Diversity as a capability, not a performance

If you want diversity, you better be able to hold space for it

Houston, we have a problem: building socially beneficial technology requires you to collaborate across many disciplines, understandings, and ideologies.

Diversity is a competency, and not just because it signifies something — like fair hiring practices or anti-racist efforts to rebalance power in industry. It also unlocks a capability to do big, meaningful things with care.

Unfortunately, many companies and teams have conflated diversity with tokenisation, and tokenisation with equity. In other words, the optics-focused, harmful, and ultimately failed attempt to make organisations more diverse appears to be limited to recruiting — or saying you will recruit — a more diverse workforce rather than build a pluralistic, high-functioning, and equitable team.

I've been reflecting a lot after the Google AI Ethics scandal (the second one involving the firing of Timnit Gebru, not the one where they put a transphobic person on an ethics council and disbanded it shortly after it was launched). There is a crescendo of debate about independent research, corporate accountability, and the trajectory of, well, everything.

I think part of the answer is to recognise that we are in a particularly challenging time for organisational design. For diversity to lead to capability — and not tokenisation and abuse — we need to reimagine collaboration in sociotechnical teams. We shouldn't try and purify our organisations, we should seek balance across backgrounds and modes of thinking. I shared this thinking a while ago, and have since been thinking atomically to get my head around it. Hop on this metaphor and let’s ride.

Protons

Protons are positively stoked about technology and its capacity to transform society. They talk about disruption, and scale, and possibility. Their excitement is infectious. They believe in the power of positive thinking, see science as a clean politics-free zone, and they rarely talk about the power dynamics of technology or the way that poorly governed technology causes harm. Maybe because it hasn't historically harmed them, or because that's kind of a buzz kill, or because they like imagining possibility to take us somewhere new and resist getting caught up in pesky details like...reality.

Electrons

These are thinkers and commentators with a moral imagination that examines the fall out of capitalist-driven innovation. They are far more often from groups who have been historically, socially, economically, and politically screwed over, or unconsidered in the design of the new operating procedures of technology. They bring rigour and deontological thinking to technology ideation and governance design. They are technologists, academics, journalists, artists, activists, policy experts, and neo-luddites. Sometimes they make work which helps us explore where we are headed (like Ursula Le Guin), and almost always call to slow the pace of careless change. They are less likely to accept the status quo or the pain marginalised groups. They are sometimes called idealistic, intellectual, and activists (pejoratively).

Neutrons

Neutrons work to hold it all together. They will attempt to invent while tuning into the wavelength of healthy critique and the wounded social systems, politics, and economies that surround them. They attend to the what, why, and how, trying to design process, governance, and stable environments. They sometimes reduce protons to 'optimists' and electrons to 'pessimists'.

An example: credit scoring

→ A proton gets excited about the possibility of building alternative data streams to provide access to credit for those who would be denied it in traditional financial systems;

→ the electron calls attention to the potential problems from a lack of informed consent, critiques the forcible nature of a capitalist system that requires submission, and thinks in radical ways about the political crisis of debt, financial inequity, and data extraction;

→ a neutron is a manager at a slower moving institution trying to understand the possibility while taking the critique seriously, and is in charge of building out the ‘product’ once the organisation has a set a direction.

If all we had was protons we'd be living in a dystopia (and I think right now protons have almost all of the power in technology discourse).

If all we had was electrons we would have excellent awareness and analysis of the horrors of the status quo but very little in terms of organisations and institutional power that might help us break out of it.

Finally, if all we had were neutrons we'd be trudging along in the status quo, unthinkingly doing things the same way forever.

I don't think people should be forced into roles of critique just because their neighbourhood is on fire, and there is no one else able or willing to act as technology fire fighters. And people with ambition should be forced to reckon with the harms and potential harms of their ideas and creations.

I am really interested in how we build, recruit for, and then actually meaningfully integrate sociotechnical critique into technology production. Right now we seem to be in a phase where companies only perform at valuing this critique. But then, like a dog that has chased a car, they don’t know what to do with it once they’ve got it.

How does diversity of discipline, approach and background become a competency and a capability rather than a harmful performance? How can we rebalance within the system to reduce the power of the proton, and respect the power of the electron? How do we build systems that can balance across these ways of thinking?

The first step is to actually prioritise making technology socially beneficial. As Sasha Costanza-Chock said at FAccT this year, 'We have to decide what we're optimising for' — and if you're optimising purely for profit, then a lot of these other ideas are moot. For instance, if you’re thinking about building an ethics team, there’s no point if you’re going to remain orientated towards pure-profit. But, if you are optimising for socially beneficial technology, you can address the second step, which is to create a work environment and conversation culture that is just as enabling and comfortable for electrons as it currently is for protons and neutrons. You can then hold space for dynamic uncertainty and values-aligned decision-making. But we won't get there if we break apart ourselves apart. That's a recipe for disaster.


If you want to get an issue of The Relay in your inbox every other Wednesday, subscribe. And, if you liked this one, check out the last issue here.


Follow-up from the last issue

Check out some great comments at the end of the last issue on the possible power and lurking politics of digital transformation

The Future is Up for Grabs

Last week, I had the pleasure of moderating the plenary panels at ACM’s FAccT 2021 (a mega conference of researchers studying fairness, accountability, and transparency in sociotechnical systems). Want to know what Vidushi Marda, Cori Crider, and Sasha Costanza-Chock think the future holds? Check The Future is Up for Grabs below.

Leave a comment