Today I want to talk about something I’ve dubbed #Techquity (I’m sure this is probably already taken, but whatever).
Techquity stands for – you guessed it – Technology + Equity.
As you may know, I recently started a new job this week as a U/X Designer. During my on-boarding, we talked a lot about the concept of DEI, or Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. Admittedly, I had never heard this breakdown before, or really considered the difference between these words in depth. In my mind, they all kind of fell together under the Equity subtitle, without strict barriers for how they differ. So let’s quickly do some term definitions (definitions from this great article).
Diversity – All the ways in which people differ, encompassing the different characteristics that make one individual or group different from another. While often used in reference to race, ethnicity, and gender, it can also include age, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, language and physical appearance.
Equity – The fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. Improving equity involves increasing justice and fairness within the procedures and processes of institutions or systems, as well as in their distribution of resources.
Inclusion – The act of creating environments in which any individual or group can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported, and valued to fully participate. An inclusive and welcoming climate embraces differences and offers respect in words and actions for all people. It’s important to note that while an inclusive group is by definition diverse, a diverse group isn’t always inclusive. Increasingly, recognition of unconscious or ‘implicit bias’ helps people be deliberate about addressing issues of inclusivity.
Lots of nonprofits and foundations have started talking about these ideas in ways that have not often come up in conversation or policy in the past. In addition, recent social movements have pushed actually having to engage with these concepts into the broader social awareness and the social media ecosystem.
However, one industry, I would argue, that hasn’t embraced these ideas – at all really – is the Tech industry.
True, today’s brand of techno-optimism seems to believe that technology can solve everyone’s problems, absolutely, and equally. But did anyone really stop to think about how a technology ecosystem that is neither diverse, equitable, or inclusive at its heart can create products and systems that purport to equally benefit all?
Either way, technology is becoming the most singularly important and widespread driver of trends and systems that affect everyone, whether they know it or not, and whether they like it or not. Taken together, this starts to paint a really terrifying and bleak future for anyone who doesn’t fit the mold. We continually hear horror stories that stem from this fundamental mismatch:
- Google Photos Algorithm labeling black people as Gorillas (Algorithmic Prejudice)
- The Bodega App Fiasco (Complete Lack of Awareness from Non-Diverse Founders)
- Facial Recognition AI being used to Classify Gay or Straight People and Trans YouTubers Pre/Post Hormones (Just WTF?!?!)
This piece isn’t about sitting and trashing the Tech industry. This is about pointing out how the lack of DEI in technology isn’t just sad, frustrating, or unfair, it’s downright dangerous. Without more DEI in technology, I’m scared that we are doomed to actually encode prejudice and bias into the very systems we trust and rely on.
We like to think that technology is fundamentally neutral, but when the people creating it are homogenous across race, gender, class, sexual orientation etc. etc. we run a real risk of designing technology only for a very narrow portion of the population. We end up with products that are at best face-palmingly unaware and bougie, and worst, downright prejudiced against one or more groups.
We end up with algorithms and infrastructures for some of the most important systems that ‘neutrally’ determine things like education spending & tracking, police monitoring, and even actual equity allocation (as in getting loans & investments). We end up with artificial intelligence that literally thinks certain groups aren’t human.
However, maybe there is a ray of light in this dark probable topology. I’ve found that speculative fiction (specifically) and projects (on occasion) explore these issues in depth, even providing plausible and beneficial alternative narratives about how a more DEI future could look. I’m specifically thinking about Ursula K. Le Guin’s Four Ways to Forgiveness, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, Raam Namez’s Nexus Trilogy and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising (only because I’ve read them most recently) but there are so many other stories that dig deep into the systemic biases that hinder DEI across groups, and in many cases turn them on their heads, seeking to break them down into a new metaphor for understanding or even show what a world without out them might look like.
I think speculative practitioners have a real opportunity and responsibility to consider researching, speculating and creating works that reflect upon diversity, equity, and inclusion in light of today’s most impactful emerging technologies.
- What would a blockchain based on an actual diversity of network participants look like?
- What about an advanced Artificial Intelligence system trained to literally de-humanize and exclude groups in a dark future?
- Should and could virtual and augmented reality be used to break down race and class barriers in a world where our avatars could be anything we want, or certain A/R areas require anonymous or non-human avatars all together?
- How might a hacker train autonomous vehicles to ‘not see’ specific races, genders, ages of people to disastrous effect?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this, both in my day job and in my passion for speculative practice, seeking to understand about how the speculative process can actively reflect on these issues and how we can bring people together who are creating works that tackle them.
I encourage you to also think about the topic of Techquity (which I’m using to include all DEI factors here, because it sounds way better than Techversity, Techquity, and Techclusion).
I believe that speculative practitioners could do a lot to open up conversations about how technology could or could not include these factors in the future, what that future would look like as a result, and how decisions today will or will not start our footsteps upon those paths.
So ask yourself, how will you speculate about Techquity today. But more importantly, what will you do about it?