Examining My Place in The Digital Divide

I started this course with the belief that the Digital Divide was just the divide between those who had access to technology and the internet and those who didn’t. The last 4 months have expanded my view on a large number of issues that I (now) understand also come under the Digital Divide. As someone who is majoring in Computer Science and has worked at Tech companies, technology, to me, had always been something I used and worked on everyday but something I rarely paused to reflect on. The discussions in this class often taught me a new way of viewing not only, the technology I used but also showed me how being an engineer uniquely positions me to try and help bridge this divide.

In class, our discussion on Filter Bubbles and their effects on users gave me a fresh perspective on something I was familiar with. In one of my Computer Science classes where we learn about building recommender systems for users, we are taught how filter bubbles should be constructed (using user data) to ensure the user is shown products/suggestions that are as close to their own choices as possible. And while, this did teach me how tech companies like Amazon maximize profits, unlike in Jake’s class, we never talked about the potential dangers of these bubbles. Reading the intro from Eli Pariser’s class on Filter Bubbles where he talks about how ‘if personalization is too acute, it could prevent us from coming into contact with perception shattering experiences that change how we view the world’ [1] challenged what I had learnt about filter bubbles in my CS class. Eli also comments on how ‘What is better for us as consumers, need not be better for us as citizens’ [4]. As someone who is often trained to focus on implementing a technology like recommender systems, reading about its effects made me feel more responsible for how that technology could alter the way that people view the world around them. In turn, it made me realize the large power and responsibility that people who build these products must exercise. Discussions and reading on whether the programmer’s and designer’s biases could creep up into their products, has made me reflect on and challenge my own biases and assumptions to try and ensure, that the products I work on aim at being truly ‘for everyone’. ‘Designing for everyone’ led me to think more about the issue of representation in tech.

In most of my upper level Computer Science classes, I find myself being one of the few girls in the room. It’s worse at tech companies, where I’ve sometimes found myself being the only girl on the team. That is why representation in tech is an important issue to me. But before our discussion in class on this topic, I never saw this gender representation issue as something that came under the Digital Divide. Sara Wachter, in ‘Technically Wrong’ highlights this issue citing how ‘Black members made up only 3% of Apple’s leadership positions’ , ‘At Airbnb, people from underrepresented minorities made up only 5% of Airbnb’s tech roles’ [2]’ . I also found myself being exposed to issues I hadn’t thought about before. I had never wondered about what the experiences of an African American woman in tech would be and how they would be different from my own. I had, in the past, ignored the fact that our experiences as engineers in Tech are shaped by much more than our gender. One’s race, skin color and background – all play a role in coloring a person’s experiences. For instance, we talked about how Google’s machine learning algorithm for photo tagging that had tagged a black man as a ‘gorilla’. I had always seen that as an issue with the data set they used to train the model not having enough representation. However, I had never thought about how representation in testing played a role here too. Being a part of this class, expanded my ideas about what true representation on different levels actually means and why it is important. It also makes me want to ensure that as an engineer, the places I work in, value this true representation so I can work on building products that are actually ‘made and designed’ with everyone in mind. I, also realize how better representation can help bridge the digital divide and how more female engineers like me is one step in the positive direction for achieving that representation.

The section of the course on ‘Shared Economies’ and how they are changing how people live, made me think more about the social responsibility of not just engineers, but of Tech companies as a whole. Discussing how Uber had made the lives of drivers harder, to some extent, even though it made the lives of users/consumers much easier – made me reflect on why the values of tech companies are important today. Because, technology is all around us, the values of these tech companies determine how they treat people. In Uber’s case, it was how they treat their drivers. When you’re working in tech, you’re often encouraged to ‘Move Fast and Break things’ but this class and learning more about the Digital Divide taught me how ‘breaking things’ might sometimes mean affecting how people live, how expensive a city becomes to live in (SF, Seattle etc.) and what jobs people have to take to sustain themselves. For instance, in class we talked about how 40% of the workforce (by 2020) will be forced to take up jobs like part-time cab drivers, restaurateurs etc., to earn enough to sustain themselves with the increasing cost of living in cities, even though unemployment rates were as low as 4.4% in cities like SF [3]. In all my technical classes, we rarely pause to think about this social responsibility. This again pointed me back to Eli’s comment about the difference between becoming better consumers and better citizens in [4]. Being a part of these discussions has made me realize the social responsibility that engineers (like me once I graduate) must assume when working on tech products that so many people use.

Hence, being a part of this course and learning about the Digital Divide has shown me how much power tech companies and of people who work in tech hold and hence, shown me the responsibility they must exercise.I believe that understanding what true representation and responsibility mean has helped me grow and made me a better person and a better engineer.

Sources:

[1] Eli Pariser, 2011, Filter Bubble, Page 15

[2] Wachter-Boettcher, 2016, Technically Wrong, Page 20

[3] Jake Cowan, Against Sharing

[4] Eli Pariser, 2011, Filter Bubble, Page 18

2 thoughts on “Examining My Place in The Digital Divide

  1. This was a very thoughtful and refreshingly reflective essay about taking the context in which you entered this course as an engineer and how the many things we learned throughout the semester have shown you a different but very important other side to tech. I really appreciated how you used specific examples from our readings and lessons to highlight the exact cases where those teachings have affected you as a woman in engineering. I can tell through your writing how important the role of technology is in your life, and it’s great to hear that you’ve taken what we’ve learned into real consideration and will continue to do so as you pursue your degree and professional career. One thing I would suggest is to bring back all the points you brought up where you see how the things we learned about have changed the way you view the technology you consume and work in and conclude with a bit more reflection on that. Be sure to also check out a few grammar and punctuation errors as well, but otherwise– you’ve got yourself a great essay to finish the semester strong with. Great job! -MP

  2. This is very well put and very clearly shows your position and reflections on the Digital Divide. I like how you talk a lot about how the stuff we talked about in class and tie that in to your identity, but I think with a few more specific examples on how you tie in to these reflections could greatly improve, saying like the tech company you worked at and your personal experiences. Another thing I would say you could add is your personal experiences like when you were younger and how your personal experiences there grew your once previous ideas on the internet and technology, such as childhood stories where you first encounter technology. All in all, I really enjoyed how you put the essay and tied it very well to your views and personal reflection on to the divide.

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