Book Review: Technically Wrong
Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech
Technically Wrong makes the argument that inequality and discrimination are commonplace in the tech industry, where tech companies are obsessed with youth and favor the hiring of male applicants in their twenties. Although many companies pretend to want to have more women and people of color on their teams, this is rarely realized—with blame placed on the limited availability of suitable candidates.
A key factor is company culture, with new candidates expected to follow it or risk being ostracized and indirectly forced to quit. For example, tech management often expects or even requires, group exercising, and daily workouts, which can be more difficult on female employees who aren’t dressed appropriately for exercising at work. In some cases, despite the innate contradiction, employees are expected by management to live a healthy lifestyle while also participating in team meetings or activities based on the consumption of alcohol.
Most of the relevant examples stated in the book are from California, but it is not mentioned if the same behavioral expectations are occurring elsewhere. Moreover, while Wachter-Boettcher provides case studies about women who have experienced racism and harassment, and whose ideas were discounted and their expertise ignored, she does not build her argument around empirical data and fails to show the percentage frequency of these cases. Therefore, readers cannot determine whether this is a national problem or a more select issue within a few companies.
The book showcases and critiques examples of various digital products, from well-known brands such as Facebook and Twitter to lesser-known ones such as Data Detox and ProPublica. Wachter-Boettcher claims that these products are designed with blind spots, biases, and outright ethical blunders that can intensify unfairness. She sees technology as fallible, not magical, and ripe for change. I cannot fully agree with the author’s claims since there are many other potential factors that should be considered. These technologies are new and flaws can often be found in their systems; however, it is generally expected that these will be improved over time. Concerning biases, I agree that people can be biased, but this is not always intentional.
Wachter-Boettcher suggests integrating Wi-Fi into Maslow’s pyramid as the foremost basic need of the current generation. She believes that technology has crept up into our lives through a great variety of applications and social media platforms while giving us no choice but to accept and participate. She is right to suggest our personal data is now being traded and shared. Only a few years ago digital products were slowly emerging, but today their use has become widespread and explosive, especially with the use of artificial intelligence algorithms and big data. This means that users’ data has become the most valuable asset of those platforms’ owners. Through cookies and proxies, data is collected and users’ habits are tracked. This is noticeable for users who frequently get recommendations to purchase an item based on a previous item they liked. Although people’s information is being exposed in various ways, it is difficult to disconnect from social platforms; it has become an addiction to be connected and informed.
Overall, the book offers a collection of stories that explore relevant problems relating to various digital applications and products; however, much of this material could be labeled as-all-too-familiar. Unfortunately, Wachter-Boettcher has not suggested any viable solutions nor provided sufficient empirical data to support her conclusions.
Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech
by Sara Wachter-Boettcher
WW Norton, 2018
Review by Elsy Sarkis Garlough