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Racism in Technology (and Who Typically Lectures Us About the Subject)

Posted in GNU/Linux at 11:56 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Don’t allow corporations and their front groups hijack the voices (and causes) of real victims

Star trek Enterprise: We've consulted our council about people of colour; You don't speak for people of colour

Summary: Racism is a real problem; some approaches to tackling racism, however, can also be problematic and those who take the lead ‘on behalf’ of victims tend to be opportunistic and privileged few (piggybacking others’ grievances to further advance their financial agenda)

Racism in technology is real. It’s real universally. Racism is everywhere. Not just in technology and not just in Free software (contrary to libelous myths spread by opponents of software freedom). Racism is typically defined as viewing or categorising people based on race (or appearances associated with a race) rather than objective merit. Appearances are blinding due to survival/tribal instincts, leading one to trusting those who look alike (like oneself). In nature it sometimes means sticking around one’s own species, based on perceived kinship; cannibalism or murder of one’s own kind, after all, isn’t good for a species’ long-term survival. Cooperation rewards a species better.

“It’s often said that recognising that a problem exists is the first step.”When talking about races, however, we don’t speak of speciation. We’re all the same, except some superficialities such as skin pigmentation, keratin levels and so on. Those things typically depend on climatic trend, as they vary depending on where one settled and how long for (how many generations). Different conditions lead to different adaptations, both physical and mental.

Denial that racism still exists seems irrational if not overly optimistic/idealistic. Racism doesn’t need to be expressed and shown openly/publicly. Some is closeted, which means it’s “coming out” behind closed doors. We’ve probably all witnessed some folks who without the presence of those whom they mock diverge into derogatory impersonations and politically-incorrect views. Those things are also commonplace in social control media (typically anonymous accounts) and rampant in YouTube channels — more of which Google has been cracking down on lately.

Technology is somewhat unique in the sense that it can exacerbate or conversely help tackle racism (even if by censorship — the way Google does; Facebook is under intense pressure to do the same).

“Consider, for instance, how the Linux Foundation exploited “BLM” while hiring not a single African-American person (in a country where 13.4% identify as African-American).”Revolving issues pertaining to racism would require more than recruiting “for diversity” (based on quotas) and removing words that supposedly alienate developers and users. Twitter is apparently cracking down even on the term “dummy value” as if the word dummy in its own right should become impermissible in some contexts.

It’s often said that recognising that a problem exists is the first step. Then it’s necessary to understand its true nature, then how to address it. At the moment it feels like we’re well past the denial stage, i.e. people generally accept that institutional racism exists. What sometimes follows, however, is misguided albeit well-meaning at best.

Consider, for instance, how the Linux Foundation exploited “BLM” while hiring not a single African-American person (in a country where 13.4% identify as African-American). Later on those 'masters' of the Foundation lecture us on institutional racism. Look at the bloody mirror!

To be clear, hiring people just because of their race or gender might not help, either. In fact, hiring people who perform poorly (as women or as an ethnic minority) can contribute to stigma associated with women or those ethnic minorities. And it helps neither equality nor opportunity. It becomes like a cautionary tale, leading to reluctance to repeat.

I don’t claim to have answers to these problems; in fact, there are no easy (‘slam dunk’) answers. To claim otherwise is probably to be arrogant and dishonest. Right now, based on my experience, one key problem is that consultation is done by and among the privileged; it’s like nobody bothers asking actually repressed groups what they think. Look how Intel, which attacks Africans, is quick to exploit “BLM”. And it’s shallow enough for anyone out there to see…

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A Single Comment

  1. Canta said,

    July 10, 2020 at 12:33 pm


    This issue has been quite present last weeks here in Techrights. I’ve been mostly silent about it, because I didn’t agree with the editorial line at the time (showing the hypocrisy around it, mocking that hypocrisy, calling for rational critique, and so on), and didn’t wanted to fight over it. This new post feels much more confortable for me, so I’ll let some note, hoping to add something to its questions.

    My position: I hate merit. I find it inhumane (as in “contrary to human rights”), and therefore contrary to Free Software standards. I believe merit do a lot of harm in society, and I call for a strong critique against it.

    Merit has its place, we all know that: you can’t just pick anyone from the street and put her to work on hardware design; that just doesn’t work, period. Yet, merit is also a bad metric, as nobody is always 100% productive (we all have our moments of strength and weakness), our jobs are not some kind of competence (they’re a right, and something we do to pay the bills), lots of things may happen to us in the middle of our lives (we don’t have less “merit” for having childs, or a sick mom/dad), and so on. By merit alone, all organizations would be an insane battle royale between peers, as we already see in lots of enterprises or academic circles (“publish or perish” is nothing new). And if it were for merit alone, we would have never used an unfinished/minimal libre software instead of some hegemonic windows version for the same taks, as the later most likely has more funcionalities already working as expected by our peers: on the contrary, we are the ones boycotting fully functional software, because it’s not about that kind of “merit”.

    But let’s stay on the academy example for a second. Academy makes knowledge. Even when there is merit around making knowledge, that’s not the point of knowledge: it’s to understand the universe. That knowledge is what future generations will use to further understand what’s going on everywhere, and what other people around the world will use to build the things that will transform it into something else (hopefully a better world). That’s not about merit, but about collaboration. That’s not about working our asses off, but about trying to help. It’s about being part of it, not about trying to be the best, or even “better”.

    Merit is frequently being used with a bad Darwin interpretation of “survival of the fittest”. Most assholes quoting that mean something in the lines of “we should all fight each other, to see who’s the stronger”. But Darwin meant something very different: he observed that life adapts because it’s diverse, and that without that diversity it would perish at the first sudden big environmental change. Darwin doesn’t call for competence, but for diversity.

    This are the kind of places from where I can defend the use of Codes of Conduct, where I consider many silly discussions about terminology as valid and serious, and also what distances me from some last weeks posts. Diversity is not only desirable because it’s politically correct: it’s absolutely vital in order to adapt. And sensible people is nothing other than that: just people, like we are.

    Also, I’ve been very scared the last… 15 years?… realizing corporate forces are actually very good at posing as “good guys”. It doesn’t matter how many crimes they commit, they’ll find a way to look like a cute kitty. We need to face it: corporations are political powehouses. They are able to bend entire sovereign wills: they buy countries and global organizations like nothing.

    We (Free Software movement, as part of Human Rights movements) are weak against that kind of monsters, and are in no position of taking this diversity and working issues lightly. Our enemies are already poweful enough for us to leave this issues for them to handle as they please, so I just can’t mock gender or race discussions from an activist point of view. Which doesn’t mean I actually can’t find many of those discussions silly or even funny: I do, and I frequently laugh reading some political arguments.

    And I also agree there’s lots of corporate hypocrisy and/or lies: but that’s not the point of political issues, that’s just corporations playing their corporate interests. Techrights is strong in showing that side of corporate agenda, but it seems to struggle when dealing with people siding those sides. I believe this last post is the way to go: telling we have doubts, telling we don’t know exactly what to do, telling we’re trying to be respectful yet there’s noise in the air we need to clean. That’s sincere, and serious, while being also critical.

    And regarding the last two paragraphs: I believe positive discrimination may be cool to some extent, but yeah, it has its limits. Yet, I don’t worry so much about the limits or consequences of those techniques, but about their focus: I believe we need political diversity, not just biological diversity. As I agree with you that there are no “slam dunk” answers, and I believe never will, those answers should rise from the people itself. And for that, we need to make politics more explicit.

    I don’t care that much if SystemD is made by an albino black transgender bald woman in a wheelchair (which I’ll actually find a nice thing to happen), as I care about their political stances and guidelines (which are frequently disguised as technological). If SystemD tries to take over an entire ecosystem, I’m worried about the ecosystem and not about the SystemD developers attributes. Political (as in “related to others”) guidelines should be explicit, clear, and an object of constant public scrutiny. Political analysis should be a central part of our communities, and that’s where this issues should be discussed with its own rules and ways (different from the “this code sucks” from Linus, or the “it’s free software therefore is ethic” from RMS). Gender and race goes there, as well as “where does this software is being used” and “who finances us”.

    Our communities have fallen over a “init system debate”, where I believe it was in fact a political debate. There’s no “technical vs political” here, they’re just different aspects of the same stuff (as happens with enviromental discussions, which involves issues from energy physics to poverty). Merit often gets in the middle of it, usually pushing for corporate agendas.

    Merit is also so lousy, that metaphysical stuff like “purity” can also be turn as a form of merit, and thus cancel culture. That way, reference figures like RMS or Linus turns into single points of failure: if they’re invalid in some way, they’re invalid in every way. So merit is in the very core of the worlwide divissive political climate we’re living in decades so far, with no happy consequence anywhere. We need to take distance from merit, and embrace other values.

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