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June 25, 2019
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ethics

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.

Trifecta adds Beyond Meat’s products to its organic prepared food delivery service

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Organic meal delivery service Trifecta is partnering with Beyond Meat to bring the company’s plant-based meat replacements to its prepared meal and à la carte delivery service, the companies said today.

Unlike its biggest competitor, Impossible Foods (which chose to go a business-to-business route supplying its meat replacement to restaurants), Beyond Meat primarily went through the grocery store aisle to reach consumers. This marks the first time that prepared Beyond Meat foods will be available through a delivery service.

The provision of plant-based proteins will complement Trifecta’s prepared food offerings for consumers looking for keto, vegan, vegetarian, paleo or other diets, the company said.

“With Trifecta fast becoming a household name within the health and fitness community, we did not have a high protein, low carb, low saturated fat option for our plant-based product lines, so Beyond Meat was a perfect fit for us,” said Greg Connolly, Trifecta’s chief executive, in a statement.

Trifecta meals only use USDA Organic ingredients that are never frozen and are either wild caught or grass-fed, the company said. It also offers an option for customers to choose their own meals based on macronutrient needs. The company said its food items arrive in a refrigerated case, fully cooked and ready to eat. Its direct to consumer meals are available in all 50 states.

 

Dragonfly, ethics, and infrastructure spending

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Yesterday’s analysis of the ethical tradeoffs faced by engineers working in the Valley certainly lit up my inbox with responses.

The general thesis of that piece is that startups and tech companies face more — and worse — tradeoffs as they have migrated from the “purity” of the early internet into more socially and ethically complicated spaces like labor, social media, health, and elsewhere. That led me to suggest that:

If you disagree with the ethics of your company, the best course of action — particularly in the strongest employment economy in years — is to find a job more in line with your values.

I was specifically talking about Google’s censored search engine project Dragonfly, but I think the discussion applies to a wide swath of the Valley today.

One subscriber wrote in response:

-1 for this piece as a new Extra Crunch subscriber. If this kind of the theme will be a key part of the Extra Crunch editorial voice, it makes me less likely to renew/recommend. Just a datapoint from one reader.

As always, you can just reply to this email and send me your thoughts, and I appreciate feedback.

One of my major objectives for Extra Crunch is to expand the dialogue around the challenges facing startups and how they conduct disruption. Startups and large tech companies are entering more complicated industries, and the decisions required of founders, engineers, product managers, and everyone are increasingly not black and white.

My sincere hope is that as you read Extra Crunch editorial, you tremendously agree with some articles and vehemently disagree with others. Only be conveying that debate and expanding the range of views can we hope to handle the decisions we face with nuance.

Do tech workers have power to shape the world? What world?

Taxi drivers protest Uber in Madrid. Photo by Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Another reader wrote in:

“I am a resolute defender of human rights, but the world is the world” [a quote from my analysis]

This statement is not only defeatist, it is meaningless. Like saying,”it is what it is”, you convey nothing. You also negate that you are a resolute defender of anything. This statement paints a closer picture to nihilism – nothing is important, everything is meaningless. How do you consider yourself a defender of human beings, when your suggestion to those affected is to move on and find somewhere else to go? You are promoting apathy, not the determinism of a fighter of freedom.

You paint a world in which corporate interests, and ultimately profits, decide how this world will operate. Suggesting that employees find another job is disregarding the power which they have in their current positions. Google hires top tier talent and has enormous influence. Where else can a person have more impact in their role? Like many other companies, Google has a code of ethics that suggests that employees should do exactly what these employees have done in cases where they disagree with corporate guidance. This is the importance of company culture and”culture fit”. Suggesting that good people do nothing when asked to do something that compromises their ethical values promotes the idea that there are no true ethics in business.

This is a fine critique and an important one.

I think one of the secrets of Silicon Valley’s startup success is that there is a large band of innovators who are not apathetic about their ability to change the world. You really can write some software in Xcode, publish it in the App Store, and eventually affect the lives of millions if not billions of people. That is an awesome power.

Yet, the ethics of disruption is complicated. Take Uber, for instance. The company broke the law not just in multiple urban jurisdictions across the United States, but in jurisdictions around the world. They ran an unregulated taxi service in cities where people who have tried to do that for decades were fined and possibly jailed. Breaking the law though meant offering a compelling new service that is clearly popular among consumers.

From a utilitarian perspective, that outcome is for the best, and Uber was right. But from a deontological approach focusing on duties and values, Uber is clearly in the wrong. It conducted possibly criminal actions in order to open up the taxi market and make an enormous profit. Was that ethical?

Uber has its adherents — it has a huge staff after all. But clearly some people would be uncomfortable working for a company that continually flouts the law in order to make disruption happen. Workers have the ability to shape their corporations to some degree, but their ultimate agency is their ability to walk out the door and apply their talents to companies that match their ethical values.

Infrastructure spending

Photo by Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Three pieces on megaproject infrastructure spending, which we have been focused on here for some time, since we seem to spend billions on high-speed rail only to see it evaporate before our very eyes.

First, a subscriber wrote in with thoughts on where the cost drivers are from his own experience in the space:

1. Contracting strategy – what seems like a good plan turns out to drive bad behavior

2. Design – starting construction before the design phase is complete (risk is amplified when the design is first-of-a-kind, and/or if the schedule is aggressive to start with)

3. Rapid pace of change – tech is obviously changing rapidly, but on multi-year, mega-projects even things like codes, laws, regulations, etc. change ”rapidly” relative to the overall duration of the project. And together with tech/software, it can be very difficult to manage. […]

4. Manufacturability or constructibility – design is difficult to manufacture/build

5. Modular – people fall in love with the concept, but it’s another thing to execute it

I think #3 is a particularly interesting one. We might think that construction methods don’t change, or building codes don’t get updated, but at a certain timescale, even those subtle changes over time have a huge impact on projects that might take a decade to complete.

Second, Alon Levy, a long-time commentator on infrastructure, has written up his comprehensive guide on the drivers of infrastructure costs, primarily focused on the United States. His nine factors run the gamut from engineering to management to procurement, but I loved his last factor around global incuriosity:

Incuriosity is not merely ignorance. Ignorance is a universal trait, people just differ in what they are ignorant about. But Americans are unique in not caring to learn from other countries even when those countries do things better.

[…]

Another Caltrain official, confronted with the fact that in Japan trains turn faster than Caltrain thought possible, responded “Asians don’t value life the way we do” – never mind that Japan’s passenger rail safety per passenger-km is about 1.5 orders of magnitude better than the US’s.

The most innovative people constantly work to learn from the smartest people in the world, which perhaps explains America’s appalling state of infrastructure.

Third, Bloomberg Businessweek published a brief interview with President Trump’s former infrastructure czar D.J. Gribbin. The answer he gives on whether an in infra deal could get done in Congress I think is just a perfect example of the challenges in this space:

It wasn’t like there was a deal sitting out there that was baked and could have moved earlier. You didn’t have bipartisan support for a plan. You had bipartisan support for a concept. The concept of, “Yes, we should do more.” Should it be better? Everyone agrees. And then as soon as you start getting into, “How do we make it better,” people balk and go, “Wait a minute. Why can’t someone else just cover the cost of this?”

Obsessions

  • Perhaps some more challenges around data usage and algorithmic accountability
  • We have a bit of a theme around emerging markets, macroeconomics, and the next set of users to join the internet.
  • More discussion of megaprojects, infrastructure, and “why can’t we build things”

Thanks

To every member of Extra Crunch: thank you. You allow us to get off the ad-laden media churn conveyor belt and spend quality time on amazing ideas, people, and companies. If I can ever be of assistance, hit reply, or send an email to danny@techcrunch.com.

This newsletter is written with the assistance of Arman Tabatabai from New York

Industries must adopt ethics along with technology

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A recent New York Times investigation into how smartphone-resident apps collect location data exposes why it’s important for industry to admit that the ethics of individuals who code and commercialize technology is as important as the technology’s code itself.

For the benefit of technology users, companies building technologies must make efforts to raise awareness of their potential human risks – and be honest about how people’s data is used by their innovations. People developing innovations must demand commitment from the C-suite – and boardrooms – of global technology companies to ethical technology. Specifically, the business world needs to instill workforce ethics champions throughout company ranks, develop corporate transparency frameworks and hire diverse teams to interact with, create and improve upon these technologies.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Responsible handling of data is no longer a question

Our data is a valuable asset and the commercial insight it brings to marketers is priceless. Data has become a commodity akin to oil or gold, but user privacy should be the priority – and endgame – for companies across industries benefiting from data. As companies grow and shift, there needs to be an emphasis placed on user consent, clearly establishing what and how data is being used, tracking collected data, placing privacy at the forefront and informing users where AI is making sensitive decisions.

On the flip side, people are beginning to realize that seemingly harmless data they enter into personal profiles, apps and platforms can be taken out of context, commercialized and potentially sold without user consent. The bottom line: consumers are now holding big data and big tech accountable for data privacy – and the public scrutiny of companies operating inside and outside of tech will only grow from here.

Whether or not regulators in the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and elsewhere act, the onus is on Big Tech and private industry to step up by addressing public scrutiny head-on. In practice, this involves Board and C-Suite level acknowledgement of the issues and working-level efforts to address them comprehensively. Companies should clearly communicate steps being taken to improve data security, privacy, ethics and general practices.

Image courtesy of TechCrunch/Bryce Durbin

People working with data need to be more diverse and ethical

Efforts to harvest personal data submitted to technology platforms reinvigorates the need for ethics training for people in all positions at companies that handle sensitive data. The use of social media and third party platforms raises the importance of building backend technologies distributing and analyzing human data, like AI, to be ethical and transparent. We also need the teams actually creating these technologies to be more diverse, as diverse as the community that will eventually use them. Digital equality should be a human right that encompasses fairness in algorithms, access to digital tools and the opportunity for anyone to develop digital skills.

Many companies boast reactionary and retrospective improvements, to boost ethics and transparency in products already on the market. The reality is that it’s much harder to retrofit ethics into technology after the fact. Companies need to have the courage to make the difficult decision at the working and corporate levels not launch biased or unfair systems in some cases.

In practice, organizations must establish guidelines that people creating technologies can work within throughout a product’s development cycle. It’s established and common practice for developers and researchers to test usability, potential flaws and security prior to a product hitting the market. That’s why technology developers should also be testing for fairness, potential biases and ethical implementation before a product hits the market or deploys into the enterprise.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

The future of technology will be all about transparency

Recent events confirm that the business world’s approach to building and deploying data-consuming technologies, like AI, needs to focus squarely on ethics and accountability. In the process, organizations building technologies and supporting applications need to fundamentally incorporate both principles into their engineering. A single company that’s not careful, and breaks the trust of its users, can cause a domino effect in which consumers lose trust in the greater technology and any company leveraging it.

Enterprises need to develop internal principles and processes that hold people from the Board to the newest hire accountable. These frameworks should govern corporate practices and transparently showcase companies’ commitment to ethical AI and data practices. That’s why my company introduced The Ethics of Code to address critical ethics issues before AI products launch and our customers questions around accountability.

Moving into 2019 with purpose

Ultimately, there’s now a full-blown workforce, public and political movement toward ethical data practices that was already in motion within some corners of the tech community. Ideally, the result will be change in the form of more ethical technology created, improved and managed transparently by highly accountable people – from company developers to CEOs to Boards of Directors. Something the world has needed since way before ethical questions sparked media headlines, entered living rooms and showed up on government agendas.

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