“Technically Wrong” Is Absolutely Right

I’ve worked in high tech for 35 years. Over the years I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with this industry. I love technologies that are needed and work well. I love technology companies that respect their customers and employees. All too often, however, technologies and the companies that make them don’t deserve our love. Sara Wachter-Boettcher echoes this sentiment in her wonderful book Technically Wrong. Sara is not anti-technology, but she firmly believes that we should hold technologies and the companies that create them responsible for their failures, especially when they do harm.

Systemic problems in the ways that tech companies are managed and products are created are surfacing more and more often these days. In the last few days, Facebook is the tech company whose irresponsible behavior has dominated the news. Facebook is not alone. Tech companies can function responsibly and ethically, but those that do are the exceptions, not the norm. Tech companies have created the mystique that they are special, and for this reason we give them a pass. I’ve always been uncomfortable with this mystique, which veils the dysfunction of tech companies. People who work in tech are no more special on average than those who work in other organizations. They are neither smarter nore more talented, despite the fact that they are compensated as if they were.

Most tech companies are dominated by the rather narrow perspective of privileged white men, which contributes to many of their problems. Their lack of diversity and assumption that they’re smarter than others leads to a myopic view of the world—one that misunderstands the needs of a large portion of their users. They think of a significant portion of their users as “edge cases,” and edge cases aren’t significant enough to consider.

Yes, I’m a privileged white guy myself, but I know that my success has been due in many respects to good fortune—the luck of privileged birth. Perhaps my background in the humanities and social sciences has helped me to see the world more broadly than many of my privileged high-tech brethren.

The book Technically Wrong exposes these problems eloquently and suggests solutions. Here’s the description that appears on the book’s dust cover:

Buying groceries, tracking our health, finding a date: whatever we want to do, odds are that we can now do it online. But few of us ask why all these digital products are designed the way they are. It’s time we change that. Many of the services we rely on are full of oversights, biases, and downright ethical nightmares. Chatbots that harass women. Signup forms that fail anyone who’s not straight. Social media sites that send peppy messages about deal relatives. Algorithms that put more black people behind bars.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher takes an unflinching look at the values, processes, and assumptions that lead to these and other problems. Technically Wrong demystifies the tech industry, leaving those of us on the other side of the screen better prepared to make informed choices about the services we use—and demand more from the companies behind them.

We should have started demanding more of tech companies long ago. If we had, many problems could have been prevented. It’s not too late, however, to turn this around, and turn it around we must.

One Comment on ““Technically Wrong” Is Absolutely Right”

By Dale Lehman. April 12th, 2018 at 11:45 pm

Then there is the “tech envy” exhibited by many academics, particularly economists. Take a look at this recent blog post: https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2018/02/tech-companies-run-everything-better.html. It is true that they raise a question and also many of the responses appear skeptical of the supposed achievements of the tech industry. But the bias in the title (and the anchored weights for the three stated hypotheses) is clear. There is a strong impulse to believe that tech sets the standard that other industries should aspire to. This book sound like a much needed antidote.

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