Netflix’s new documentary, The Social Dilemma, warns viewers of the power technology exerts over our brains. Many applications are designed to increase the time we spend engaging with them — and keep us coming back.
The documentary is packed with former big-tech employees, as well as researchers and advocates from organizations including the Center for Humane Technology and AlgoTransparency.
But tech thinkers have been blowing the whistle on tech’s addictive properties and algorithmic bias for years. And, as a Twitter thread from Mozilla on September 22 documented, many of the foremost voices calling for more ethical tech were absent from The Social Dilemma.
“There were glaring omissions, including insights from those who have been key thought leaders on these topics, including women and people of color,” Mozilla, which oversees development of the open-source browser Firefox, tweeted in response to online criticism of the documentary’s sourcing.
The organization shared a list of books and articles — crowdsourced from Mozilla contributors — that can help technologists and users alike learn more about the relationships between tech, psychology and systemic inequality.
“Building a movement of internet users who demand better from platforms is the only way we’ll bring about fundamental change,” Mozilla VP of advocacy and engagement Ashley Boyd told Built In.
These were the thinkers the thread included.
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Texts to Read
Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Noble
Safiya Noble is an associate professor and researcher at the University of California–Los Angeles. She co-founded and co-directs the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry. Algorithms of Oppression examines how paid advertising and monopolistic search engines fuel bias against people of color and women online. In it, Noble challenges the idea that search engines return value-neutral results.
Race After Technology by Ruha Benjamin
Ruha Benjamin is an associate professor of African American studies at Princeton University, where she focuses on the intersections of science, technology, medicine and social factors. In Race After Technology, Benjamin breaks down how automation recreates — and, thereby, reinforces — existing racial biases, and offers some ways to assess the fairness of technologies that promise to “disrupt” our world.
Automated Inequality by Virginia Eubanks
Virginia Eubanks is an associate professor of political science at University at Albany, SUNY. She is co-founder of the anti-poverty organization Our Knowledge, Our Power. In Automated Inequality, Eubanks investigates the impact of automated systems used by government, law enforcement, finance and healthcare organizations on people living in poverty. She finds that these systems track, profile and criminalize the people most in need of services and support.
Programmed Inequality by Mar Hicks
Mar Hicks is an associate professor of history at Illinois Institute of Technology, where they write and teach about gender, technology and European history. Programmed Inequality looks at the rise and fall of Britain as a computing and technology powerhouse through the lens of its treatment of women programmers. The book’s critique of perceived meritocracies applies to many a tech environment — take open source, for example.
Behind the Screen by Sarah Roberts
Sarah Roberts is an assistant professor of information studies at UCLA. She’s helped spearhead the study of commercial content moderation, or companies that hire people to review and remove harmful content from social media platforms. Behind the Screen shines a spotlight on the employees who perform content moderation work — and the psychological effects of social media’s dark side.
Black Software by Charlton McIlwain
Charlton McIlwain is a professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. Black Software re-examines the history of Black communities online. Along the way, McIlwain challenges claims that the internet is a new tool for civil rights movements and shows how early online community building set the stage for the digital activism of today.
It’s About Damn Time by Arlan Hamilton
Arlan Hamilton is the founder and managing partner of venture firm Backstage Capital, which invests in startups owned by underrepresented entrepreneurs. It’s About Damn Time chronicles Hamilton’s successful efforts to break into the Silicon Valley venture capital world — despite going in with no money, connections or college degree — and offers advice for others who are chronically underestimated.
Reset by Ellen Pao
Ellen Pao is the former CEO of Reddit and founder of Project Include, a diversity initiative for the startup ecosystem. In 2012, Pao filed a discrimination lawsuit against her then-employer, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm, for allegedly mistreating and undermining the women and people of color who worked there. She lost the suit, but her advocacy — including Reset, which documents her experience — sparked needed conversations about inequities in corporate spaces.
Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy by Siva Vaidhyanathan
Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies at University of Virginia. His book Antisocial Media follows the growth of Facebook from campus project to sociopolitical behemoth. Vaidhyanathan unpacks how citizens and governments use Facebook today, and shares what he believes turned a well-intentioned group of engineers into a corporation managing an overly powerful platform that poses legitimate threats to democracy.
“To Really ‘Disrupt,’ Tech Needs to Listen to Actual Researchers” by Lilly Irani and Rumman Chowdhury
In this story for Wired, Accenture’s global lead for responsible AI Rumman Chowdhury and Turkopticon founder Lilly Irani argue that calls for “new fields” of study combining tech, social and ethical considerations are misguided, as those fields have long existed. Furthermore, they write, experts in those fields have produced a body of work questioning traditional tech wisdom surrounding algorithms, problem-solving and money-making.
People to Follow
Tracy Chou used to be an engineer at Quora and Pinterest. Now, she’s an investor and the co-founder of Project Include and progressive political training organization Arena. Chou’s app Block Party has a beta product that integrates with Twitter to help users who find themselves targeted by trolls or other harassment. Block Party uses AI to filter out potentially hateful or spammy mentions and place them in a separate folder that users can access — or ignore — on their own terms. You can follow her here.
Leslie Miley has held engineering leadership positions at Twitter, Slack, Google and Apple; he’s also served as CTO for the Obama Foundation and as an advisor to startups with underrepresented founders. His honest commentary on race discrimination in engineering departments — as well as problems with how companies address discrimination — has made him a leader in conversations about diversity and inclusion in tech. You can follow him here.
After a wave of corporate statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Ifeoma Ozoma came forward with her story of the discrimination she faced while working on Pinterest’s public policy team. Her work combatting health misinformation at Pinterest, Facebook at Google laid the groundwork for her to launch her own public policy consultancy, Earthseed. You can follow her here.
Joy Buolamwini is a programmer, researcher and artist in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. After her MIT thesis showed that facial recognition software is less accurate when identifying the faces of dark-skinned women, Microsoft and IBM improved their models. She is the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, an organization dedicated to uncovering and addressing discriminatory AI. You can follow her here.
Julie Owono is the executive director of Internet Without Borders, an international network that promotes internet access for all, protects users’ rights online and fights censorship. She’s also a member of the Oversight Board, an independent group that makes decisions about content moderation at Facebook and Instagram, with the goal of removing misinformation and hate speech while safeguarding users’ rights. You can follow her here.
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