Monday, October 3, 2022

Why The Digital World Needs You Even More Than You Think

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We know that improving our digital skills are important for future-proofing our own careers, but there’s a wider focus we also need to pay attention to: we need to future proof the world itself! As it stands, the digital world (and those who run it) is still an overwhelmingly white and male space – and there can be real-life consequences when those in charge lack diversity. We look at why our generation needs to take a stand and find a place at the decision-making table.

Tech Futures Lab  x Capsule

I can remember the moment I realised that the people who made some of my favourite products – Apple – were on a slightly different planet than I was. The year was 2010 and Apple fever was at a high; we had the iPod, and then the iPhone and then along came the iPad. Huh. What a name, eh? Every man, no doubt, read that name and went, ‘Sure, pad – the thing you write on,’ and anyone who’s ever had a menstrual cycle went, ‘…huh.’ 

Since then, the lack of diversity and gender representation in the products we used has gone from the funny to the egregious. It’s one thing to stand in front of the motion-detector tap or soap dispenser and think, ‘This machine doesn’t see me as a person,’ it’s another thing to be in front of a self-driving car and think, ‘This machine doesn’t see me as a person!’ (Yep, that can happen).

As part of our Tech Futures Lab series so far, we’ve covered the fact that in so many of our careers, having up-to-date digital skills is a massive win – but many of us worry that we’re still not techy enough to do it. But if we owe it to ourselves and our future job path to keep our skills up to date, we also owe it to the next generation. Because if we decide that we deserve to sit at the decision-making tables, then so will our daughters. (Plus, our daughters are also going to be learning this in school, so we’re going to need to upskill to keep up with them anyway!)

You Know More Than You Think

I’m going to age myself dramatically with some of these references here, but when I started high school in the late 1990s, there was one room in the entire school that had computers in it (‘The Computer Room’). Before then, my only experience with computers had been playing The Oregon Trail at primary school and watching my settler family die of dysentery. At high school, we learned how to type by doing the Pittman’s Touch Typing course (this entire paragraph reads like 1990s bingo) and that was the extent of my computer training: how to type letters. 

Going to university in the early 2000s was a similar story: we used Quark (crazy name, very old system) to upload our stories onto the computer and apart from a brief foray into coding, that was it. So you can imagine my surprise when about five years into working as a journalist, everything started going digital. Now, I co-run a website and spend a large part of my life dealing with canonical tags and SEO, but there is still a gap in my knowledge that makes me think I know less than I really do. 

You might not have been lucky (or old) enough to experience The Oregon Trail, but the difference between the computers you started using and the ones you use now will still be remarkable. You have adapted to them effortlessly – and you’re going to need to continue to do so, unless you want to live on the actual Oregon Trail. 

We Need More Women In Tech 

‘Get more women into STEM’ is a catch-call for a reason – while the numbers are getting better, the power players in places like Silicon Valley are still overwhelmingly white and male. But it’s not just a recruitment or leadership problem – there are real-life consequences when only one type of human being gets to control how things work. Journalist Caroline Criado Perez, who wrote Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, has spent the last few years documenting what she calls the ‘one size fits men’ approach to our daily life and gadgets. Here are some of her findings:

– The average smartphone is designed for a man’s hands, not a woman’s, so it’s often too big for women to hold and doesn’t fit in our pockets. 

– Speech recognition software is trained on male voices; Google’s version is 70% more likely to understand men.

– When Apple launched a big health-monitoring system in 2014, it raved about having a comprehensive health tracker: covering blood pressure, steps taken per day, even blood alcohol level. But what’s the one thing that half the population likes to track at any time? Yep, they forgot a period tracker.

– Women are 17% more likely to die in car accidents and 73% more likely to be injured, because cars are designed around male bodies, not all bodies (and for decades, crash test dummies were solely modelled on male bodies as well). 

We Need More Diversity In Tech

It’s not just women who are treated as the non-default, it’s also People of Colour. It’s no breaking news that white skin comes with certain privileges, but it might be news to you that those privileges can also deliver a vastly different experience in the world of AI, as well.

Here are some examples:

– Microsoft created a social AI chat bot called ‘Tay’ in 2016. The point of Tay was to show a kind face to AI technology and how AI can learn from the people around it, so Tay got dropped into Twitter to learn. You know what’s not a great place to absorb opinions from? You guessed it. After just 16 hours, Tay had to be pulled down because she got racist AND sexist, really fast. Seems the planners were ill-prepared for just how bad the internet can get – and how quickly. 

– You know how the gallery app on your phone loves to group people together? Well, that can also go wrong. In 2015, a facial recognition programme from Google labelled two African Americans as gorillas – and it was worked out that due to a lack of range of faces and the skin tones used in AI training data, the system couldn’t process different skin tones as human. 

– Joy Buolamwini, a university researcher in Boston, found that the system regularly couldn’t identify her face because of her skin colour, until she put on a white mask.

– In America, an AI programme used by the justice system to predict whether someone in the prison system will commit a future crime was found to be biased against non-white people and predicting as future offenders at a far higher rate than their white counterparts.

Diversity and gender representation aren’t just buzzwords. They should be priorities for each company, for the reason all those above facts have made clear – their absence makes our world a less fair place and it has massive ramifications for our digital experience as well.

As we move towards a more automated future, who gets to decide who counts a human being – and who’s in charge of designing their world? As platforms/concepts like the Metaverse grow in popularity, we need checks and balances to make the online world as fair as possible, but that can’t happen when people like us don’t see ourselves as having a role to play. 

By keeping ourselves up to date with digital skills, yes, we ensure that we are future-proofing our career paths. But to focus on that side of it can miss another key point: the digital world needs us just as much as we need it.

You only need to look at those sad, bad facts above to realise that there is a gap in the market and with our curiosity and life experience, we can help make the world a fairer place for the next generation. We don’t have to just show that there’s a seat at the table for us, in theory – we need to be already seated at the table, waiting to pull out a chair for those who need it. 

A changing world needs a changing in guard. Ones who include rather than preclude opportunities for better. Tech Futures Lab is where you can upskill your strategic digital expertise so you’re leading the conversations and driving  innovation for good using emerging disruptive technologies.

From power-packed short courses to a full Master’s degree, there’s options to suit your life demands. It’s founded by one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s leading women entrepreneurs in education and the future of work, so learning is always designed with that work/life balance in mind.

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