Tech Was Supposed to Be Society’s Great Equalizer. What Happened?

In a special bonus episode of the podcast Crazy/Genius, the computer scientist and data journalist Meredith Broussard explains how “technochauvinism” derailed the dream of the digital revolution.

Mathematicians holding parts of the first Army computers (Wikimedia Commons)

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Historians may look back at the early 21st century as the Gilded Age 2.0. Not since the late 1800s has the U.S. been so defined by the triad of rapid technological change, gaping economic inequality, and sudden social upheaval.

Ironically, the digital revolution was supposed to be an equalizer. The early boosters of the Internet sprang from the counterculture of the 1960s and the New Communalist movement. Some of them, like Stewart Brand, hoped to spread the sensibilities of hippie communes throughout the wilderness of the web. Others saw the internet more broadly as an opportunity to build a society that amended the failures of the physical world.

But in the last few years, the most successful tech companies have built a new economy that often accentuates the worst parts of the old world they were bent on replacing. Facebook’s platform amplifies preexisting biases—both of ideology and race—and political propaganda. Amazon’s dominion over online retail has allowed it to squash competition, not unlike the railroad monopolies of the 19th century. And Apple, in designing the most profitable product in modern history, has also designed another instrument of harmful behavioral addiction.

In the latest episode of the podcast Crazy/Genius, produced by Kasia Mychajlowycz and Patricia Yacob, we ask why the dream of the digital revolution has proven so disappointing for some of its early advocates. One of those dreamers was Meredith Broussard, a computer scientist and a data journalist, who entered Harvard University in 1991, just months after Tim Berners-Lee launched the first website. “The early Internet was deeply groovy,” Broussard told me, a place where idealistic young men and women thought they could redesign the rules of society.

But Broussard soon switched her major when she found the computer science track at Harvard to be marred by sexism. Today, she says, many of the tech industry’s failures stem from a force she calls “technochauvinism.” This is not only a critique of the software industry’s infamous gender inequality, which makes it difficult for women’s perspective to be considered in designing tech. It is also chauvinism in the original sense of the word: a presumption that the most advanced technological solution is inherently the best one.

Consider, she says, the enthusiasm around self-driving cars (covered in Episode Two of this season). Around the world, many auto manufacturers and software companies are pouring billions of dollars into autonomous technology. But Broussard said these engineers often don’t think about the woman’s experience in a driverless car.

“I've spent an awful lot of my life trying not to be alone with strange men,” Broussard said. “The thing that makes that makes a rideshare [like Uber or Lyft] safe right now is the fact that the driver is there as an intermediary and the driver can intervene if somebody starts harassing you.” If women are reluctant to use ride-sharing services that can leave them alone in vehicles with male passengers, autonomous vehicle companies are designing a technology that half of the world won’t want to use.

The only way to make technology that helps a broad array of people is to consult a broad array of people to make that technology. But the computer industry has a multi-decade history of gender discrimination. It is, perhaps, the industry’s original sin. After World War II, Great Britain was the world’s leader in computing. Its efforts to decipher Nazi codes led to the creation of the world’s first programmable digital computer. But within 30 years, the British advantage in computing and software had withered, in part due to explicit efforts to push women out of the computer-science workforce, according to Marie Hicks’ history, Programmed Inequality.

The tech industry isn’t a digital hippie commune, anymore. It’s the new aristocracy. The largest and fastest growing companies in the world, in both the U.S. and China, are tech giants. It’s our responsibility, as users and voters, to urge these companies to use their political and social power responsibly. “I think absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Broussard said. “In the history of America, we've had gilded ages before and we've had companies that have had giant monopolies over industries and it hasn't worked out so great. So I think that one of the things that we need to do as a society is we need to take off our blinders when it comes to technology and we need to kind of examine our techno-chauvinist beliefs and say what kind of a world do we want?”