To what extent has a lack of diversity influenced the development of the internet? How does this lack of diversity harm societies and individuals?

Contemporary debates about diversity in digital culture have persisted in ways that are both new and unique to the internet. Race, sexuality, and gender have been profoundly ingrained in one of the most lucrative industries… which has its roots in structural biases from a pre-internet world. Pre-internet socio-cultural-political ideas, largely American infleunces, notably saturated the development of not only the tech world but the digital world too; which has been and continues to be almost entirely governed by cis, white men. The Internet was developed in specific geographic places, institutional contexts and historical moments that helped shaped the technological innovations known as ‘the web’ (Berners-Lee and Fischetti, 2008); Understanding the history, politics, economics and cultures of the internet and internetworked technologies is key in breaking down the role of diversity and its influence towards the development of the internet. Because the internet was born in the United States, its development has been significantly based on US ideologies that revolve around socio-cultural norms -concerning subjects such as race and gender- at the time it was developed in the late twentieth century. The roots of this new technological era can be linked to the collaborative and interdisciplinary research culture of WWII, the protest movements of the 1960s, and the managerial mindset that characterises the digital and new media industries. I will place particular focus on how the emergence of Silicon Valley, today’s “tech hub,” has reinforced pre-existing hegemonic frameworks and notions that have frequently resisted women and people of colour, and how this has bled into today‟s tech world.

The development of the internet was initially a result of military priorities arising from a political environment and funded by US military and government funding of scientific and technological research. It was originally a “pentagon” and “defence” cold war era technology. When the Soviet Union launched the sputnik satellite, the US department of defence faced a new threat and in response, the US admin tried developing a technology that would be able to withstand nuclear attacks towards the US- called the advanced research project agency (ARPA). A network of computers linked between universities and any military infrastructures, used for communications sharing protocols, which were ensured to always survive, as it’s all “online”. Certain socio-political linkages emerge when analysing technological production through a feminist socio-constructivist lens which mirror pre-existing gender inequalities. Women were a key element of the computing sector from WWII through the 1960s; they were the largest trained technical workforce in the computing industry. The relationship between computing labour and women was heavily feminised because the industry was initially considered as unimportant and deskilled; but, as computers began to become a vital tool in areas of government and industry, the number of female computer science majors began to fall (Brewer, 2022). The fast expansion of this new and unprecedented industry infiltrated many aspects of American society, transitioning and becoming accessible to the general public by the end of the twentieth century. 

The countercultural values that evolved from San Francisco’s hippie movement in the 1960s created a new type of demographic of technolibertarian strata. Members of the “virtual class” were predominantly white males from the middle class who were hetero-normative. The re-enactment of American Puritan fantasies of liberty in the modern hi-tech sector expressed itself in the creation of Silicon Valley- a geographical region in California where most of the well-known tech titans in American industry grew forth. Some of the most successful tech giants in American history were founded here: Apple, Google, Tesla, and countless others. A new utopian technical vision of California was established, frequently based on a wilful blindness to the other – far less favourable – aspects of life on the West Coast; this is due to the fact that the region was established by (privileged) wealthy, white businessmen. US contributions of liberty are ironically flawed; The internet symbolises freedom and democracy, yet a never-ending series of social and cultural challenges have arisen and been “repackaged” as a result of networked change.

Race and gender play a significant role in the production of technology, even at the technical level. Disregarding the technology itself, the industry itself carries the social or economic structure in which it is situated and displays how cultural rhetorics are played out in online spaces. White men and some white women have historically held the majority positions in these lucrative industries, while minorities have always been placed lower on the hierarchical ladder. Making it to the top of the corporate ladder is often more challenging for people of colour than it is for wealthy white men. Networking and referrals are the products of social capital, meaning that without the same networks and risk profiles that benefit primarily white people in the software industry, people of colour and low-income people, who, for example, have attended state colleges rather than ivy leagues, have largely been excluded. While Black and Latinx individuals together make up roughly 30% of the U.S. population, they only represent 5% of the tech workforce and top universities graduate black and Hispanic students in computer science and computer engineering at double the rate that top technology businesses hire them. Over 83% of tech leaders and managers, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) of the United States, are white. Google and YouTube, for example, have been sued numerous times over the years for their lack of diverse employment procedures. 

The Internet has also evolved into a space that fosters these patriarchal norms and preconceptions. This exclusion is carried on to the digital realm as well; social media, digital gaming, and online communication platforms such as chatrooms have permitted a new type of danger that is reinforced by the consumers rather than the manufacturers. The online world represents a space to ‘address American discourses, ideologies, and racial dynamics’. The prevailing narratives about ‘violence’ in video games, and their negative connotations that favour a certain sort of white masculinity, are an example. White men are systematically over-represented in video games, possibly suggesting “US military-influenced” state-sponsored violence against game’s depicted peoples of colour, who are frequently portrayed as villains or the enemy. A clear linkage between digital technology and US politics and their relations with the Middle East and Global South is seen, which has been especially emphasised following 9/11. It is undeniable how socio-political themes concerning race and ethnicity have influenced the creation of many different forms of digital media, including gaming.

The Internet both accelerates the publicness of info and the capacity for it to be used. The network of technologies, subjects, affects, and politics that make up our modern socio-technical environment is reproduced and transformed in part by cultural patterns. Structural prejudices in historical, political, and cultural contexts that formed the early years of the Internet continue to shape contemporary conversations about digital culture, thus it is critical to recognise that race and gender are integral components of technology. Silicon Valley attitudes were influenced by a “bro culture” and the pursuit of a “white” Californian ideology (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996). Progress towards a “just” internet has been extremely slow, but as discourses on race, sex, and gender have accelerated in recent years, it has become clear that high tech industries cannot survive without innovation, diversification, and skills. Today, Silicon Valley has evolved into a massive hub of high-achieving people from all over the world who want to work together to build something. However, the Web’s hegemonic nature continues to prioritise information for the mainstream (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996), so there is still much to be done in creating the perfect technological environment in which we will all live.