Silicon Valley Is Shockingly Regressive on Diversity Issues

In the back-and-forth about technological "disruption" – and the implications for economic progress and social good – technology is often pitted against people. Doctors, teachers and taxi-drivers, after all, aren't the same as hard drives, and many find the effects of "disruption" on people, and the institutions that govern the relationships between them, to be unpalatable.

But what happens when technology brushes up ­– even accidentally – against more pernicious institutions, like racism and sexism?

Take Mink, the 3D printer for make-up, which, when it was first introduced, was written up as a tool for "instant gratification" aimed at teens and young adults. But there's a deeper, more nuanced story to this invention: it's intended to empower consumers who have no choice but to buy from an industry that does not care about their needs. Mink founder Grace Choi noted that "on the store shelves, a lot of the colors that you see happen to be very fair-skinned Caucasian colors ... because they're all very much based on this mass-manufacturing system in which you have to decide what is going to give you the most bang for your buck."

The cosmetics industry has rarely been kind to women of color. In 1991,an article recommended that women with "yellow undertones" mix a yellow M.A.C. toner into "regular" foundation. Today, M.A.C. produces a spectrum of foundations based on five different kinds of undertones. Variety and diversity has popped up in drug store brands as well – but it’s not enough for many women. "I generally don't wear make-up, but when I do, I mix two shades of liquid foundation," writer Nanjala Nyabola told me. "Many black women have to."

There is no secret racist cabal of cosmetics manufacturers plotting to make life harder for non-Caucasian women. But the economics of the cosmetics industry, as Choi points out, often lead to racist – and sometimes unquestioned – outcomes. Discrimination sometimes stems from individual intent, but sometimes it develops out of (or is supported by) a system or infrastructure that can't think for itself. Undermine the infrastructure, and you may undermine racism.

Uber is an example – albeit an imperfect one – of a technology that has had unintentional effects on entrenched and sometimes personalized discrimination: the inability of many African-Americans to flag down a taxi in cities. Clinton Yates once wrote of the benefits of the service in the Washington Post, noting, "Even in our 'post-racial society', one of the realities of being a brother is that hailing a cab is a nearly impossible task."

It's doubtful that Uber specifically set out to improve the lives of African-Americans. But the company accidentally did something that anti-discrimination statutes and awareness-raising campaigns were unlikely to ever achieve. It's not exactly a huge blow to racism, but still: technology is changing how people of color experience and are represented in the world, and it's all the more remarkable that much of this was never intended in the first place.

Of course, technologies also embody or perpetuate discrimination. In 2009, users discovered that HP webcams, which came with facial tracking software, could not detect dark-skinned faces – an embarrassing but likely unintentional bug that probably reflected the fact that its designers and beta testers were fairly racially homogenous. Virtual reality systems, which cause motion sickness at a much greater frequency among women, may have suffered from the same problem: all-male engineers designing and beta-testing the equipment would have been less likely to suffer motion sickness, given research that suggest its driven by sex-specific ways in which humans process depth perception.

The fact that designers and engineers in technology are overwhelmingly male and fairly racially homogenous is, in and of itself, a sobering social context in which to talk about "disruption" and what it means – as well as for whom it can have meaning. The idea that technology will inevitably perpetuate oppression because it stems out of an imperfect society is an old one. Indeed, technology isn't a phenomenon isolated and on its own – a cold and alienating force to be juxtaposed against the warmth of humanity. Instead, it is an extension of ourselves, both good and bad.

But when we see technology disrupting the better bonds between people – doctors and patients, teachers and students, patrons and artists – we should think about technology's potential to do the same to the uglier side of humanity.

Technology contains the potential, sometimes unrealized, for subverting structures and for providing tangible benefits to women and people of color – a multitude of tiny disruptions that have gone and could go mostly unremarked upon. But there ought to be more than accidental improvement, and something grander than collateral progress. I'm not terribly optimistic – who can remember the last time anyone in the private sector prioritized empowerment and equality over profit? – but it's enough to keep me hopeful and waiting, fingers crossed, for what comes out of Silicon Valley.


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