Tech Is Not Neutral

Those of us in the tech field like to pretend that it's neutral. We like to pretend that we're neutral. We have to stop.

Tech Is Not Neutral

If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.
Neil Peart

Those of us in the tech field like to pretend that it's neutral. We like to pretend that we're neutral. We don't take sides. We call ourselves platforms and reject any responsibility for the way those platforms are used. We build systems that support institutions without ever questioning whom it serves, or whom it harms.

We have to stop.

Tech is not and cannot be neutral, because the world it exists in is not just nor equal. And the world is so much less equal than we want to tell ourselves. As I write this, people are protesting unchecked police violence that continues to get worse with no end in sight. Most of those protesters are Black. And so are the victims of the violence they're protesting. This protest comes in the midst of a pandemic which has killed more than 100,000 people in the United States alone, and which also has no end in sight. Most of those victims are also Black. That's not a coincidence; and tech is not blameless.

We built social networks and called them platforms. We valued them based on engagement and active users. We designed them to foster outrage and arguments, because it kept people online. People used them to spread misinformation, fear, and hate. And we did nothing to stop it.

We built delivery services, and car services, and online shopping. We exploited desperate people to staff them for starvation wages. The world was already unequal, so the already desperate people were mostly Black, and we did nothing to change it.

We built tracking systems, and monitoring systems, and predictive models that we like to call AI. But we didn't question who would be tracked or why. We never examined the world we were modeling and whether it was equal or just, or who would be harmed by solidifying it into algorithms. And so we continued to hurt the people who were always hurt. And most of those people are Black.

When we try to act as though tech is neutral, what we're saying is that we don't want it to change anything. We're deciding that the status quo is good and right. That the world is the way the world ought to be. I don't think that, and I hope you don't either, but people in tech—and especially white people—have a degree of privilege which allows far too many of us to ignore the effect what we do has on the world. We abdicate our responsibility to our fellow humans, our neighbors, and ourselves.

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.
Desmond Tutu

The Black Lives Matter movement is nearing its 7th anniversary. It grew out of a frustration and rage with decades of indifference from white people to the deaths of young Black people at the hands of the police. We've known for many years that police inflict wildly disproportionate levels of violence on Black people. Yet Amazon voluntarily shares video from their Ring doorbells with hundreds of police departments.

In the 1950s, redlining locked Black families out of the financial growth and generational wealth that white Americans gained through real estate. This has been well established for more than 50 years, and Black people live with the aftermath of that reality to this day. We know this; we've known it for decades. Yet algorithms at fintech and credit agencies make lending decisions based on home zip codes.

Black neighborhoods are massively over policed. Police stop and arrest Black people at hugely disproportionate rates to any other racial group. This has been true since the earliest incarnations of America's police forces, when they existed as runaway slave patrols. This has been established fact for many many years. Yet knowing this, and knowing the elevated risk Black people face from the police, tech companies built predictive policing models that sent even more police into Black neighborhoods to reinforce the cycle of over policing.

In the court system, Black people are charged much more often and with more serious crimes than white people. Black people receive harsher sentences for the same crimes. This has been well known for decades. Yet Northpoint built a guideline tool for criminal sentencing that simply replicated that reality.

I could go on. I could describe some of the myriad ways that tech products enable stalking and harassment. I could discuss the ways that tech companies exploit workers all over the world. Never mind tech's contributions to America's unending wars. But this moment and this space is for the Black people of America who've been devastated by police violence for far too long.

We have been choosing the side of the oppressor. We have to stop.

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I'm not a racial scholar. I am a software engineer and a feminist. I've described what I do as not just building software, but making it easier to build software. But that's not enough. If all we do with software is to more efficiently recreate the injustices of the past, then we'll have just made the world a worse place. I want to make the world a better place. People in tech say that a lot, and I think we genuinely mean it. But it won't happen just because we built some software. We have to build the right software. We have to do it for the right people and the right reasons. And more importantly, we have to refuse to build tech that hurts people. We have to question how it will be used. We have to understand who it will be used by, and who it will be used on. And sometimes we have to say no.

I want to live in a just and equitable society. We don't have that right now. We can, if we work at it. Those of us working in tech have a great deal of privilege. We have to exercise it. It will be uncomfortable. It will be hard, at first. We have to do it anyway because it's the right thing to do.

This will be a long journey. Educate yourself and speak up. Start here.

Cover Photo by Julian Wan on Unsplash
Credit to Kim Crayton for the refrain that tech is not neutral