Welcome to the blog of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University. Program Director Irina Raicu will be joined by various guests in discussing the ethical issues that arise continuously on the Internet; we hope to host a robust conversation about them, and we look forward to your comments.
The following postings have been filtered by tag social inequality. clear filter
Certain eighth graders I know have been reading “Harrison Bergeron,” so I decided to re-read it, too. The short story, by Kurt Vonnegut, describes a dystopian world in which, in an effort to make all people equal, a government imposes countervailing handicaps on all citizens who are somehow naturally gifted: beautiful people are forced to wear ugly masks; strong people have to carry around weights in proportion to their strength; graceful people are hobbled; etc. In order to make everybody equal, in other words, all people are brought to the lowest common denominator. The title character, Harrison Bergeron, is particularly gifted and therefore particularly impaired. As Vonnegut describes him,
… Harrison's appearance was Halloween and hardware. Nobody had ever born heavier handicaps. He had outgrown hindrances faster than the H-G men could think them up. Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.
Scrap metal was hung all over him. Ordinarily, there was a certain symmetry, a military neatness to the handicaps issued to strong people, but Harrison looked like a walking junkyard. In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds.
And to offset his good looks, the H-G men required that he wear at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle-tooth random.
In classroom discussions, the story is usually presented as a critique of affirmative action. Such discussions miss the fact that affirmative action aims to level the playing field, not the players.
In the heart of Silicon Valley, in a land that claims to value meritocracy but ignores the ever more sharply tilted playing field, “Harrison Bergeron” seems particularly inapt. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it should be read, only in conjunction with stories like CNN’s recent interactive piece titled “The Poor Kids of Silicon Valley.” Or the piece by KQED’s Rachel Myrow, published last month, which notes that 30% of Silicon Valley’s population lives “below self-sufficiency standards,” and that “the income gap is wider than ever, and wider in Silicon Valley than elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area or California.”
What such (nonfiction, current) stories make clear is that we are, in fact, already hanging weights and otherwise hampering people in our society. It’s just that we don’t do it to those particularly gifted; we do it to the most vulnerable ones. The kids who have to wake up earlier because they live far from their high-school and have to take two buses since their parents can’t drive them to school, and who end up sleep deprived and less able to learn—the burden is on them. The kids who live in homeless shelters and whose brains might be impacted, long-term, by the stress of poverty—the burden is on them. The people who work as contractors with limited or no benefits—the burden is on them. The parents who have to work multiple jobs, can’t afford to live close to work, and have no time to read to their kids—the burden is on all of them.
In a Wired article about a growing number of Silicon Valley “techie” parents who are opting to home-school their kids, Jason Tanz expresses some misgivings about the subject but adds,
My son is in kindergarten, and I fear that his natural curiosity won’t withstand 12 years of standardized tests, underfunded and overcrowded classrooms, and constant performance anxiety. The Internet has already overturned the way we connect with friends, meet potential paramours, buy and sell products, produce and consume media, and manufacture and deliver goods. Every one of those processes has become more intimate, more personal, and more meaningful. Maybe education can work the same way.
Set aside the question of whether those processes have indeed become more intimate and meaningful; let’s concentrate on a different question about the possibility that, with the help of the Internet, education might “work the same way”: For whom?
Are naturally curious and creative kids being hampered by standardized tests and underfunded and overcrowded classrooms? Well then, in Silicon Valley, some of those kids will be homeschooled. The Wired article quotes a homeschooling parent who optimistically foresees a day “when you can hire a teacher by the hour, just as you would hire a TaskRabbit to assemble your Ikea furniture.” As to what happens to the kids of the TaskRabbited teacher? If Harrison Bergeron happens to be one of those, he will be further hampered, and nobody will check whether the weight of the burden will be proportional to anything.
Meritocracy is a myth when social inequality becomes as vast as it has become in Silicon Valley. Teaching “Harrison Bergeron” to eighth graders in this environment is a cruel joke.
The lack of diversity in the ranks of Silicon Valley tech companies has been a subject for debate for quite some time. It gathered more steam last year, when a number of companies including Apple, Google, and Twitter released their employment numbers, but many people had been writing and working for increased diversity for years. (I wrote about it, too, in MarketWatch, back in June 2013.) And, as a recent San Francisco Chronicle article noted, with the issue now in the spotlight, a number of startups are “seeking to turn Silicon Valley’s diversity problem into profit—helping tech companies find, recruit, and retain a diverse workforce, usually for a hefty fee. Still other companies have recently added diversity services to those already offered. In tech, diversity is now for sale.”
In the midst of these developments, last week’s Newsweek cover article “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women” seemed a bit of a throwback. The controversial cover that went along with it, which got even more attention than the article itself, seemed even more of a throwback. Many pixels were spilled, on media social and not, in arguments between those who thought the cover itself was sexist and those who felt that it reflected and therefore drew attention to sexism, and/or that it was effective simply because it drew lots of attention to the article and the magazine.
Then, Tsotsis turns to the Newsweek cover, which she describes as “a visceral gut punch”: “It portrays a woman without eyes, in a short skirt, getting her behind clicked on by a big black cursor. (Whoever these Silicon Valley people are who are thinking about women like this, they are not doing it on their phone or a tablet.)” She then argues that “Newsweek’s faceless and sexualized symbol of women in tech is… basic and reductive. We have worked so hard to broaden the scope of what we can be, in Silicon Valley, in the world, and here comes Newsweek… with an image that bluntly, sloppily trivializes how painfully that progress was won.”
And that is, indeed, the issue. Maybe stereotypical cartoons can draw attention to a critique of stereotypes (though would it really make sense to illustrate an issue like, say, anti-Semitism by creating a new anti-Semitic cartoon?), but the tone of this particular cover is not critical. It’s playful. It’s breezy. The “woman” on the cover is clearly young, and dressed in a very short red dress (whose hem is being lifted by the oversized cursor). She is also wearing very high-heeled red shoes. She has no eyes or nose, but she does have a very red mouth—and she looks back—almost gamely—over her shoulder at the cursor lifting her skirt. If the piece is about “what Silicon Valley thinks about women,” the cover visually “quotes” the misogynists.
Ironically, though the article itself focuses on the story of one particular startup founded by two women to illustrate the problem of gender discrimination in Silicon Valley, the reader has to scroll down quite a ways before getting to a photo of those two women entrepreneurs. What if those two real women had been on the cover? Their experiences were apparently seen as interesting and representative enough to illustrate the broader issue, but their faces weren’t. Instead, the key image of the piece (which, the cliché goes, is worth a thousand words), gives voice to those who demean such women.
As Tsotsis notes, the cover “gets to subconsciously influence a bunch of kids accompanying their parents on trips to the grocery … perpetuating what it purportedly denounces — It makes women feel excluded, sexualized and degraded as it tries to point out how bad it is to exclude, sexualize, and degrade women.”
In response to such criticism, the author of the Newsweek article came to the defense of the cover’s designers; she said the backlash was “totally misguided” and added that "For… people to be coming out being outraged by an image as opposed to actual [sexist] behavior is just petty.” That’s a false dichotomy, though: one—or many—can clearly be outraged both by sexist behavior and by a cover that trivializes (and perhaps perpetuates) the problem. Maybe the next time Newsweek writes about the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley (and yes, we need many more such articles, to keep the attention on an ugly reality that will take some time to change), it will take a page from a different startup highlighted by the San Francisco Chronicle: Gap Jumpers “sells software that helps tech companies evaluate job candidates based on talent alone. The company offers different skills tests to vet people applying for job—a blind audition conducted via computer.” Some cursors aim to lift women, rather than skirts.
Kim Polese, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and innovator, addresses a new and growing digital divide: the one between those who have high-speed wired broadband access to the Internet in their homes, and those who don't. Many of the services that we increasingly rely on in our daily lives require such access; Polese argues that the lack of affordable high-speed broadband access magnifies the inequalities in our society, keeping both necessities and opportunities out of reach for many Americans.
In a recent New York Times article, law professor Susan Crawford agrees with this assessment: she describes "[h]igh capacity fiber connections to homes and businesses" as "a social good" (as well as a business imperative). Both Polese and Crawford call for increased regulatory oversight in order to bring about affordable and widespread broadband access in the U.S.