Category Archives: media

How much should we worry about sexism in tech?

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While browsing for distractions on my way to the airport, I stumbled upon Kat Hagan’s post “Ways men in tech are unintentionally sexist”, hosted on Anjani Ramachandran’s One Size Fits One. The post is part of a larger debate about women’s presence and recognition in tech, a debate that at its worst sums up the way socially relevant issues could be discussed and they’re not: we could make a smart use of the wealth of bright minds and insightful data made available by the digital age, and instead we pursue click-baiting headlines and artificially inflated scandals.

To her credit, Kat Hagan has a much more thorough and thought-through approach, referencing scientific theories and academic papers, to illustrate how men can be unintentionally sexist when approaching/designing/managing technology and its development. We need more of that.

 

She then makes a list of behaviours that should be avoided, some of which are very reasonable and uncontroversial, such as not using “guys” when addressing a group of mixed genders, or ignoring women’s needs (the example of the lack of period tracking functionality in Apple’s new Health app is particularly spot on).

Other recommendations, though, may sound entirely sensible at first (as confirmed by readers’ comments), yet hide a logical flaw that often recurs in discussions around sexism and other forms of discrimination:

you can’t scale linearly from individual to mass.

While there are great variations between individuals, as you get to big numbers you see statistically significant similarities between people of the same gender. We all agree that we should treat each individual on their own merit, but should we extend that to millions, or hundreds of millions, of people in the face of these similarities? Should we ignore them? Or worse, deny them?

 

I’m going to make some increasingly uncomfortable examples to show that things are more complicated than the sexism debate seems to account for, and there are difficult questions worth at least asking ourselves.

 

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1. Assuming gender identity

Kat argues that using avatars that are male by default is a form of sexism that should be avoided, but the underlying issue is whether we should allow ourselves to assume that a user is of a certain gender, and at what cost. The avatar example is an easy way out of the problem, because you can always go for neutral (although when I registered to Pinterest, with its overwhelmingly female membership, I’d have had no issue being presented with a female icon). Things get trickier when it comes to design choices that don’t always have an optimal neutral solution: colour palette; sizes; font; images of a user, such as a face, or a hand. If the numbers proved that there are significant differences in preference among the genders, and our platform were skewed male or female, should we ignore it? Should we opt for a neutral solution even if it doesn’t please anyone, as long as it doesn’t displease one or the other?

 

 

2. Assuming gender differences

Kat’s point no.8 is “Stop denigrating things by comparing them to women or femininity”, like saying “you fight like a girl” or “you like chick flicks”.

This is a campaign by Always. Who couldn’t like it? Who couldn’t agree with it?

Unfortunately it’s hypocritical, because it hides an uncomfortable empirical truth. In our experience (and there may be times and places where things are different) most girls fight “like girls”; most “chick flicks” are viewed and liked by girls; just like most “jerk” acts and comments are made by stupid males, and most horrible sex comments are mouthed by male “pigs”. Is it true that “like a girl” tends to be an insult whereas “like a man” is celebratory? Yes. But we have other derogatory terms for men: jerk; pigs; a**-hole; wanker… They’re all unequivocally male.

Should we replace “fight like a girl” with “fight like a bitch”? Is this what we’re talking about?

On the other hand, we can decide that we’re better off as a society by being hypocritical and treating these uncomfortable empirical truths as if they didn’t exist, but facts tend to be stubborn things, and in the long run hypocritical conventions end up damaging the broader issue they’re supposed to protect because they make it come across as artificial and false.

 

3. Assuming gender interests

Kat argues that “assuming the women they meet are in non-technical roles” is a form of sexism: this is certainly true if you meet them at a tech conference, the (once again too easy) example that she chose to illustrate her point; it’s a lot less true if you’re introduced to a new team of mixed roles, or if you’re meeting students at a grad fair. You can legitimately assume that someone interested in Computer Science is more likely to be male because the numbers prove you right, so if hypothetically you only had time to speak with one applicant with no knowledge of their background, picking a man would not be a form of sexism, it’d be weighing your odds.

Of course that doesn’t mean that you should rule female applicants out:

it’s ok to prepare for the usual, as long as you welcome the unusual with open eyes and mind.

But this is an easy-to-agree principle, so let’s move on to more troubling questions: if you’re a parent of a young girl, and you have to enrol her in an extra class of either literature or coding, knowing that right now she’s interested in both (or neither), what should you do? And if you were to build a new dorm for your future Computer Science students in a country where men and women can’t share facilities, would you split the space half and half?

 

4. Assuming gender capability

Kat contrasts the prejudicial view that “Women just aren’t interested in programming/math/logic” with evidence that “the variation between individuals dwarfs any biological difference”. Although counterintuitive, both statements are true: there are massive variations between the capabilities of any two random individuals, and that’s why we should always be judged on our own merit; but at the same time when it comes to large numbers, men are marginally better performing and significantly more interested in mathematical and technical disciplines.
We design technology for millions, sometimes billions of users, and even a marginal difference in response can amount to a dramatic increase in adoption, revenues, and success. Should we ignore that for the sake of equality? Should we do more than that?

 

A famous experiment from a few years back showed that what we consider an absolute (eg. how good someone is at something) is everything but: female Korean-American students were given a math assignment, after going through a process that would remind them either of their gender or of their heritage. Participants who were primed on their Asian roots (positively associated with math skills) performed statistically better than equivalent students who were primed on their female gender (often associated with being bad with numbers).

If we’re pursuing equality, should we actively design technology requiring quantitative skills in a way that makes women forget that they’re women? Are women actually better off in a “sexist” office that calls everyone “guys”?

 

I’m not suggesting an answer to any of these questions, but I think it’s worth asking them. Human behaviour is counterintuitive and complicated: individually, we’re very different; in groups, we influence one another and form clusters; when you have to design for large groups, you inevitably sacrifice the uniqueness of each individual.

 

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The point is not how to avoid discrimination.

We always discriminate: when a newspaper publishes an article with a certain font size; when a supermarket places a product on an eye-level shelf and another one high up; when it was decided to use certain colours for traffic lights.

We always discriminate in technology, too: when we decide what operating system we develop apps for; what apps we preload onto a device; what features we include in those apps.

The point is how to discriminate well.

If we look at the world we live in, we follow a few principles:

  1. Discrimination must have a purpose: newspapers were printed in only one font size because, before digital came along, it would have been economically inefficient to do otherwise
  2. It should be optimal for a sufficient majority: traffic lights are a bad solution for the blind and color-blind, but because most people don’t have such problems, it is the solution we chose
  3. It should not make things too hard for the minority: if you’re too short to reach a product on the top shelf of a supermarket, you can ask someone to help you
  4. Sometimes, it requires people to adapt: if you move abroad you can’t expect people to learn your language, you have to learn theirs. It’s a discrimination against new immigrants, but the alternative would be so inconvenient that they just have to comply.

 

When it comes to technology, we need to be aware that these trade-offs are an inevitable part of the job regardless of how uncomfortable they are, and so are the questions they bring along.

If Apple didn’t include period tracking in their Health app because it would have come at the expense of another feature or of a faster performance that would have made the product better for most of their users, would it still be wrong? And would it be an ethical question or a commercial question?

Would the answer change if there were fewer alternative health apps on the market?

 

How much worrying about sexism is too much?

And if we say it’s never too much, let’s rephrase that: how much disregarding of statistically different behaviours among genders is too much?

How much gender-neutrality can we pursue, without being counterproductive to the success of what we do?

How much equality can we enforce without being patronising?

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No more like-minded people, please.

If you work anywhere near journalism, the question keeping you up at night is probably “how do I get paid?”. But if you’ve sorted that out, or if you’ve given up on it altogether, chances are that it’s been replaced by “what’s the role for journalism in the XXI century?” And namely: can journalism still play an educational role? In an age where every media organization is competing with more and more news outlets for a shorter and shorter share of attention, can we afford to feed people the stories they need to know? Or should we just serve them the stories they want, in the quality and size they want?

This conundrum is perfectly captured in online news sites that consistently favor popular headlines that people are most likely to click on over more nuanced or instructive stories that their readers are unfamiliar with. This has generated new metrics that journalism is being held accountable for, as demonstrated by a leaked document that outlines strategic objectives behind the AOL-Huffington Post deal:

“[the route towards survival is] to drive the average cost per unit of content down to $84 (from the current $99) and use “search engine optimization” and other techniques to attract an average of 7,000 page views per item, up from the current 1,500.” James Fallows, “Learning to love the (shallow, divisive, unreliable) new media”

The business plan behind this is quite simple: if you want enough eyeballs to keep your website (marginally) profitable, you have to give people what they want. It’s nothing new, as it’s the same business model that made television thrive in the XX century, but if applied to the news it raises a number of concerns, most of which are explained by Ted Kopper in “The case against news we can choose“. To sum up his argument, here is the most significant paragraph:

“Beginning, perhaps, from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unattainable, Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it. They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.”

This is dangerous on a number of levels, and it’s a debate that has been going on for a while, but I think it’s worth taking this conversation outside of the media environment. To me, for instance, it’s about eggs.

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Waitrose is an upscale British supermarket chain that, like all British supermarkets, is going above and beyond to meet the latest food culture: meat comes from local farmers; tuna are best friends with dolphins; whatever you think of, you can have it organic. And eggs are not only free-range, they are “reared with care by farmers who share our values”.

Of  course I understand what lies behind it (sustainability, care, reassurance), but there’s a point when rhetoric gets too far. And when I find myself sharing an ideological affinity when I happen to buy half a dozen eggs, I tend to think we’ve crossed that line. We’ve always made fun of the most radical ideological consumers who let their beliefs dictate their every purchase, whether they were extreme fashionistas or no-logo activitists; the difference is that what was once a fringe behaviour is showing the first signs of stepping into the mainstream.

Over the past few years businesses have borrowed the rhetoric of the internet ideologues (transparency, collaboration, generosity…) and supercharged their brands with Values. There’s nothing wrong with adopting those values and a lot of good can actually come from it. It’s when you use those values to create belonging to a close, like-minded community that things get dangerous, because communities based on belonging inevitably end up building fences around them.

Now, no-one will grow intolerant to those who buy eggs from farmers who do not share their values. The problem with rhetoric happens when it builds up into a consistent message that we find everywhere we turn, and starts affecting our view of the world. Over the past 10 years we’ve been exposed to more and more of the same message: follow the news you like, buy products that your friends have bought, read books recommended by people who share your taste… (It was inevitable that we’d end up with Cupidtino: a dating site for Apple fanboys and fangirls.)

The internet has provided the most efficient platform to enable this, but it’s not a technological trend; it’s a cultural trend.

We want more of the same. And this is understandable, at the very least for two reasons: the world is a scary place and we’re afraid of the unknown; and the world is a messy place and sorting through that mess to find new, hidden gems requires time and effort that we’d rather spend somewhere else.

So what’s the problem?

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The problem is that self-segregation was never a good idea throughout history, and there are more reasons now than ever to say that we can’t afford it.

Like it or not, we’re an increasingly diverse society, and we need to make common choices. We won’t be able to make those choices if we don’t even speak the same language or agree on facts, let alone find a shared interest or define the common good.

And like it or not, the greatest challenges that we’re facing in the XXI century, from energy dependence to welfare reform to international cooperation, require radical new thinking, and innovation doesn’t come from hanging about with like-minded people, nor from experiencing more of the same.

That’s true for individuals, that’s true for governments, that’s true for businesses and brands.

We have a shared responsibility to get out of our comfort zone and pursue the unexpected, day in day out. As for me, I’ll start looking for a farmer who doesn’t share my values but can still sell decent eggs.

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Freeconomics simplified for those who pretend not to get it

One of the most interesting aspects of how the digital revolution is impacting media is that newspapers have found themselves in a situation where they’re not just reporting on history from a safe distance, but also feeling its weight on their very shoulders, and this is proving to be a significant test of their journalistic ethos.

The last example of this is Helienne Lindvall’s article for the Guardian, where she polemized with the likes of Cory Doctorow, Chris Anderson and Gerd Leonhard for advocating free (music, media, films…) while at the same time demanding money to speak at conferences. The article really is as shallow as my words make it sound, and praise goes to Cory Doctorow for a polite and thought-through response, that even discusses the hows and ifs of his compensation.

I have too much respect for the Guardian to believe that they don’t get the debate around “free”, but it may be worth simplifying things in three points:

  • “Free” is not an ideological debate, it’s a practical one. I admit that authors such as Lawrence Lessig may mislead us, but the real point is not whether it is “right or wrong” to distribute content for free, but whether you even have an alternative. You don’t. Technology allows for free copying and distribution, and that’s what’s going to happen. We can legislate against it, but technology will always find a way around the law.
  • Given this, I understand that the government would try to enact the law as a matter of principle (but even then, for how long, when you can spend months working an operation to take BitTorrent down, and it takes a few hours to put it back up?), but the nature of businesses is not to defend principles, it’s to make money. And no business model was ever built on “what’s right”: it’s built on what a company is a capable of doing, and what consumers are willing to pay for it. That’s exactly what the advocates of freeconomics are saying: get paid for what people are willing to pay for, give away the rest as advertising. (By the way, this is also precisely what they’re doing. Chris Anderson gave away Freeconomics in e-book format for free, and charged for the printed version. At the end of it, he made money. And so incidentally did Wired.)
  • Let’s talk about the Guardian: what’s clear by now is that very few people are willing to pay to access online the same news they see on other sites in the same way they do on other sites. This leaves you with three options:

  1. Offer news that no-one else is offering, and that a certain segment of people is willing to pay for. It’s usually specialist information for affluent categories. This is not really an option for a generalist newspaper.
  2. Offer a different experience around the same news. This is really tough, as there are already some examples of engaging information experience available for free.
  3. Experiment with a new model. Chris Anderson would probably suggest you to stop paying your best journalists and start becoming their agent instead: give them as much popularity as possible, help them monetize it, and then take a share of the revenues.

As always, things are complicated. But the business essence of free is not. Free is neither a business strategy nor an ideological crusade. It’s the way some things are destined to be. “That’s technology, baby. Technology! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!”


Further reading here and here
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