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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.

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.

Facebook changes algorithm to promote worthwhile & close friend content

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Facebook is updating the News Feed ranking algorithm to incorporate data from surveys about who you say are your closest friends and which links you find most worthwhile. Today Facebook announced it’s trained new classifiers based on patterns linking these surveys with usage data so it can better predict what to show in the News Feed. The change could hurt Pages that share click-bait and preference those sharing content that makes people feel satisfied afterwards.

For close friends, Facebook surveyed users about which people they were closest too. It then detected how this matches up with who you are tagged in photos with, constantly interact with, like the same post and check in to the same places as, and more. That way if it recognizes those signals about other people’s friendships, it can be confident those are someone’s closest friends they’ll want to see the most of. You won’t see more friend content in total, but more from your best pals instead of distant acquaintances.

A Facebook News Feed survey from 2016, shared by Varsha Sharma

For worthwhile content, Facebook conducted surveys via news feed to find out which links people said were good uses of their time. Facebook then detected which types of link posts, which publishers, and how much engagement the posts got and matched that to survey results. This then lets it determine that if a post has a simialr style and engagement level, it’s likely to be worthwhile and should be ranked higher in the feed.

The change aligns with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent comments declaring that Facebook’s goal isn’t total time spent, but time well spent with meaningful content you feel good about. Most recently, that push has been about demoting unsafe content. Last month Facebook changed the algorithm to minimize clickbait and links to crappy ad-filled sites that receive a disproportionately high amount of their traffic from Facebook. It cracked down on unoriginality by hiding videos ripped off from other creators, and began levying harsher demotions to repeat violators of its policies. And it began to decrease the distribution of “borderline content” on Facebook and Instagram that comes close to but doesn’t technically break its rules.

While many assume Facebook just juices News Feed to be as addictive in the short-term as possible to keep us glued to the screen and viewing ads, that would actually be ruinous for its long-term business. If users leave the feed feeling exhausted, confused, and unfulfilled, they won’t come back. Facebook’s already had trouble with users ditching its text-heavy News Feed for more visual apps like Instagram (which it luckily bought) and Snapchat (which it tried to). While demoting click-bait and viral content might decrease total usage time today, it could preserve Facebook’s money-making ability for the future while also helping to rot our brains a little less.

Beyond costs, what else can we do to make housing affordable?

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This week on Extra Crunch, I am exploring innovations in inclusive housing, looking at how 200+ companies are creating more access and affordability. Yesterday, I focused on startups trying to lower the costs of housing, from property acquisition to management and operations.

Today, I want to focus on innovations that improve housing inclusion more generally, such as efforts to pair housing with transit, small business creation, and mental rehabilitation. These include social impact-focused interventions, interventions that increase income and mobility, and ecosystem-builders in housing innovation.

Nonprofits and social enterprises lead many of these innovations. Yet because these areas are perceived to be not as lucrative, fewer technologists and other professionals have entered them. New business models and technologies have the opportunity to scale many of these alternative institutions — and create tremendous social value. Social impact is increasingly important to millennials, with brands like Patagonia having created loyal fan bases through purpose-driven leadership.

While each of these sections could be their own market map, this overall market map serves as an initial guide to each of these spaces.

Social impact innovations

These innovations address:

Market map: the 200+ innovative startups transforming affordable housing

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In this section of my exploration into innovation in inclusive housing, I am digging into the 200+ companies impacting the key phases of developing and managing housing.

Innovations have reduced costs in the most expensive phases of the housing development and management process. I explore innovations in each of these phases, including construction, land, regulatory, financing, and operational costs.

Reducing Construction Costs

This is one of the top three challenges developers face, exacerbated by rising building material costs and labor shortages.

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