were very actively pushed out.

You even see this with specific coding languages. As more women learn, say, Javascript, it becomes seen as feminized—seen as less impressive or valuable than Python, a “softer” skill. This perception, that women have certain natural capacities that should be free or cheap, has a long history that overlaps with the history of capitalism.  At some level, it is a byproduct of the rise of wage labor.

To a medieval farmer it would have made no sense to say that when his wife had their children who worked their farm, gave birth to them in labor, killed the chickens and cooked them, or did work around the house, that that wasn’t “work,” [but when he] took the chickens to the market to sell them, that was. Right?

A long line of feminist thinkers has drawn attention to this in different ways. One slogan from the 70s was, ‘whose work produces the worker?’ Women, but neither companies nor the state, who profit from this process, expect to pay for it.

Why am I saying all this? My point is: race and gender have been very useful historically for getting capitalism things for free—and for justifying that process. Of course, they’re also very useful for dividing exploited people against one another. So that a white male worker hates his black coworker, or his leeching wife, rather than his boss.

Greg E.: I want to ask more about this topic and technology; you are a publisher of Logic magazine which is one of the most interesting publications about technology that has come on the scene in the last few years.

Spot launches chatbot for HR departments to address harassment and discrimination

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Spot, the chatbot that enables individuals to document and report harassment and discrimination, has launched a tool for human resources departments. This version enables HR departments to manage and track anonymous reports of harassment and discrimination, and follow up on those reports.

Spot relies on memory science and artificial intelligence to address harassment and discrimination at work. Using the chatbot, employees can anonymously document inappropriate behavior, the ability for HR workers to follow-up, the ability to export reports as signed, time-stamped PDFs and more. Employees can, of course, choose to use their name if they’d like.

“Spot places companies in the best possible position to build a healthy work culture,” Spot co-founder Dr. Julia Shaw said in a statement. “By taking an evidence-based approach to help break down the barriers to reporting harassment and discrimination, Spot allows companies to provide timely, transparent, and unbiased responses and mitigate the negative consequences of harassment.”

For small teams (up to 100 people), Spot costs $800 per year. For larger companies, Spot offers additional tools — like custom follow-up questions, single sign-on for admins, group email and Slack notifications, and charges $2 per person per month.

Spot is part of the All Turtles startup studio, which was created by Evernote co-founder Phil Libin. Dr. Shaw’s other co-founders include Daniel Nicolae and Dylan Marriott.

Another neo-Nazi site, Stormfront, is shut down

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Stormfront, the oldest neo-Nazi forum on the web, has been shut down by its name provider, Network Solutions, and the domain officially put on hold. The news followed the shutdown of DailyStormer, another supremacist site.

Stormfront began in 1990s as a dial-up BBS and then morphed into a website and forum in about 1995. It has been registered at Network Solutions since 1995.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Executive Director Kristen Clarke said that her organization took “action against Stormfront.”

“Their website is a vehicle used to promote racially-motivated violence and hate,” she wrote. The group told Network Solutions that Stormfront was violating their terms of service.

Stormfront was unique in that it was considered the “murder capital of the Internet” by the Southern Poverty Law Center and, as of 2014, over 100 murders were attributed to Stormfront users. The SPL wrote that the site was popular with “wound collectors.”

“A typical murderer drawn to the racist forum Stormfront.org is a frustrated, unemployed, white adult male living with his mother or an estranged spouse or girlfriend,” wrote the SPL in 2014. “She is the sole provider in the household. Forensic psychologists call him a ‘wound collector.’ Instead of building his resume, seeking employment or further education, he projects his grievances on society and searches the Internet for an excuse or an explanation unrelated to his behavior or the choices he has made in life.”

The group also has a Cloudflare account according to the DNS records. Cloudflare’s CEO has spoken out against hate groups and was instrumental in beginning the attack against DailyStormer. It’s unclear where or when StormFront will return but as of this writing the website is completely inaccessible.

Featured Image: valdezrl/Shutterstock

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