Part 1 of 3 arguing Why Everyone Should Care About Sci-Fi & Tech
Non-nerds can feel gate-kept out of discussions around science fiction and technology or may simply be uninterested in them. Self-identified nerds might claim that caring enough about sci-fi and tech means accepting and embracing all aspects and manifestations of them without criticizing them overmuch. Despite being on the opposite ends of personal investment, both groups miss the point in carefully examining the direction in which both the fictional genre and the real-life industry are headed.
Science fiction and technology inspire each other and, in turn, collectively inspire and shape the future. What kind of future are we looking at, given the current state of affairs in tech?
[Begin Content Notice for Eating Disorders and Gendered Violence]
Apple has been in the spotlight many times for its lack of inclusivity in its devices and features. In 2011, we found out that we could ask Siri to obtain the services of a sex worker as well as aid in the disposal of a human body but not get any real help regarding abortion services (Disposable Sex Worker trope, anyone?). The former turned out to be programmers’ “jokes” embedded into the code while the latter was due to oversights related to search engine data. In short, those behind Siri had more investment in whorephobic and misogynistic jokes than in the actual concerns of people capable of getting pregnant. Though Siri is finally getting an overhaul based on these issues a whole half a decade later, serious problems have been revealed with Siri’s handling of suicide, domestic violence, and other issues.
Apple programmers’ priorities reared their ugly head yet again with its Health app. iPhones are cutting-edge devices that can do many things that would seem fantastical only ten years ago, yet Health that cannot be deleted from the iPhone and includes a calorie tracker but not one for menstruation. Disturbingly, the eating disorders than can be triggered by calorie trackers often lead to menstrual suppression. Both eating disorders and menstruation are most commonly experienced by women rather than men.
[End Content Notice for Eating Disorders and Gendered Violence]
Welcome to the wonderful world of technology.
Technology is, broadly speaking, any application of theoretical scientific knowledge for practical purposes. It often, though not always, is associated with an easing of the daily burdens associated with existing as a modern human being. “Labor-saving”, to use the parlance pushed by people who marketed products to housewives in the 1950’s.
Even back in that decade, when computers were hardly carried around by most people as they are today, we can see the breakdown in priorities and communication between those who innovate and those who consume tech. All the labor-saving devices in the world have yet to manage to liberate women from the burden of the second shift. Every few years, the chore gap and other differences in the amount of invisible, unpaid labor done by women versus men are re-studied, re-surveyed, and re-assessed. Those of us already aware of the issue sigh as we yet again argue with those invested in denialism, those otherwise rational-minded people who bring up anecdotes as though a single tale of an overly-fussy girlfriend, vacuuming husband, or dish-washing father somehow ends systemic, statistically-proven gender inequality.
Why hasn’t all this innovation led us to freedom from drudgery? The answer lies in what sort of futurism that captured the imagination of the mostly-men in tech. As futurist Rose Eveleth puts it in her must-read Why the ‘Kitchen of the Future’ Always Fails Us (emphasis mine):
The people who are in charge of designing the future right now are a homogenous group. Futurism, as a field, is dominated by men: two thirds of the roster of the Association of Professional Futurists is male, as is 77 percent of the World Future Society’s. And it’s no secret that the technology industry, the other field generating many of these futures, is struggling with gender inclusivity as well. The men of Futurism tend to be old, and tech is flooded with younger ones — but what both of those demographics seem to have in common, regardless of their age, is that they don’t appear to be part of the wave of men who are newly embracing time in the kitchen. “This is one of the reasons I’m a fan of diversity: it gets you people who are in a different world,” says Kaye. “You’re not stuck with the same set of assumptions, like, Why don’t you microwave some Soylent?
Some of this may be explained by the background and worldview of the folks giving us these visions. Many of the engineers and designers behind future-looking projects see their roles as one of creating hardware and software. They aren’t trained to think about technology in a cultural context, and they’re not designing kitchens while thinking about the social baggage and gender politics that come along with them. A kitchen is a room in a house, any house, it doesn’t matter. Its user is a person, any person, their background and history and personality don’t matter. “They should be better at it,” says Kaye of these architects of the future. “But their education was focused on algorithms and compilers”.
As is the case in publishing, in tech, a “neutral” perspective comes to means “the point of view of the average cis white probably-heterosexual male.” This is a catered-to perspective that doesn’t automatically care about what actually works for the majority of those stuck in the kitchen. The focus for the present and the future of tech is on the whiz-bang of it all, the past only worth a look in terms of whether or not its futurism’s predictions panned out rather than on why things went the way they did.
Put more frankly, the same lack of giving-a-shit about gendered concerns is why 1950’s tech failed to truly ease women’s burdens and why today’s iPhones underserve women.
But no discussion of how tech fails women would be complete without a cry of “It’s not a conspiracy! They didn’t mean it!” Of course they didn’t mean it. The issue is not “Why are the men who dominate tech having secret meetings where they cackle and sneer about how much sexism they are embedding into our everyday devices?”, the issue is that they are forgetting to care about the concerns of the populations that don’t exactly match them demographically. The issue is not if the neglect is benign or malignant, but that there is neglect at all. Whether by carelessness or by malice, they are making the future inaccessible and unaccommodating to most of us.
To return to that infamous Siri Scandal of 2011:
In response to complaints about this, Apple spokeswoman Natalie Kerris explained, “These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone.” Well, exactly. I doubt many people seriously believe that the programmers behind Siri are out to get women. The problem is that the very real and frequent concerns of women simply didn’t rise to the level of a priority for the programmers. Even though far more women will seek abortion in their lives than men will seek prostitutes, even though more women use contraception than men use Viagra, and even though exponentially more women use contraception than men seek prostitutes, the programmers were far more worried about making sure the word “horny” puts you in contact with a prostitute (a still-illegal activity) than the word “abortion” puts you in contact with someone who could do that for you legally.
This is why the rest of us have to care. Despite the naysayers declaring all pointed call-outs of sexism to be conspiracy theories, and the less-malicious denialists lukewarmly pointing out a lack of intention, there is a problem here, and it is one that can only be solved by attentiveness. That means caring about an industry that directs our future enough to criticize it rather than rolling over and letting the status quo continue to perpetuate itself via progressively newer and shinier channels.
Tech is the future, and most of us will be left behind if that course towards the future is entirely steered by a faux-neutral perspective.
Look for Part 2, which will deal with science fiction, and Part 3, which will cover those pushing back against these paradigms.
Featured image by perceptions (off)