One of the biggest problems facing internet culture and the tech industry in general today is a lack of diversity. Although early utopian views of the internet might have presented it as a place without prejudice due to the anonymity it afforded (David, 2018); the intervening years since then have shown us that this is in fact untrue. In fact, the anonymity provided by the internet actually affords users more opportunity to discriminate due to the perceived safety blanket that it can provide (Isaacson, 2016). In order to combat this discrimination, the role internet governance has to play has become increasingly important. It is for this reason that the lack of diversity found in the tech industry is so alarming. Although the internet is still presented as a place where everyone can thrive and be treated equally regardless of race and gender; for this to actually happen: those in positions with the power to actually influence decision making need to be as diverse as those who actually use the internet on an everyday basis. This simply hasn’t been true for the majority of the internet’s history.
This is because the history of the internet is closely entwined with that of academia with the internet itself having started out as simply a network of computers created for American universities known as ARPANET (Castells, 2002). Because of this, internet culture shares many of academia’s most positive attributes. For example, both internet culture and academia share an emphasis on the “scholarly tradition of the shared pursuit of science, of reputation by academic excellence, of peer review, and of openness in all research findings” (Castells, 2002, p. 40). However, because of internet culture’s roots in academia, it also shares many of academia’s most negative traits like its historical lack of diversity. Historically many American universities practiced segregation and didn’t allow non-white students to enroll (Harris, 2015). In the south, this was done through legal segregation but in the north, schools used quota systems to limit the amount of black students who could enroll (Harris, 2015). However, although this lack of diversity in the student population has since been rectified somewhat, it is still an ongoing issue for faculty (Harris, 2015). Research shows that “non-white professors are still less likely to receive tenure” at American universities (Washington et al., 2021).
As this lack of diversity from academia bleeds into internet culture, the problems it can cause are exacerbated as they’re blown up into a global scale. One of the biggest problems that a lack of diversity can cause is the absence of different perspectives. Although the tech industry can claim that the internet is designed for everybody by everybody, the facts are that there is a severe underrepresentation of minorities within the tech industry (Cain, 2021). In fact, “88% of tech executives in the United States are White” and women make up only 25% of computing roles as of 2015 according to the NCWIT (National Center for Women & Information Technology) (Cain, 2021) (White, 2021). In addition to this, “Blacks and Latinos are underemployed despite the increasing numbers graduating from college with degrees in computer science” (Noble, 2018, p. 64). This lack of diversity within the industry can have devastating effects as many of the problems that arise in internet culture need to take into account the perspectives of many differing groups of people. The internet isn’t limited to just a couple dozen college computers anymore but is on a global scale and needs to take into account the perspective of people from countless different places and backgrounds.
A clear example of how a lack of diversity can cause issues can be seen with the algorithmic bias found in search engines. In Safiya Noble’s 2018 Book, “Algorithms of Oppression,” the specific example that she discussed was about how if users searched for “Black Girls” using the Google search engine in 2012, results related to pornography would be returned. In this way, the algorithm reinforced negative ideas and stereotypes about black women. It limits who and what they can be by controlling how their representation on the internet. This could have been hugely damaging, especially for young black women who are more impressionable and still looking for their place in the world. Although having more diversity in the tech industry wouldn’t have solved this issue entirely as the system relies on returning the most popular results in order to maximize profits; it certainly would have helped by making it easier to identify issues like this as they came up (Noble, 2018). Having more voices and more diverse voices helps to avoid the white male gaze that has traditionally dominated popular culture (Noble, 2018). It allows other voices to be heard and ultimately makes technology more inclusive for everyone. Because although bias can never truly be eliminated, having more diverse and unique perspectives will only help to mitigate it.
Another example of how a lack of diversity can cause issues can be seen with GamerGate and how a lack of diversity can cause toxicity to fester within online communities (Massanari, 2017). GamerGate was a loosely organized online harassment campaign that took place on Reddit and other social media platforms in 2014 that lashed out against feminism and diversity in gaming. Massanari argues that GamerGate was able to take place because “Reddit implicitly reifies the desires of certain groups (often young, white, cis-gendered, heterosexual males) while ignoring and marginalizing others” (2017, p. 330). Massanari argues that because Reddit, as a social media platform, seeks to promote whatever is the most “popular” through its system of news aggregation; it therefore will naturally promote what the “majority” thinks is right or good. This means that the voices of minorities, those who aren’t: “young, white, cis-gendered, heterosexual males” will be marginalized (Massanari, 2017). This is because social media platforms prefer to remain “neutral” or “impartial” in content disputes; however, this neutrality almost always favors the rights of the majority (Massanari, 2017). It is for this reason that increasing diversity in internet governance and the tech industry in general is so important; because there needs to be a counterbalance which can consider the views of those in the minority as well. GamerGate is also an interesting case because it shows how a lack of diversity breeds a further lack of diversity, thus creating a vicious cycle wherein the problem only gets worse (Massanari, 2017). The lack of diversity that is prevalent in all geek and STEM culture, including internet culture is so hard to fix because campaigns like GamerGate make participating in them even harder for those in the minority (Massanari, 2017). They increase the barrier to entry by creating “structural barriers that might make participation difficult or unappealing” (Massanari, 2017, p. 332). Why participate in internet culture if you can never truly belong?
In conclusion, the lack of diversity found in the tech industry and in internet governance itself is such an alarming problem because the internet presents itself as a place wherein anyone and everyone can be themselves. However, if the people who make and govern the internet aren’t inclusive, then how can the products that they create and promote be inclusive? Although the truly utopian views of the internet presented by early visionaries might never be realized; in order to make the internet more accessible for all of those who use it, the issue of the lack of diversity found in its governance and in the tech industry in general must be resolved.
CC/TUT/04 – Thursday 11AM
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