Of a woke tech industry, f*cked up algorithms, and middle fingers to the Karens of the world
Tech Bites #2. Your monthly dose of thoughts and learnings about the impact of tech
Welcome to Tech Bites, a newsletter where I share my two cents (and pennies) about the impact of tech. I'm Asta by the way.
I know, I know. I'm late. But family emergencies have a way to keep you busy, especially when they involve someone being in the hospital. So I took time off, decided to be in the moment and put my fam first.
Anyway, let's get to it!
You need to be living under a rock to not know what's been going on in the world. People around the world poured into the streets to protest against one of the cancers of our society (cough racism), following the death of George Floyd. Racism has always been around - or at least from the modern era and the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade (i.e. human trafficking). I've already written about racism 101 and recommended books for those who want to educate themselves and can read Italian, so I won't do it here. But I'd like to focus on the impact of tech on racism in this issue among other things. Can tech solve racism? Or is it acerbating it?
Photo credits: @Koshu Kunii, @Tincho Franco, @Autumn Goodman
1. #YAY - how tech does good 👏🙌🏾
Is the tech industry becoming woke? And if it is...will it last?
Black squares, companies releasing vanilla solidarity statements and the Ben & Jerry responses of this world. It's been an eventful June.
I was happy to see the tech industry deciding to reckon with racism. I've seen amazing initiatives coming up - from Softbank's $100m Opportunity Growth Fund, Google's $175m+ economic opportunity package to support Black businesses and Youtube's $100m fund for Black creators, to Netflix's $100m investment in Black Community's financial institutions. People are starting to walk the talk. But it's not only the giants that are doing things: Glossier's $500k in grants for Black-owned beauty businesses; Courier Media's $50k fund for Black businesses are just examples of others taking initiative.
Will this have a positive impact on tech? Of course. Will it last when this issue disappears from the front page of the news? I can’t tell (I might not have as much faith in humanity as others do). Let’s wait and see.
2. #NAY - how tech does bad 😭🤦🏾♀️
F*cked up Algorithms putting innocent people behind bars
AI gets both a bad and a good rep- from job stealer to the solution to all our problems. But what we forget is that it is a tool, one that humans create, and I'm not sure we have a good enough track record when it comes to unbiased behaviour to make AI fair.
Case in point: Robert Julian-Borchak Williams wrongful accusation.
Williams is a black man, a law abiding citizen of Detroit who was going about his day when he was arrested in front of his house. His alleged crime? Apparently he had stolen 5 watches worth $3,800 from a store called Shinola. But that wasn't the case. To blame for this wrongful accusation: a facial recognition algorithm used by the Detroit Police department.
Studies conducted by M.I.T and the National Institute of Standards of Technology have told us time and again that facial recognition tech "works relatively well on white men, [but] the results are less accurate for other demographics, in part because of a lack of diversity in the images used to develop the underlying databases."
Did this stop Detroit Police and other police forces around the US from using this technology? No. And it's funny that the software used by the state of Michigan is built by two companies whose algorithms have been found to be biased by a federal study "falsely identifying African-American and Asian faces 10 times to 100 times more than Caucasian faces."
Why are we still allowing mediocre algorithms to be used?
The case of Williams, who was lucky enough to get out of this without being put in jail for a crime he didn't commit, is telling. He described holding the surveillance video still next to his face and claiming that it wasn't him. To which one of the detective interrogating him said: “I guess the computer got it wrong.” But this is not simply a case of a computer getting it wrong. It is the police getting it wrong by using faulty technology and by not crossing its Ts and dotting its Is. Had they done a bit more research, they would have known the man had an alibi: he was driving home from work and he had receipts - a video on his instagram he had posted when one of his favourite songs came on.
But I guess if you're black, you are guilty until proven innocent.
3. Learning moments 🤔
I've had interesting conversations about race in the past month or so. It doesn't take a genius to know I am a black woman (I mean there's a pic of me in this newsletter), and that comes with a double cross to bear - sexism & racism make the perfect combo (read my sarcasm). But I'm not letting that stop me. Does that mean I've got to work twice as hard? Yes. Does this mean that I have something to prove? Probably. But these are the cards that I've been dealt with and I'm making do.
Micro-aggressions are real (obviously). From the random lady or dude who decide to compliment me on my ability to speak Italian well (I was born there duh), to the person dismissing me before they found out I went to Oxford, or to the person deciding to correct me when I decide to use slang in my language, or again to the person thinking it's okay to treat me like a dog and touch my hair (Please don't). These things have the ability to bring anyone down.
What I've learnt through these conversations about racism with black and white folks alike?
Lesson #1. Educate yourself. We are tired of having to educate people about our humanity. The internet exists, plenty of things have already been said and written about the topic of race. If you decide to remain ignorant when you have all these resources available, that's on you.
Lesson #2. I’m going to do me. Last year I watched "Hello Privilege, It's Me, Chelsea" on Netflix, and I highly recommend that you give it a try. That documentary made me realise one thing: anti-black racism is not my problem. It has an impact on my life as long as I don't live in Sub-Saharan Africa, but I'm not the source of the problem. I didn't magically decide centuries ago that black people are inferior and deserve a worse lot in life, I didn't decide to fabricate stories and stereotypes to justify my beliefs, and I didn't decide to bake them into my institutions. So for you who might be reading this I say, do your work. It won’t be easy but do your work.
As for me...I'm going to live my life and I'm not going to pay any more attention than is needed to overt and covert racists interested in stopping me in my tracks. I don't have time for the Karens, and the Bobs and the Felicias of this world.
4. Attention-grabbing stuff 😲
1. Microsoft follows IBM and Amazon in barring police from using its facial recognition technology. A step in the right direction? For sure, but governments around the world need to get a move on and start legislating on facial recognition tech so we can get some fairness baked into it.
2. It's time we dealt with white supremacy in tech. A must read. The solution to this problem? Make the hire and send the wire.
3. A VC's guide to investing in Black founders.
"The Four Key Challenges You Need to Overcome [to fund Black founders]:
We Solve Different Problems and Have Different Solutions
Different Surroundings, Different Resources
Different Culture, Different Communication
The Continuous Threat of Unconscious Bias"
4. European tech has a message for President Trump: "Send your immigrants to us". Yep, Donald Trump suspended new work visas to limit immigration into the country. This is an opportunity for Europe. Let's hope the continent will be able to capitalise it.
5. Berlin's black tech workers face discrimination. Progressive only for some.
"Inside tech companies, however, black employees say they often find an old-school business environment where they face a constant burden to prove themselves more than their white colleagues. They are often the only person of colour on their teams. And that’s once they can even get in the door."
6. Algorithms associating appearance and criminality have a dark past.
"One of the strongest moral objections to using facial recognition to detect criminality is that it stigmatises people who are already overpoliced.....Given the racial and other biases that exist in the criminal justice system, such algorithms would end up overestimating criminality among marginalised communities."
5. Podcast corner 🎧
Acquired: Oprah (Harbo Studios). How did Oprah Winfrey go from being a TV personality to a media mogul worth billions? The guys at Acquired tell her story.
6. #startupcrushon 🥰🚀
Jamii is a UK based startup that makes it easy for consumers to find and shop at independent Black British businesses. It is a discovery platform that comes with a discount card, allowing customers to save up to 40% when they shop at Jamii partner businesses.
What makes them different?
It's a unique platform. Jamii is definitely not the first marketplace allowing businesses to sell products ranging from beauty, clothing to homeware. But it is the only one in the UK that has managed to really elevate Black businesses. It is becoming your go-to-platform if you want to buy from - and thus invest - in Black businesses.
Its social good element. Supporting community-owned businesses means supporting the Black community. We know that Black businesses struggle to access funding (equity or loans alike). By bringing business their way Jamii is helping them grow and succeed. WIN.
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