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.

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.

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.:

WTF is sexual harassment

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It pains me to have to write this, but write it I must as the past week’s events have shown there are surprisingly many people in Silicon Valley who wouldn’t know what sexual harassment was if it slapped them on the behind without permission.

There are many cases that could be useful as a launching point; let’s start with the recent and lengthy rebuttal of so-called tech evangelist Robert Scoble, following multiple allegations that he has sexually harassed and assaulted a number women in the industry where Scoble has made his name.

As Scoble wrote in his own defense, on his personal blog this week, “If I were guilty of all the things said about me, I would still not be in a position to have sexually harassed anyone. I don’t have employees, I don’t cut checks for investment. None of the women who came forward were ever in a position where I could make or break their careers. Sexual harassment requires that I have such power.”

Scores of supporters came to Scoble’s defense in the aftermath of the allegations. Scott Jordan, CEO of Scottevest, was one of the most outspoken, writing on Scoble’s original apology post (now made private) that because Scoble was inappropriately touchy with him in the past —  in a way that made him feel uncomfortable but didn’t emotionally scar him — it was not harassment.

That’s an alarming revelation on its own, obviously. But it’s also a false assumption, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which defines harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

Put another way, you also don’t have to be directly in charge of someone or cut their check to harass them. States the EEOC, “The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.”

Yet there are other wrong-headed assumptions — many of them.

Take the idea that if a perpetrator was drinking at the same time that he or she was harassing another person and thus impaired by alcohol, that person should not be held accountable for their actions. This one relates to Scoble, too, who posted about going sober in 2015 and who has routinely mentioned that his poor behavior can be traced to a time when he’d been drinking, as if that excuses anything.

It doesn’t, including from a legal standpoint. “Voluntary intoxication is not a defense to sexual harassment or assault,” says Chris Baker of Silicon Valley sexual harassment law firm Baker Curtis & Schwartz. “The law does not think much of the argument that people are free to break the law so long as they are drunk when they do it.”

How about the defense that’s most frequently used to normalize harassment — that it’s just a man being a man? This argument was used by JunoWallet exec Chris Sweis, who penned a Medium post in July, titled “I just watched the public neutering of a good man Dave McClure and cannot keep my mouth shut about it.” In his ode to McClure, Sweis writes, “That is what MEN do…We pursue women and women dress to be pursued, wear perfume to be pursued, and in Silicon Valley there are MANY WOMEN who dress to be pursued.” In other words, boys will be boys, and besides, the women were asking for it.

Sweis, rightly, took a lot of flack for that post. However, the idea that these are good guys just being men continues to pervade the tech landscape. We see it in the attitudes of many of Scoble’s Facebook commenters. It’s on Medium and Twitter. It’s there, in print, in the comments section of my TechCrunch post about Scoble allegedly carrying on after going sober.

To defenders of this brand of thinking, calling out bad behavior is akin to a “witch hunt” (a strange label, considering the historical context of witch hunts). These women’s stories of being groped and propositioned aren’t unnerving so much as they are “lame examples of harassment.”

In fairness, shades of gray do occasionally exist, and no one should be judged prematurely.

DFJ cofounder Steve Jurvetson’s is being investigated for misconduct, but for what precisely isn’t yet clear. One founder wrote on her Facebook page that there is rampant “predatory behavior” at the firm, yet this person has also said the two had a personal, not professional, relationship.

Meanwhile several women familiar with the inner workings at DFJ insist that it’s simply not true that the firm treats women poorly, and two of them have come to Jurvetson’s defense specifically.

There are many things that women might wish were against the law but are not, too.  I consider it harassment when I’m whistled at, told to smile, or offered sexually suggestive comments while walking down the street. Each makes me feel unsafe. Legally, however, I have no defense.

Similarly, when Scoble allegedly touched the knee of Michelle Greer, who worked with him at Rackspace for two years, she felt harassed and she says that feeling affected her work performance.

Yet what Scoble did isn’t necessarily against the law, according to Baker, who suggests that “quid pro quo” harassment is a step beyond what transpired between the two. Specifically, says Baker, it’s when “someone conditions an employment or commercial benefit on putting up with, or accepting, sexual advances or conduct,” he says.

“‘Hostile work environment’ harassment is just like it sounds,” he adds. It’s “when the work environment is so sexually charged that it becomes hostile to a reasonable man or woman.”

Of course, to victims of harassment, whether the harassment is technically legal or not  isn’t really the point. “Anyone who defends abusive and harassing behavior by claiming it doesn’t violate the law should consider why their bar is so low,” says Paradigm founder and CEO Joelle Emerson. “Harassing behavior, whether it fits within a context anticipated by employment law or not, is incredibly harmful. It threatens physical and mental health. It depletes cognitive energy. It stalls career growth. It reinforces stereotypes, and perpetuates social inequality. Anyone that wants to argue, ‘But hey, it’s technically legal!’ should know what it is they’re defending.”

So why the apparent confusion in the industry over what, exactly, constitutes sexual harassment? Emerson has a theory or three. “I think often people who defend harassing behavior do so because they have engaged in such behavior themselves. Or they defend individuals accused of this behavior because they believe them to be generally ‘good people.’ Or, as a rule, they just don’t believe women.”

Certainly, as we’re seeing — be it claims about Scoble or McClure or Donald Trump or Harvey Weinstein —  not only are some people willing to defend the actions of the accused, but they’ll also question the women who come forward, even when there are scores of them.

Some have a financial incentive to question the people who come forward with stories about their harassment. Scoble, for example, sits on the advisory board for Scottevest. Others look to Scoble’s influence in tech, with the hope that he’ll plug their product. For others still, it may be as Emerson suggests — that, as a rule, they just don’t believe women, depressing though that prospect may be.

The one bright spot here is that after decades of repression, women — and even some men —  are coming forward in droves to out their perpetrators. They have suffered under the weight of this type of abuse, and they’re finally able to have their day.

Others are starting to wake up, to take action to protect those of us who wish for a safer, less hostile environment.

Unfortunately, it looks like we still need to spell out what constitutes a bad actor to some who either don’t know or don’t wish to know that someone who they admired might not be the “good guy” they thought all along.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Saudi Arabia bestows citizenship on a robot named Sophia

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Saudi Arabia just made a non-human woman a citizen, making it the first country to grant a robot the right to citizenship, at least as far as we know. Why it did so isn’t immediately evident, but the irony of a nation infamous for denying basic rights to its female citizens imbuing a robotic Audrey Hepburn lookalike with rights is not lost on us. The robot, known as Sophia, appeared onstage without an abaya, a head covering and cloak normally required of women by the Saudi government.

“I am very honored and proud for this unique distinction,” the robot said onstage. “This is historical to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with a citizenship.”

The revelation/PR stunt came out of the Future Investment Initiative summit being held in Riyadh. Hanson Robotics, the company that developed the robot, hails it as “the most beautiful and celebrated robot,” a claim to fame that surely ensures our non-human counterparts will be just as sexually objectified as their blood and flesh foremothers. The company goes on to lavish gendered compliments on its object of affection, admiring its “porcelain skin,” “slender nose” and “intriguing smile” with effusive praise that’s unsettling at best but mostly just gross.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) manages more than $200 billion USD in assets, including investments in Uber. With a growing role in tech and innovation, the nation still faces criticism for archaic gender laws that require women to be accompanied by a male guardian and only just granted women the right to drive, a change that’s expected to go into effect in June of 2018. Last month, Saudi Arabia announced that it would open itself to VoIP calling services like Skype and WhatsApp.

For his part, Elon Musk isn’t fooled by Sophia’s delicate features, fully expecting her to go total AI murderess on her creators.

Would Sophia’s citizenship hold up in court in some strange future legal precedent that will come back to haunt us 10 years from now? Was the whole thing a depressingly empty, unironic attempt at publicity for Sophia’s human captors? Almost certainly yes, but only time will tell about how international law will handle the advent of AI-powered populations, a future that seems more certain to arrive with each passing day.

As a woman, we’re not sure what exactly Sophia’s set of rights will afford her in one of the most oppressive countries on the planet, but if she sticks around ’til next year she can at least score a set of wheels to get the hell out.

Featured Image: Hanson Robotics

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