How is it that public health has delivered on its promise to improve the lives of millions of people, while failing to solve dramatic health disparities people of color in the United States? And what can the technology governance movement learn from these failures?
Through 150 years of public institutions that serve the common good through science, public health has transformed human life. In just a few generations, some of the world’s most complex challenges have become manageable. Millions of people can now expect to give birth safely, have confidence in their water supply, enjoy healthy diets and expect collective responses to disease outbreaks. In the United States, people born in 2010 or later will live longer than 30 years older than people born in 1900.
Inspired by public health success, technology and policy leaders have suggested a public health model of digital governance in which technology policy not only detects and corrects the past damage of technology on society, but also supports the well-being of society and prevents future crises. Public health also offers a roadmap—professions, academic disciplines, public institutions, and networks of committed community leaders—to build the systems necessary for a healthy digital environment.
Yet public health, like the tech industry, has systematically failed marginalized communities in ways that are no accidents. 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 failed to address the inequities that put us at greater risk. As the United States reached one million recorded deaths, black and brown communities assumed a disproportionate share of the country’s population. work and burden of loss.
The technology industry, like public health, has coded inequality in its systems and institutions. Over the past decade, groundbreaking inquiry and technology policy advocacy led by women and people of color have raised global awareness of these failures, driving a growing movement for technology governance. The industry reacted to the possibility of regulation in putting billions of dollars into tech ethicshiring voice critics and underwriting new areas of study. Scientific funders and private philanthropy have also responded, investing hundreds of millions to support new independent industry innovators and watchdogs. As co-founder of the Coalition for Independent Technological ResearchI am pleased to the growth of these institutions of public interest.
But we could easily repeat the failures of public health if we reproduced the same inequality in the field of technological governance. Commentators often criticize lack of diversity in the tech industry, but let’s be honest – US institutions of accountability have our own stories of exclusion. Nonprofits, for example, often say they seek to serve marginalized communities. Yet, despite representing 42% of the US population, barely 13% of association leaders are black, Latino, Asian or indigenous. Universities publicly celebrate color faculty but fail to make progress on faculty diversity. The year I finished my doctorate, I was just one of 24 Latino/a doctorates in computer science in the United States and Canada, only 1.5% of the 1,592 doctorates awarded that year. Journalism too lagging behind other sectors in terms of diversity. Rather than confront these facts, many American newsrooms have chosen to block a 50-year-old program to track and improve newsroom diversity. This is a precarious vantage point from which to demand transparency from Big Tech.
How Institutions Are Failing to Meet Our Diversity Aspirations
In the 2010s, when morning nobles began to investigate racism in search engine results, computer scientists had already been studying search engine algorithms for decades. It took another decade for Noble’s work to reach mainstream audiences through his book. Oppression algorithms.
Why has it taken so long for the field to notice a problem affecting so many Americans? As one of seven black scholars to earn a doctorate in information science in her year, Noble was able to ask important questions that predominantly white IT fields were unable to imagine.
Stories like Noble’s are all too rare in civil society, journalism and academia, despite the public stories our institutions tell about progress on diversity. For example, universities with lower student diversity are more likely to put students of color on their websites and brochures. But you can’t pretend until you make it; cosmetic diversity proves influencing white college hopefuls but not black candidates. (Note, for example, that in the decade since Noble graduated, the percentage of doctorates awarded to black applicants by information science programs has not changed.) Worse still, the illusion of inclusiveness can increase discrimination for people of color. To spot cosmetic diversity, ask if institutions choose the same handful of people to be speakers, award winners, and board members. Is the institution raising a few stars rather than investing in deeper change?