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June 16, 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.

On the Internet of Women with Moira Weigel

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“Feminism,” the writer and editor Marie Shear famously said in an often-misattributed quote, “is the radical notion that women are people.” The genius of this line, of course, is that it appears to be entirely non-controversial, which reminds us all the more effectively of the past century of fierce debates surrounding women’s equality.

And what about in tech ethics? It would seem equally non-controversial that ethical tech is supposed to be good for “people,” but is the broader tech world and its culture good for the majority of humans who happen to be women? And to the extent it isn’t, what does that say about any of us, and about all of our technology?

I’ve known, since I began planning this TechCrunch series exploring the ethics of tech, that it would need to thoroughly cover issues of gender. Because as we enter an age of AI, with machines learning to be ever more like us, what could be more critical than addressing the issues of sex and sexism often at the heart of the hardest conflicts in human history thus far?

Meanwhile, several months before I began envisioning this series I stumbled across the fourth issue of a new magazine called Logic, a journal on technology, ethics, and culture. Logic publishes primarily on paper — yes, the actual, physical stuff, and a satisfyingly meaty stock of it, at that.

In it, I found a brief essay, “The Internet of Women,” that is a must-read, an instant classic in tech ethics. The piece is by Moira Weigel, one of Logic’s founders and currently a member of Harvard University’s “Society of Fellows” — one of the world’s most elite societies of young academics.

A fast-talking 30-something Brooklynite with a Ph.D. from Yale, Weigel’s work combines her interest in sex, gender, and feminism, with a critical and witty analysis of our technology culture.

In this first of a two-part interview, I speak with Moira in depth about some of the issues she covers in her essay and beyond: #MeToo; the internet as a “feminizing” influence on culture; digital media ethics around sexism; and women in political and tech leadership.

Greg E.: How would you summarize the piece in a sentence or so?

Moira W.: It’s an idiosyncratic piece with a couple of different layers. But if I had to summarize it in just a sentence or two I’d say that it’s taking a closer look at the role that platforms like Facebook and Twitter have played in the so-called “#MeToo moment.”

In late 2017 and early 2018, I became interested in the tensions that the moment was exposing between digital media and so-called “legacy media” — print newspapers and magazines like The New York Times and Harper’s and The Atlantic. Digital media were making it possible to see structural sexism in new ways, and for voices and stories to be heard that would have gotten buried, previously.

A lot of the conversation unfolding in legacy media seemed to concern who was allowed to say what where. For me, this subtext was important: The #MeToo moment was not just about the sexualized abuse of power but also about who had authority to talk about what in public — or the semi-public spaces of the Internet.

At the same time, it seemed to me that the ongoing collapse of print media as an industry, and really what people sometimes call the “feminization” of work in general, was an important part of the context.

When people talk about jobs getting “feminized” they can mean many things — jobs becoming lower paid, lower status, flexible or precarious, demanding more emotional management and the cultivation of an “image,” blurring the boundary between “work” and “life.”

The increasing instability or insecurity of media workplaces only make women more vulnerable to the kinds of sexualized abuses of power the #MeToo hashtag was being used to talk about.

Uber drivers protest ahead of IPO at the company’s SF HQ

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“Drivers united will never be defeated!”

That’s the chant hundreds of drivers yelled outside Uber’s San Francisco headquarters this afternoon before heading to block Market Street. Ahead of Uber’s IPO, drivers are protesting for better wages, benefits, transparent policies and a voice, Uber driver and Gig Workers Rising member Mostafa Maklad told TechCrunch ahead of the protest.

“Uber year after year keeps cutting the rate and how much money they pay to drivers year after year,” Maklad said. “Right now, to make the same money I used to make when I started, you have to drive between 70 to 80 hours a week to make even a little less than how much money I used to. They put a lot of stress on us drivers to drive a lot of hours in order to make money. If you don’t, you can’t make money and it’s not going to be worth it.”

In addition to drivers and activists, SF Supervisor Gordon Mar was of the people advocating for driver rights today.

”We can disrupt inequality,” Mar said. “We can work toward a future where all people benefit from the prosperity here in San Francisco.”

As part of Uber’s IPO, the company offered some drivers bonuses but pale in comparison to what executives will walk away with. Uber offered some drivers a bonus up to $40,000, while Lyft offered drivers up to $10,000.

“All of us are not happy, not just with the award, but with the way they treat drivers,” Maklad said.

While some drivers want to be W-2 employees and others don’t mind being 1099 independent contractors, these drivers are united around those four key demands.

“Whether we are classified as independent contractors or employees, we are workers and human beings and deserve to be treated with dignity,” Maklad said. “They are making millions of dollars off our back and labor.”

The protest in San Francisco is a part of a bigger, worldwide effort to strike. Last week, The New York Taxi Workers Association called on U.S.-based drivers to stand in solidarity with drivers in London and log off from both Uber and Lyft today between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m.

Uber is pricing its IPO between $44 to $50 a share, seeking a valuation up to $84 billion. Lyft set a range of $62 to $68 for its IPO, seeking to raise up to $2.1 billion. Since its debut on the Nasdaq, Lyft’s stock has suffered after skyrocketing nearly 10% on day one. Lyft is currently trading at around $60 per share.

In a statement to TechCrunch earlier this week, Uber said:

“Drivers are at the heart of our service — we can’t succeed without them — and thousands of people come into work at Uber every day focused on how to make their experience better, on and off the road,” an Uber spokesperson said. “Whether it’s more consistent earnings, stronger insurance protections or fully funded four-year degrees for drivers or their families, we’ll continue working to improve the experience for and with drivers.”

Uber had nothing to share beyond the statement it provided above, but says service reliability hasn’t been affected.

Sextech company scorned by CES scores $2M and an apology

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Lora DiCarlo, a startup coupling robotics and sexual health, has $2 million to shove in the Consumer Electronics Show’s face.

The same day the company was set to announce their fundraise, The Consumer Technology Association, the event producer behind CES, decided to re-award the Bend, Oregon-based Lora DiCarlo with the innovation award it had revoked from the company ahead of this year’s big event.

“We appreciate this gesture from the CTA, who have taken an important step in the right direction to remove the stigma and embarrassment around female sexuality,” Lora DiCarlo founder and chief executive officer Lora Haddock (pictured) told TechCrunch. “We hope we can continue to be a catalyst for meaningful changes that makes CES and the consumer tech industry inclusive for all.”

In January, the CTA nullified the award it had granted the business, which is building a hands-free device that uses biomimicry and robotics to help people achieve a blended orgasm by simultaneously stimulating the G spot and the clitoris. Called Osé, the device uses micro-robotic technology to mimic the sensation of a human mouth, tongue and fingers in order to produce a blended orgasm for people with vaginas.

Lora DiCarlo’s debut product, Osé, set to release this fall. The company says the device is currently undergoing changes and may look different upon release.

“CTA did not handle this award properly,” CTA senior vice president of marketing and communications Jean Foster said in a statement released today. “This prompted some important conversations internally and with external advisors and we look forward to taking these learnings to continue to improve the show.”

Lora DiCarlo had applied for the CES Innovation Award back in September. In early October, the CTA notified the company of its award. Fast-forward to October 31, 2018 and CES Projects senior manager Brandon Moffett informed the company they had been disqualified. The press storm that followed only boosted Lora DiCarlo’s reputation, put Haddock at the top of the speakers’ circuit and proved, once again, that sexuality is still taboo at CES and that the gadget show has failed to adapt to the times.

In its original letter to Lora DiCarlo, obtained by TechCrunch, the CTA called the startup’s product “immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with the CTA’s image” and that it did “not fit into any of [its] existing product categories and should not have been accepted” to the awards program. CTA later apologized for the mishap before ultimately re-awarding the prize.

At the request of the CTA, Haddock and her team have been working with the organization to create a more inclusive show and better incorporate both sextech companies and women’s health businesses.

“We were a catalyst to a huge, resounding amount of support from a very large community of people who have been quietly thinking this is something that needs to happen,” Haddock told TechCrunch. “For us, it was all about timing.”

Lora DiCarlo plans to use its infusion of funding, provided by new and existing investors led by the Oregon Opportunity Zone Limited Partnership, to hire ahead of the release of its first product. Pre-orders for the Osé, which will retail for $290, will open this summer with an expected official release this fall.

Haddock said four other devices are in the pipeline, one specifically for clitoral stimulation, another for clitoral and vaginal stimulation, one for anywhere on the body and the other, she said, is a different approach to the way people with vulvas masturbate.

“We are aiming for that hands-free, human experience,” Haddock said. “We wanted to make something really interesting and very different and beautiful.”

Next year, Haddock says they plan to integrate their products with virtual reality, a step that will require a larger boost of capital.

Haddock and her employees don’t plan to quiet down any time soon. With their newfound fame, the team will continue supporting the expanding sextech industry and gender equity within tech generally.

“We’ve realized our social mission is so important,” Haddock said. “Gender equality, at its source, is about sex. We absolutely demonize sex and sexuality … When you talk about removing sexual stigmas, you are also talking about removing gender stigmas and creating gender equity.”

Decolonization and intersectionality in tech, with Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

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Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy and a Core Faculty Member in Women’s Studies at the University of New Hampshire. She is the lead “axion wrangler” and a social media team member for the NASA STROBE-X Probe Concept Study.

The first Black woman in history to hold a faculty position in theoretical cosmology, Prescod-Weinstein  is also a Twitter activist who frequently goes viral, a prolific writer and editor in multiple genres and disciplines, and the author of a soon to come column in the New Scientist, and a 2021 book, The Disordered Cosmos: from Dark Matter to Black Lives Matter.

A millennial, she is at the vanguard of a new cohort of brilliant, young, tech-savvy academics who are conducting important research in science and technology while also gracefully shouldering the responsibility of helping transform the way many of us think about what it means to be a scientist or technologist and who we think of when we imagine those categories.

Why interview a theoretical cosmologist for this series on tech ethics? Because tech, like science, has much work to do in reckoning with issues of race, gender, inclusion, and intersectionality.

As I spoke with her recently, I pictured young women and men of color or other marginalized backgrounds, looking to find their own place in the extraordinary world that is our tech culture/industry (I call tech a religion to underscore its size and influence, but more on that in some other column) and wondering if a) they will be given a just and equitable opportunity to demonstrate their innate abilities; and b) if in their quest to “make it” in this world they will have to somehow ‘sell out.’

Prescod-Weinstein tells the story, below, of a profound ethical dilemma she faced at the very beginning of her career in science.

Prescod-Weinstein quoted Daniel Berrigan, about whom she first read in an Adrienne Rich poem about the“Catonsville Nine,” a group of anti-war activists who, in 1968, took hundreds of draft files in wire baskets to the parking lot of the draft board in Catonsville, MD. Berrigan, his brother and fellow Catholic priest Phillip, and their seven colleagues dumped the files out, doused them in homemade napalm, and set them on fire.

Berrigan later explained he was inspired to take such dramatic action, rather than merely talking about ethics, because he believed that mere talk would place him “in danger of verbalizing my moral impulses out of existence.”

In Prescod-Weinstein’s story and in her reference to Berrigan, we can find a parable about the need for inclusion and justice in today’s tech world. When we talk about tech ethics, after all, are we talking mainly about having yet more academic discussions about self-regulation or even incremental government policy changes? Or will we eventually need to grapple with burning issues to which we can only respond meaningfully with hard choices or dramatic actions?

What we all make of this, and of several of other ethical questions raised in the conversation below, will determine so much about the future of ethics in tech.


Greg E.: You have been playing a prominent role in facilitating conversations about justice, inclusion, and intersectionality in the science world. I wanted to speak with you about your activism because it seems to me discussions are also needed in the tech world, but seem to be happening even less in tech. What do you think?

Chanda P.W.:

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