On August 5th, VICE reported on a controversial document that espoused sexist beliefs written by a Google employee and circulated within the company . Jennifer Lieberman, author of Power Lines weighs in on "memogate"arguing against the widely held belief that technology always leads to progress.
This has been an exciting few weeks for those of us who think critically and historically about technology. My newsfeed has been abuzz with editorials about an event some are now calling “Memogate.” This story concerns a Google employee who wrote a sexist manifesto claiming that women were largely absent from technological fields because of biological differences. This software engineer was subsequently fired and then quickly rehired by Julian Assange.
“Memogate” has made very public a fact that surprised many, though it was apparent to science and technology studies scholars and to minorities and women working in technical industries: advancements in science and technology have not erased America’s prevailing social biases. Rather, these advancements continue to recapitulate or reinforce existing prejudices. A number of important editorials came out in response to this series of events that address these problems. I recommend recent pieces by The MIT Press’s own Marie Hicks, of Programmed Inequality fame, and by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein on these issues, and here I add my own voice to this conversation.
While Hicks, Prescod-Weinstein, and others have demonstrated that “Memogate” was nothing new, I am primarily interested in why this series of events would surprise so many people despite the unambiguous historical record. I suggest that this public reaction follows, in part, from our cultural tendency to conflate technological development with progress. When an algorithm-age company like Google becomes publicly associated with nineteenth-century evolutionary psychology, we feel taken aback by the seeming incongruity.
In my book, Power Lines: Electricity in American Life and Letters, 1882-1952, I identify a similar cultural phenomenon from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I examine (among other things) how writers, technologists, and savvy sociological observers grappled with the prevailing idea that electrification represented progress, despite the persistent violence—especially racial violence—that defined American life in the era following the Civil War. For example, I discuss how National Book Award winners Ralph Ellison and Lewis Mumford balanced their disappointment in American social stagnation with their fascination with electrical development. In his impressive 1934 study, Technics and Civilization, Mumford argues against the already-popular idea that new inventions could autonomously bring about social change, warning: “Not merely must one explain the existence of new mechanical instruments: one must explain the culture that was ready to use them and profit by them so extensively” (Technics and Civilization 4). In other words, he points out that most new technologies are introduced to market by people or corporations in power and are thus invested in maintaining the status quo. If the populace wanted devices to usher in change, Mumford insinuates, they would have to create that change themselves—that meant, in part, that they would have to understand and use inventions in more reflective and humanistic ways.
This was a point that Ellison creatively elaborated on throughout his nonfiction and his fiction, notably including his masterpiece, Invisible Man (1952). Ellison repeatedly crafted African American characters who bought into what we might call the American technological dream, only to be disappointed when they realized that technical skills would not overcome white supremacy. No amount of expertise could allow these characters to advance beyond a certain point. The idea of meritocracy was worse than misleading—it supported existing power structures and encouraged compliance.
Proto-feminist writer and self-proclaimed sociologist Charlotte Perkins Gilman similarly recognized that America’s technological development had outpaced its social development. In her treatise, The Home (1903), she raised the question: if modern Americans would not want to use their great-grandmother’s sources of power or light, why would they want to preserve her social customs with regard to gender inequality? Like Mumford and Ellison, she suggested that new inventions could play a part in a new social order—but argued that these social advancements could only come about through action and change.
Mumford, Ellison, Gilman and the other historical figures who I discuss in Power Lines recognized the tendency to see technology as an agent of social advancement. This was and is an understandably alluring fantasy that seemed to be corroborated by lived experience. In my own lifetime, I have seen drastic changes in computing, for example. My Apple IIe allowed me to write short stories much more quickly than I could with a pen and paper; my Nintendo Entertainment System seemed immersive and stimulating compared to board games. I never could have predicted that I would carry in my pocket a device that exceeded the computing and gaming capacities of those early inventions, nor could I have predicted the changes in my sociality that seemed to follow—my shameful but commonplace addiction to social media, for one thing. (I say seemed to follow because my habits have developed in feedback with the tools I use; as I also discuss in the book, this impression of causality is misleading.)
Such changes to material culture confer a feeling of progress that seems much more sensory and immediate than abstract measures of social change. The same was true in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when Mark Twain visited Detroit and saw its public lighting system as “coruscating electric suns” and concluded that “Lots of things have changed, & always for the better”, or when Jack London tried to become an electrician because he thought that profession could offer him a way out of the lower class. Evidence of material change corroborates an impression of progress; it also allows us to believe that our democracy and daily lives will improve without any deliberate collective action.
One of the lessons we can learn from “Memogate” is that women have always been forced out of scientific and technical industries by men, and that those exclusionary decisions have harmed industry in addition to harming individual women. We can also learn that science is a human discourse that reflects human culture and biases, try as we may to overcome those limitations. But in addition to these crucial lessons, we must also recognize that companies like Google can only provide us a certain, limited kind of progress. The social change that we aspire towards—where technical industries, like all industries, would genuinely respect diverse viewpoints and would recognize the absence of diversity as an inherent problem that requires institutional change—may be utopian and unattainable. But we can only inch in that direction by working collectively towards these goals and by thinking more critically about what technological development can and cannot do.