Book Notes: “Technically Wrong”

Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech
By Sara Wachter-Boettcher
W.W. Norton & Company, 2017

In a 2011 essay titled Why Software is Eating the World, noted Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen said:

We are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy.

The last two decades have served up a smorgasbord of industries being disrupted and consumed. Software is transforming our lives in ways we could have scarcely imagined a generation ago. Its influence is pervasive.

As more of our activities become mediated by software, we must we inevitably examine the social effects of doing so. Every other week brings news of some software-driven breach of trust, biased behavior, or other outrage. As a result, ethics has finally become an important — if not yet central — concern in the tech world.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s book Technically Wrong is an important contribution to this conversation. It’s a catalog of some of the most egregious examples of “bad tech” from the recent past, including Google Photos tagging a black user and his friend as “gorillas” and a menstrual cycle-tracking app that assumes its users are solely interested in reproductive health.

Ms. Wachter-Boetthcher’s thesis is that these things don’t happen accidentally. Software is not neutral; it encodes the worldview (and hence, biases) of its creators. And, as attested by data presented in the book, its creators are overwhelmingly white and male. “Until the tech industry becomes more representative of the people it’s trying to serve,” the author states, “these problems will persist — and our products will be worse off because of it.”

As we move more of our interactions to information environments, we risk reifying our biases, thus deepening social rifts and making them more difficult to overcome. Those of us who design these things must become more aware of the immense power entailed in creating the structures within which people interact. Technically Wrong offers multiple cautionary examples that can help increase our awareness of these important issues.

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