Technical Difficulties: Design & Representation in the Tech Industry

How much of your average day relies on tech? Probably a lot of it. Banking, navigation, meditation, social media hot takes and everything else in between is likely delivered to you on a pay-monthly, portable supercomputer. It’s how you’re able to read this, after all! Infinite digital services and apps come packaged with the promise of ease. The Cloud is limitless. Search engines crawl results at impossible speeds. At first glance, this all seems like the makings of digital idyll.

But if you pause scrolling, tapping and swiping to pull back the curtain, these products and services aren’t as delightful as they seem. The awareness of tech’s problems could range from vague to acute, depending on who is consuming these services.

This is what Sara Wachter-Boettcher covers in her book Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech. The latter of the book’s title unpacks the multitude of ways that the tech industry is hurting rather than helping its consumers.

The book documents an incident in 2015 when Google Photos misidentified a photoset of Jacky Alcine and his friend as ‘gorillas’. Simply put, the software was built using a learning algorithm that enables it to ‘see’. The algorithm was not initially trained to recognise images of black people correctly. Because this algorithm was not retrained to correctly tag these images of Alcine and his friend, it was referencing incorrect information that resulted in the insensitive tagging. Google were ‘genuinely sorry that this happened’, but it begs the question of why this problem wasn’t spotted before the product’s rollout.

Despite tech supposedly bringing equality and being produced with ‘us in mind’, failing to design for anyone who isn’t white or male (tbh, a lot of us aren’t) can mean that products fail in ways that are exclusionary at best, and racially insensitive at worst.

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White, male bias is prevalent in a lot of industries, so it comes as no surprise that it can be seen in tech. Technation has reported that BAME representation in tech sits at 15%. According to a report by Inclusive Boards, only 8.5% of leaders across 500 of Britain’s biggest tech firms are from a minority background. The report also found that 40% of senior leadership teams had no women at all.

This bias is not only a problem in tech leadership positions. It’s also embedded into the design process of tech products, where a lack of diversity can lead to inaccurate assumptions being made about users and their needs. One such example is online forms, where data entry fields often won’t accommodate surnames that are ‘too long’ or ‘too short, or insist that users select either ‘male’ or ‘female’ as their gender. A more alarming example is the growing use of crime prediction software in the UK. This uses historical arrest data to forecast crime hotspots and identify people who are at risk of reoffending. Software like this is said to encourage racial discrimination and profiling in the UK, where Black Brits are already 9.5 times more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts.

We have long passed the point of no return on our reliance on tech, yet most tech is imbued with biases that can exclude a lot of consumers. When left unchecked, these biases can have a variety of consequences. However, it’s not all bad news. Tech is one of the fastest growing industries in the UK, meaning there is potential for organisations like UK Black Techto accelerate diversity. Furthermore, the industry is host to a variety of BAME leaders who are paving the way for betterment in tech. The tech industry belongs to all of us, and should be focused on making their products and output better to serve us all.