drwex (drwex) wrote,

Engaging with gender and race at the MIT Media Lab


A group of Media Lab students has written an open letter to US CTO (and Lab alum) Megan Smith thanking her for taking head-on issues of gender (and to a lesser degree, race) around technology, including at the Lab. I don't think I agree with Ms Smith's solution as proposed in her talk - see below - but I was really happy to see her use her time at the Lab's 30th anniversary event to challenge this elephant in the auditorium.

I am super-extra-duper proud of the students who self-organize to keep this conversation alive. I hope the institution supports them and really tackles in an honestly self-critical way how it can do better in these areas. My rough skim is that the Lab fares a lot better than technological institutions in general when it comes to gender but fails in horrible and embarrassing ways on matters of race. That is, I can name women who were involved in founding and early days of the Lab (as well as women students) from then until now, but I can't think of a black professor or research affiliate, and very few people from outside America at all.

(Smith's solution boils down to "make sure everyone is included in our meritocracy". She's completely correct that the contributions of women and persons of color have been erased from the record, and non-white/non-males are too often kept out of the meritocracy that technology prides itself on. My problem is that I don't think this is something amenable to "debugging" as she put it. I think that the exclusion of women and persons of color is the result of centuries of systemic practice, and ongoing institutions and systems that support the perpetuation of those practices. I don't think you can "debug" that; I think you need to address it by replacing discriminatory systems with systems that ameliorate, balance, and strive toward non-discrimination. Those systems have to be built by and populated by aware humans who need to learn about our conscious and subconscious biases, and that have appropriate amounts of checks and balances. In geek terms it's not a debug; it's a system rewrite based on the lessons learned from the current "buggy" system.)

ETA: here is Ethan Zuckerman proposing an approach that is more to my liking, using the metaphor of "disruption" rather than "debugging". https://theconversation.com/can-innovators-build-a-future-thats-both-disruptive-and-just-49871

Hmm, I seem to have fallen back into my old habit of making highly parenthetical posts. I'll work on that.
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