Technology has the potential to ease or reduce discrimination, but it can also reflect the biases – unconscious or otherwise – of its designers. As a Black woman in the tech field, I am acutely aware of the harm that tech can do when it doesn’t consider diversity from the ground up. But I’m also excited about all the great potential of well-designed tech to make the world a better, more inclusive place.
The conversation about how racism shows up within the technology we use in our everyday lives is happening in lots of areas of the tech field – everything from metaverse platform design considerations to the many facets of artificial intelligence. Let’s take a look at a few examples of what can go wrong before we discuss what can go right.
Technology can encourage discrimination
Racism is often embedded in tech design right from the start. One famous example is the way fitness trackers often don’t work properly on dark skin because they’re designed to read blood vessels through pale skin. The same problem shows up in lots of other places, too. Some of them are just annoying, such as touchless soap dispensers that fail to notice dark-skinned hand-washers. Others are potentially deadly, such as well-known problems with facial-recognition technology that misidentifies Black crime suspects and exacerbates the existing problems of police over-targeting Black communities, sometimes with devastating consequences.
Tech companies have frequently been called out for problems with embedded racism well after their products have been brought to market. In some cases, such as the facial-recognition technology mentioned above, this has led to products being pulled from the market or otherwise dropped from use. In other cases, such as the fitness tracker issue, companies have been less responsive to feedback.
This troubling tendency indicates not just a problem with individual tech designs, but also with the traditional design process itself. If diversity is not considered among the early building blocks of new technology, there’s a high risk that it will reproduce or create problems that users are sure to notice once it’s in their hands. Beyond the harms this can do to customers and society at large, it can also be a costly error for the tech companies eager to create (and profit from) the next big thing – whether that’s because of product recalls, wasted R&D budgets, or tarnished reputations.
But there is hope! Technology can discourage or reduce discrimination, too
While digital technologies and solutions can’t erase discrimination, they do have potential.
With some kinds of tech, there is an aspect that favours underrepresented groups because it can distance them from immediate discrimination. For instance, in the digital sphere, customers and users can judge a service or product by its merits and not based on who created it. A great example is Calendly, a Black-owned appointment and meeting scheduling app; I bought and paid for it before I knew that it was designed by a Nigerian-born entrepreneur.
As another example, in many cases, collaboration and communication technology that asks users to create profiles can be designed in a way that does not feature users’ faces, or even their names. This can open up a space and decrease or delay discrimination. Of course this depends on what underrepresented groups we’re talking about; this kind of feature will make the greatest difference for groups that would otherwise be visible.
The anti-discrimination potential of tech also resides in what is being designed and who is doing the designing in the first place. Harm and discrimination can easily be woven into the fabric of new tech if the teams creating it are themselves not diverse and fail to see the potential for a project’s negative consequences.
The movement for anti-racism and other forms of justice in tech is gaining strength. The conversations are exciting and worth paying attention to no matter what your specific role is in the tech world.
So how can tech leaders do better?
While I appreciate that a lot of big tech companies have made it a priority to donate to anti-racist efforts, to me that feels sort of like paying for their bad behaviour rather than changing it. The big consulting firms such as Deloitte, KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers and McKinsey all regularly come out with some sort of report on the tech landscape and what business leaders need to know and do. Somehow, although these reports touch on risk mitigation and governance, I’m not aware they go far enough. The tech field needs to transform from the inside out.
A big part of that is noticing who’s at the table giving input into tech design in the first place – and who’s missing from the decision-making process. As business leaders, we have the responsibility to make sure the people who are designing tech products and services are diverse enough that we decrease the number of blind spots we have.
We must also ask careful questions about the potential impact of our tech well before it goes to market. This is one major strength of a diverse team: having a range of perspectives at the table will infuse those perspectives into tech design and help us avoid pitfalls at every step of the process, from product design to marketing campaigns.
Racism is not exceptional; it’s normal and systemic, and tech leaders need to make active choices to shift that. Technology is still created by people. It’s a series of human decisions, and that’s where the change needs to occur, not after the harm has been done.
Karima-Catherine Goundiam is the founder and chief executive officer of digital strategy firm Red Dot Digital and business matchmaking platform B2BeeMatch.
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