Tech leaders must stop treating humanity like computer code: Navneet Alang

Good commentary on the broader issues related to the tech industry culture:

The science in question, such as it is, is something better left to experts to debate. But there are nonetheless reasonable questions laypeople can ask. Among them: Even if one were to take the extreme position that genetics neatly determines behaviour, how might the ancient arrangement of nucleic acids so neatly line up with results in a field barely 50 years old – particularly since, early on when it was considered a menial task, computer programming was a field dominated by women?

More to the point, to argue that engineering or coding are simply mechanical or an abstract set of mathematics or logic misses the aim of the field. Software is made for people, to help them accomplish tasks, connect with one another, or filter through massive amounts of information in intelligent ways.

Those goals require a complex set of skills that cannot be reduced to mere coding, but require an understanding of sociology, psychology and no small amount of empathy. Putting aside the dubious assertion that we are hard-wired by gender to favour one of these skills over the other, to argue that engineering or coding should be left to those with the most abstract skill is akin to saying structural engineers should design buildings or that mechanical engineers should market cars. The creation of code and software is ultimately holistic, relying on a broad range of traits that cannot and should not be reduced to one dimension – particularly tired, gendered stereotypes.

But despite this obvious fact, the manifesto does ring true in one way: It represents the tech world’s too-common, incredibly reductive view of humanity that tries to think of humans are just like computer code itself, a complex, but predetermined series of input and output.

This view itself leads to a blind faith in a hyper-rational world dictated by metrics, competitive bro culture and faux notions of meritocracy. It’s reflected in so much in the tech world: in Facebook’s belated concerns about privacy, or their impact on political polarization; in Twitter’s arguably too-late focus on abuse and harassment, in part brought on by prioritizing resources for advertising over the standards team; or Uber’s unending troubles with sexual harassment, driver exploitation or its constant flouting of the law. In each, it was unwillingness to think about the complexity of human reaction in favour of an algorithmic or mechanistic understanding that caused the problem.

It’s a deeply naive view, one that runs roughshod over humanity when a handful of companies on the U.S. West Coast are given enormous power. In trying to create something new, they have simply repeated the past, carrying along beliefs in neutral meritocracy, the capacity of humans to power through all problems with brawn and that we are predestined to be who we are.

That is not the truth of what it means to be alive and we cannot let the tech world insist that it is. If you want a manifesto to line up behind, let it be that.

Source: Tech leaders must stop treating humanity like computer code – The Globe and Mail

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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