If we move into the New Year with a violent riot organized on social media, the spread of disinformation about a deadly pandemic, and distance learning breakdowns, it would be a mystery to us not to recognize the impact technology has on all facets of our society. We all equally agree on our frustrations and concerns that we are approaching a dystopian future.
2020 brings more visibility into how racism, sexism and otherisms permeate technology and will continue to create divisions that can become irreparable. In the tech world, there have been DEI efforts, laws targeting the racist effects of technology, warnings from ethicists, and independent bias assessments designed to contain the damage – but none of these solutions address the real problem: humans. We need to grapple with how the destructive damage that is developing from our technologies today reflects the implicit biases and prejudices of the designers who created the technology – and how they were taught. Many designers do not know how to identify harmful prejudices and have no idea how their own prejudices affect the products they make. How can we directly address this issue from 2021?
Man is the problem, and luckily, education offers a solution.
We have to go beyond the quick fixes that don’t work. and invest in the next generation of technologists by radically changing why and how we teach computer science. The natural starting point is the broad but influential computer science teaching community that includes teachers, administrators, curriculum developers, and anyone involved in shaping the learning of future technologists. Our young people need to be tech savvy in Python, R, and Lisp to build AI, machine learning, and other emerging technologies. However, computer skills are not enough. We need to equip our young people with knowledge, skills and moral courage to develop equitable technologies that break down existing power dynamics, protect non-dominant groups, represent everyone, and prioritize the well-being of society.
As CS and technology educators, we have created dozens of rooms for over a decade where young people can tinker with technology. Looking back on that span of time, we have to wonder how many young people have left these rooms to build a new bot but are unable to recognize their own prejudices. Where are you now? What cool and potentially dangerous technology did they bring into the world? We cannot go back in time; But we can use this new knowledge to create a better and fairer vision for computer science teaching.
A radically redesigned computer science education will:
Prioritize racial literacy and history.
It is important for all young people to believe that they can be the creators of technology, and it is also inconsiderate that we omit that technology was historically designed as a tool to monitor and suppress non-dominant communities. Prioritizing racial literacy means recognizing how white supremacy is anchored in technology and collectively recognizing that technology was not neutral and has the power to cause harm. Examples could be how early punch card tabs in Nazi Germany were used by the Third Reich to process race counts of Jewish German citizens; and how some of the early footage centered white skin tones. Today we have technology like facial recognition software that centers the white and cannot identify black women. At the same time, they were designed to monitor and monitor black and brown communities.
Like emerging technologies, suppressive design practices have only evolved and manifested themselves in new ways. K-12 administrators, educators, and technology companies who invest in computer science education need to help young people study the design, use, and harmful effects of discriminatory technology.
Reflect and act according to our own prejudices as creators.
Understanding how bias is embedded in code, data, policies, and other facets of technology is critical for young people. The ability to think about how our position (shaped by identity and social status) affects the technologies we develop is even more important for young people. At Stanford d.school we developed a design method that technology designers can use to think through the implications of their first, second and third order creations before releasing them into the world. Our budding technologists should iteratively evaluate their creations and ask themselves:
- Can I do this based on my own lived experience and expect others who are different from me to use it?
- Who benefits, who is harmed, or who is excluded from the technology?
- Whose stories does this dataset tell? Whose stories does this dataset leave out? What was the historical context when this dataset was created?
- What i don’t know Who should I ask and study with?
- I can design this, but should I? Which implications need to be considered?
Recognize and create space for multiple perspectives.
The design field can be an arena for the “pluriverse”, which the anthropologist Arturo Escobar defines as multiple modes of knowing, being and thinking that are rooted in certain places and in certain communities.
Young people are curious and can be inspired by the different ontologies and perspectives of the peoples of the world and in natural systems. When they infuse that inspiration into design practices that transform the power dynamics in technology across race, gender, skill, and culture, our technologies can become far more equitable. It’s a starting point to encourage them to see what’s possible by tackling hyperlocal problems and developing solutions with others who have completely different perspectives. Cross-cultural experiences that challenge them to wonder why their perspective should be the world’s perspective and make space for other beliefs that they may not relate to are another. These early experiences can enable them to collaborate with others and develop technologies that are more inclusive and contextual.
How are we going?
We can take inspiration from the 1619 Project and the Tin Education Project, which provided us with the tools to tackle our multi-faceted stories in hopes of repairing and shaping our future. These projects prioritize racial literacy, help young people reflect on bias, and identify multiple perspectives.
We can work with our social science departments and other disciplines to ensure our students have a historical understanding of the technology. We can celebrate what our students code and build and ask them to consider the impact their creations have on others. And we can celebrate and actively engage with different perspectives that challenge dominant voices and narratives in every step of our design process.
If we can apply these practices to computer science education, our young people could develop cool technologies that serve everyone and maintain a just world.