Why Silicon Valley’s most astute critics are all women | Technology


In November 2019, which now seems like an aeon ago, I wrote about an interesting correlation I had stumbled across. It was that the authors of the most insightful critiques of digital technology as deployed by the tech companies were women. I listed 20 of them and added that I made no claims for the statistical representativeness of my sample. It might simply have been the result of confirmation bias – I read more tech commentary than is good for anyone and it could be that the stuff that sticks in my memory happens to resonate with my views.

Sixteen months later, I find that my list of formidable female tech critics has extended. It now includes (in alphabetical order): Janet Abbate, Lilian Edwards, Maria Farrell, Timnit Gebru, Wendy Hall, Mar Hicks, Kashmir Hill, Lina Khan, Pratyusha Kalluri, Rebecca Mackinnon, Margaret Mitchell, Safiya Noble, Kavita Philip, Mitali Thakor, Corinna Schlombs, Dina Srinivasan and Carissa Véliz. If any of these are unknown to you then any good search engine will point you to them and to their work. Again, the usual caveats apply. I’m not claiming statistical representativeness, just that as someone whose various day jobs involve reading a lot of tech critiques, these are the thinkers who stand out.

What does this interesting correlation tell us? Quite a lot, as it happens. The first conclusion is that the industry that is reshaping our societies and undermining our democracies is overwhelmingly dominated by males. Yet – with a few honourable exceptions – male critics seem relatively untroubled by, or phlegmatic about, this particular aspect of the industry; they seem to see it as inevitable and pass on to more ostensibly urgent concerns.

The chronic lack of gender diversity in tech has been well known for ages and recent years have seen many of the companies admitting to the problem and vowing to do better. But progress has been mighty slow. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they still see it, like they see, say, hate speech, as a PR problem to be managed rather than as a structural issue that requires radical reform.

My hunch is that however much the industry bleats about gender diversity, it doesn’t truly see it as a real problem. Male-dominated firms still receive more than 80% of venture-capital funding and the money often goes to entrepreneurs promising to create products or services that supposedly address consumers’ real needs. The trouble is that male founders, especially engineers, are not famous for understanding the problems that women experience, which is how we got absurdities such as Apple originally failing to include menstrual-cycle tracking in its smartwatch or in the iPhone’s Health app. Wow! Women have periods! Who knew?

The strange thing is how irrational this kind of tech-bro gender-blindness is from a commercial point of view. After all, as the Economist puts it, alienating half your customers is not a smart way of doing business. Tailors and dressmakers figured out a long time ago that men and women were different shapes and sizes. The news, however, doesn’t seem to have yet reached Palo Alto or Mountain View, where they are busy designing virtual-reality headsets that make more women than men feel sick, maybe because 90% of women have pupils that are closer together than the typical headset’s default setting. Same goes for smartphones that are too big to fit comfortably into the average woman’s hand.

So we now have a networked world dominated by an industry that oozes tech-bro arrogance and affluence combined with a profound ignorance of what life is like for most people. The tech elites who create the products and services are unlikely to have experienced social exclusion, racism, misogyny, poverty or physical abuse. And in particular they have little idea of what life is like for women, although, given the scandals about sexual harassment in tech companies, you’d have thought they’d have some idea by now. In those circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that the people who are likely to be the industry’s most perceptive critics would be smart and well-educated women.

Then there’s racism, a topic rarely discussed in polite tech circles. Many of the most trenchant critics of the technology and its deployment by Silicon Valley are women of colour. That’s no accident, because they in particular are understandably attentive to the ways in which, for example, machine learning and facial recognition technology embody the prejudices embedded in the datasets that trained them. Silicon Valley is busy making – and profiting from – machines that will monitor and control people. But the engineers building the stuff have little understanding of, or contact with, the communities that have borne the brunt of machine-learning surveillance, often women, people who are black, indigenous, LGBT+, poor or with disabilities. And they never consult them before such systems are installed. Democracies need smart, informed, critical perspectives on the asymmetries of power implicit in such abusive technologies. The good news about my list of scholars is that they are clearly up to the job.



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