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Tech Lives Matter - Diversity in the Technology Industry

by Michael Szul on tags: technology, artificial intelligence, logic magazine, diversity, labor
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Note: This post/concept first appeared on YouTube as a part of our Digital Shots series. We revisited the concept and expanded the dialog below, but it is still mostly a written stream of consciousness, so forgive the organization and grammar.

Ben Tarnoff has a nice essay—or pamphlet—(the non-fiction equivalent to a novella) about the "making of the tech worker movement," and as Black Lives Matter gathers more media attention and acquires the collective mind-share of individuals in different circles, I think it's time we turn our attention—as an industry—to how technology has also played a part in the oppression of minorities and the stunting of the growth of those from diverse backgrounds (and divergent cognitive processes). Minorities are extremely underrepresented in many different areas of technology, and the literature is rife with discussions on algorithmic bias and how machine learning disproportionately affects minorities and people of color. As an industry, what we need to focus on is how the software that we build on a daily basis is used in society and what negative impact it could have.

For a significant amount of time being a software engineer—being a technology worker—has given us the impression that we are not "labor." That we are not the working class. We believe we are white collar. We believe we are this special segment of the industry. Software engineers and technologists often have this assumption of "specialness"—that we are indeed somehow special and disconnected from the plight of our fellow citizens. But even more egregious, we believe that we are somehow disconnected from the responsibilities of the software and the applications that we build.

It goes without saying that it's great to see some technology workers starting to unite. For example, they're starting to understand that working on algorithms for facial recognition software might not be a good idea, or that working on systems that are then sold to governments for war is not really the best use of their talent. It's great to see the moral compass evolve when we talk about how technology affects the environment. Because if the government will not hold big technology companies accountable then we have to—the workers. We've already seen how some employees are quitting Facebook over their handling of misinformation and hate speech. We've seen how workers have effected business decisions at Amazon and Microsoft. With Google, workers managed to disrupt the cooperation and investment in Project Maven and began to independently organize to influence other decisions:

Organized workers at [Google] were able to get executives to drop Project Maven, the company's artificial-intelligence program that the Pentagon contracted for, and Project Dragonfly, a strategy to launch a censored search engine in China.

Google protests from the Hindustan Times

Largely, these protests are less about diversity and more able the outcomes of technology. Project Maven is billed as:

a way of maintaining "advantages over increasingly capable adversaries," the project is formally known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team. Its objective is "to turn the enormous volume of data available to DoD into actionable intelligence and insights at speed" for human analysts.

Maven was a rallying cry for many Google workers according to Tarnoff:

[…] [T]here was another important reason that Google became a hotspot for organizing. Its employees tended to have a more utopian outlook, aptly summarized by its former slogan, "Don't be evil." Employees expected executives to put ethical con- siderations above profit-making. When this expectation was not fulfilled, it created a sense of betrayal that fed a process of radicalization. Such a process was particularly evident in the organizing against Project Maven — the breakthrough that marked the true arrival of the tech worker movement.

Project Maven, […] is a Pentagon initiative to use machine learning (ML) to analyze drone footage. It belongs to a broader effort to modernize US military operations through the greater use of ML and cloud computing, which requires partnering with tech firms like Google that specialize in these technologies. In September 2017, Google signed a contract with the Pentagon to work on Project Maven. Management tried to keep the deal quiet, knowing that anything related to the weaponization of ML would cause controversy. But employees began to find out about it, and as the concerns they raised through official channels went nowhere, they turned to the company's internal forums to raise awareness.

Outrage grew. In February 2018, an open letter to CEO Sundhar Pichai asking him to cancel the contract began to circulate. As it racked up signatures, anti-Maven employees mobilized on a number of fronts: compiling Maven-related research, ask- ing pointed questions at company meetings, even distributing anti-Maven memes. After months of escalating pressure, man- agement caved: in early June 2018, Google announced it would not be renewing the Project Maven contract.

Previously, these projects would have went unnoticed and most of the engineers working on them would have been ambivalent to their use.

Business is always a power play, but that power play is a human behavior just as much as a business behavior. Unregulated companies in power take advantage of employees, while unregulated human behavior (especially in business) can be cause for alarm. Just like those that are lower on the labor rung are exploited, those that are lower on the company hierarchy are also exploited, while the ones on top are protected. As an industry we've started to gather together not just to hold companies accountable for projects, but also for the behavior of those in power:

On November 1, 2018, more than twenty thousand employees and contractors of Google walked out of their offices. They walked out in fifty cities around the world: in Silicon Valley and Sydney, Dublin and São Paulo. They were enraged by a story in the New York Times reporting that Andy Rubin, creator of the Android mobile operating system, had been protected by Google management — and given a $90 million exit package — despite allegations of sexual harassment that management itself had found credible.

So, only seven days after the Times story broke, they pulled off one of the largest international labor actions in modern history. They gathered in parks and plazas, chanted, marched, and shared stories. They were protesting not only the Rubin cover-up, but what organizers called a "toxic work culture" characterized by harrassment, discrimination, racism, and the abuse of power.

The scale of the walkout was remarkable.

While we're in the middle of Black Lives Matter, and we're talking about what we can do for people of color and other underrepresented groups, it brings to mind one of the most influential philosophical texts I read in college: Cornell West's A Genealogy of Modern Racism. In it, West examines the historical and philosophical discourse of race and shows that the ideas of early philosophy and science overwhelming contribute to modern concepts of white dominance and reduce the value of African-American culture through implicit preconceptions of aesthetics. Questions of what constitutes beauty or civility result from comparing African-Americans to the "Platonic ideal" of "whiteness" rather than considering the systemic factors of our discourse.

Cornell West from the Wikimedia Foundation

[Samuel Stanhope] Smith's radical environmentalism […] led him to adopt the most progressive and sympathetic alternative which promotes the welfare of black people permissible within the structure of modern discourse; integration which uplifts black people, assimilation which civilizes black people, intermarriage which ensures less Negroid features in the next generation.

West's genealogy shows the underpinnings of systemic racism and how ideas of beauty, aesthetics, intelligence, etc. impact the views, work, and outcomes of modern society. A good example is how IQ tests—primarily designed on research by Euro-centric institutions show an out-sized reduction in performance from African-Americans. Is it truly that African-Americans are less intelligent? Or is it more than these exams are biased from years of research that lacks diversity and pigeon-holes the construct of intelligence?

Notice this talk about white people "elevating" African-Americans. There is this feeling—this need—to elevate the African-Americans to make their lives better. But to assume that African-Americans need to be elevated at all is simply coming from a place of privilege. Maybe they didn't need to be elevated; Maybe those in power just needed to stop oppressing. We all learned what happened to Black Wall Street—even if it did have to be ripped from hidden history by a comic book television series.

I'm always careful as a white male when it comes to conversations about race or systemic change because at the end of the day, I go back home white and male. You can't be a part-time activist, and the reality is that I'm in a position of privilege because even as I contribute to activist causes, I still go home with the privilege that I obtained just for being born. So it's important that we're careful that the decisions made as tech workers—as we attempt to build a better society—aren't decisions made from a place of privilege. We need to speak out, but more than anything we need to listen to those around us that are most impacted.

I had an email conversation with Scott Hanselman a few years ago because I was holding an award-funded hackathon for underrepresented groups as part of a larger festival at a public university campus. I had asked Scott if he wanted to talk about the hackathon, the purpose, and about diversity in technology on his podcast. I believed it was an important conversation, and I get the irony of two white dudes talking about diversity in technology. (Although note that when talking about diversity in technology, we're not just talking about people of color, but also divergent sexuality, gender, neurodiversity, mental health, and physical disabilities. If you haven't reviewed Open Sourcing Mental Health, you should.) Scott declined because he said that he doesn't like to explicitly call out diversity but instead just likes to be able to handle diversity implicitly by having diverse guests on his show.

Although I respect Scott and his work, I think that his explanation was a bit of a cop-out. Because he is in a great position of privilege and he has a large platform that reaches and educates many different people, he has the reach and influence to effectively speak out about those things explicitly. It's not enough just to be inclusive because we need to recognize that we are the result of the original "exclusion" to begin with. We need to realize that in order to reverse that trend we can't passively enact change. We can't passively lead people into uncomfortable conversations with themselves. We have to be direct and uncomfortable about it.

Scott is also famous for wearing a t-shirt that says "World's Most Okayish Developer" which is funny and self-deprecating, but also only something a person in a place of privilege can do.

As I sit here a white male talking to you about diversity in technology and referencing Black Lives Matter, I understand the irony, but I fall back to Ben Tarnoff's essay about the tech workers. He says that as we move into this tech worker movement, we need to lead from below.

The tech worker movement will become a truly transformative social force to the extent that it takes its direction from the Google security guard, the Uber driver, the Amazon warehouse worker. Socialism needs friends in the middle, but it must be led from below.

What I do find encouraging is that we—as an industry—have grown towards understanding our responsibilities by uniting with the workers around us that are not full-time employees—or not software engineers. These are the bus drivers, the security guards, the contract workers in the cafeteria. These are people that are "labor" just like we are labor, only we see ourselves as special. That needs to end. By understanding the plight of our fellow tech industry workers—those on the front lines of labor—maybe we can improve how we handle our own decision-making and the outcomes of those decisions.

It's not the software engineers that need to show us the way forward. It's the security guards. It's the contract workers. It's those who are most disadvantaged that require unionization—that require tech worker solidarity. These are the people that need to be leading the charge. All we have to do is stand behind them, support them, and listen.