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Monday, March 12, 2018

The tech bias: why Silicon Valley needs social theory

Jan Bier
Originally posted February 14, 2018

Here is an excerpt:

That Google memo is an extreme example of an imbalance in how different ways of knowing are valued. Silicon Valley tech companies draw on innovative technical theory but have yet to really incorporate advances in social theory. The inattention to such knowledge becomes all too apparent when algorithms fail in their real-life applications – from automated soap-dispensers that fail to turn on when a user has dark brown skin, to the new iPhone X’s inability to distinguish among different Asian women.

Social theorists in fields such as sociology, geography, and science and technology studies have shown how race, gender and class biases inform technical design. So there’s irony in the fact that employees hold sexist and racist attitudes, yet ‘we are supposed to believe that these same employees are developing “neutral” or “objective” decision-making tools’, as the communications scholar Safiya Umoja Noble at the University of Southern California argues in her book Algorithms of Oppression (2018).

In many cases, what’s eroding the value of social knowledge is unintentional bias – on display when prominent advocates for equality in science and tech undervalue research in the social sciences. The physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, for example, has downplayed the link between sexism and under-representation in science. Apparently, he’s happy to ignore extensive research pointing out that the natural sciences’ male-dominated institutional cultures are a major cause of the attrition of female scientists at all stages of their careers.

The article is here.
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