To hold tech accountable, see Public Health

how about By failing to address the staggering health disparities in the US, has public health fulfilled its promise to improve the lives of millions? What can the movement for technology management learn from these failures?

Through 150 years of public institutions serving science for the common good, public health has transformed human life. Within a few generations, some of the world’s most complex challenges have become manageable. Millions of people can now expect safe childbirth, trust their water supply, have access to healthy food, and expect a collective response to epidemics. In the United States, people born in 2010 or later live 30 years longer than those born in 1900.

Inspired by the success of public health, leaders in technology and policy have proposed digital governance, a public health model in which technology policy not only identifies and corrects past technological harms to society, but also supports public health and prevents future crises. Public Health provides a roadmap for building the systems needed for a healthy digital environment—professionals, academic disciplines, public institutions, and networks of engaged community leaders.

Yet public health, like the technology industry, has systematically failed marginalized communities in non-dangerous ways. Consider the public health response to COVID-19. Despite decades of scientific research on health equity, Covid-19 policies were not designed for communities of color, medical devices were not designed for our bodies, and health programs were not aligned with the inequalities that put us at greater risk. As the US approaches one million recorded deaths, black and brown communities bear a disproportionate share of the nation’s labor and loss burden.

The technology industry, like public health, has built inequality into its systems and institutions. Over the past decade, research and advocacy on technology policy led by women and people of color has led the world to recognize these failures and led to a growing movement for technology governance. The industry has responded to the prospect of regulation by investing billions of dollars in technology ethics, hiring vocal critics and writing new fields of study. Scientific funders and private philanthropists responded, investing hundreds of millions to support new industry-independent inventors and maintainers. As the founder of the Coalition for Free Tech Research, I’m excited about the growth in these public interest institutions.

But if we reproduce the same imbalances in the field of technology management, we can easily repeat the public health failures. Commentators often decry the tech industry’s lack of diversity, but let’s face it—America’s accountability institutions have our own history of exclusion. Nonprofit organizations, for example, often say they want to serve marginalized communities. Yet despite making up 42 percent of the U.S. population, only 13 percent of nonprofit leaders are Black, Latino, Asian, or Native American. Universities publicly honor faculty of color but make no progress on faculty diversity. The year I completed my PhD, I was one of only 24 Latino/a computer science doctorates in the US and Canada, just 1.5 percent of the 1,592 PhDs awarded that year. Journalism also lags behind other sectors in diversity. Rather than face these realities, many American newsrooms have chosen to suspend a 50-year-old program to monitor and improve newsroom diversity. That’s a dangerous position to demand transparency from Big Tech.

How do institutions lack our desire for diversity?

In the year In 2010, when Safia Noble began investigating racism in search engine results, computer scientists had been studying search engine algorithms for decades. It took another ten years for Noble’s work to reach mainstream status with her book. The suppression algorithm.

How long did it take for the field to become a problem that affects so many Americans? As one of only seven black scholars to receive information science PhDs in her year, Noble was able to ask important questions that predominantly-white computing fields could not imagine.

Stories like Noble’s are rare in civil society, journalism, and academia, although there are public stories about the progress of diversity in our institutions. For example, universities with lower student diversity are more likely to feature students of color on their websites and brochures. But you can’t pretend until you make it; Cosmetic diversity affects white college applicants but not black applicants. (For example, the percentage of PhDs awarded to black candidates in information science programs has not changed in the decade since Noble earned her degree.) Worse, the illusion of inclusion increases bias against people of color. Ask whether institutions are choosing the same handful of people to be speakers, awardees, and board members to identify cosmetic differences. Is the institution raising a few stars instead of investing in deep change?

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