Technically Wrong: the book I needed to start the year

Those who know me know I’m not a fan of surprises—I choose my Christmas and birthday presents. And this year was not an exception. But nevertheless, my husband, as the risk-seeker that he is, took the bold step of gifting me something I hadn’t previously approved, but that he sensed would be just my cup of tea.

He wasn’t wrong. Since I opened my book-shaped present on Christmas Eve I haven’t been able to put Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s “Technicaly Wrong” down.

Unputdownable, they say.

Somehow, I had missed this book’s publication, which is very odd as I follow people who I’m sure have tweeted about it. Nevertheless, I had never seen it before, or heard of it, so maybe other people don’t know of its existence either, which is a crime.

I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about the book, because I’d rather everyone read it. But I’d like to echo the sentiment of the author. The subtitle, “Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech”, is a good summary of what you will find inside.

Technology is an inescapable part of our lives. From the most trivial things, like buying lightbulbs, to the most live-changing ones, like applying for social housing, or getting a passport. But we don’t place tech companies and the people within them in a position where they have the same accountability as other, older institutions. We think if a computer came up with something (like a search result), it must be right. But it’s humans all the way down, and humans have biases and are fallible.

Technically Wrong includes incredible, heart-pumping, rage-inducing stories of racial discrimination, gender inequality, sexual harassment, and much more. There is also a call for everyone to open our eyes to the biases that permeate the technology that surrounds us, and that we brush aside, because they mostly don’t affect us in a harmful way. But technology is for, and is needed by, everyone. And everyone means people who don’t all live, look or sound the same.

Sometimes I forget in how many categories I fall that technology and the tech industry have a tendency to put at a disadvantage: I’m a woman. A working parent. An immigrant. There’s an acute accent in my often-too-long name, who no-one can pronounce. [I totally understand the plight of the woman in the book who needs to manage different versions of her name across different systems—that is my life (p.72).] Online forms that ask for my ethnicity confuse me (although I just sent my saliva to 23andme, so I might know how to answer that question soon). My passport says I was born in Russia (actually, in the “Soviet Union”, which is as amusing as it sounds), but I am not Russian (it was fun getting my son his British passport).

One time, I had to wait for 20 minutes at an airport check-in desk until someone with enough authority could allow my son and I to check-in. Why? Our names didn’t match our passports. Why? The airline’s online booking form said “the combination of both of our first names and surnames was too long”, so I had to cut them until they fit the form.

My anecdotes are largely benign. But for people who are less privileged, tech that doesn’t consider anything that departs from the norm can have truly devastating consequences. As tech workers, it’s within our power, and our responsibility, to change this:

“[A]lienating technology doesn’t matter less during this time of political upheaval. It matters all the more.”
—Sarah Wachter-Boettcher, in “Technically Wrong” (p.196)

My new year resolutions are very much the same as the next person’s: drink plenty of water, got to bed early, exercise more, read more books, write more articles.

But on top of that, and most of all, I hope I can bring just a little of what the author asks of us to my work. If I can do that, it will be a good year.

Now go read it.