Your Computer is on Fire review: Wake up to tech’s inequalities

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From Siri to the QWERTY keyboard, inequality is embedded in the technology we increasingly rely on. A new book, Your Computer is on Fire, is a call to recognise tech’s problems – and fix them



Technology



7 April 2021

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Most keyboards reflect the cultural domination of the English language

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Your Computer is on Fire

Edited by Thomas Mullaney, Benjamin Peters, Mar Hicks and Kavita Philip

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MIT Press

TECHNOLOGY is so embedded in our lives that we can sometimes forget it is there at all. Your Computer is on Fire is a vital reminder not only of its presence, but that we urgently need to extinguish the problems associated with it.

The book challenges us to a radical rethink so that we can tackle a large range of problems, from algorithmic bias to climate change. These are addresed in a collection of essays, each highlighting problems in our relationship with technology and proposing ways to fix them.

To solve the issues of race and gender bias in algorithms, for instance, Mar Hicks at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, says we must recognise that these are deeply embedded features of the tech we rely on, not mere bugs. “These failures are not simply accidents,” Hicks writes, “they are features of how the systems were designed to work and, without significant outside intervention, how they will continue to function.”

The consequences of algorithmic bias can be severe, as in the case of facial-recognition software erroneously flagging up innocent people as criminals or as suspects in crimes they haven’t committed, says Safiya Umoja Noble at the University of California, Los Angeles. But it isn’t too late, she writes: “We have a significant opportunity to transform the consciousness embedded in artificial intelligence and robotics, since it is in fact a product of our own collective creation.”

Your Computer is on Fire gives many examples of how our tech is often developed by and designed to work for a select few, despite having a diverse range of users globally. Halcyon Lawrence at Towson University in Maryland writes that for speakers with a “nonstandard accent” – including herself, as a speaker of Caribbean English – “virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa are unresponsive and frustrating”.

Even something as basic as the QWERTY keyboard was designed around the English language, with complicated adaptations bolted on over time to accommodate speakers of languages such as Arabic and Chinese, writes Thomas Mullaney at Stanford University, California.

In addition to supporting programmes to introduce more young people from diverse backgrounds to coding, big tech needs to do more to increase diversity in its own institutions, particularly at the top, argues Janet Abbate at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.

The collection also interprets its central metaphor in a more literal sense, with Nathan Ensmenger at Indiana University in Bloomington arguing that we need to reckon with the physical impact our current use of technology is having on the planet. His chapter, “The Cloud is a Factory”, starts by recognising that cloud computing is “profoundly physical”, requiring enormous amounts of energy, resources and labour.

This theme is picked up by Benjamin Peters at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he writes: “The globe is ablaze, and few have the collective language to call to put it out. This book sounds out a call for that language… The challenge of anyone who lives in our broken world is not to delay to some future date the fact that the needs of the many outweigh the privileges of the few here and now.”

Your Computer is on Fire asks more questions than it answers, but they will all be vital in challenging the world to make our technology better and fairer.

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