Welcome to the Black Lives Matter Edition of Book Club, where we will talk about a couple of books that Tanya read recently, and what she thinks about them. The previous article in this series was about Communication and Metrics.
All of the books listed are available in audiobook; my preferred reading format.
We are covering this topic for several reasons, but the one that makes it relevant to this membership is that when Tanya, the founder of this company, used her social media accounts to share her support for those fighting oppression and system violence and racism in America (using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag), all online sales at shehackspurple.dev stopped.
ALL sales stopped. For TWO WEEKS.
There are usually a handful of sales per day at SheHacksPurple.dev, but it took almost 3 weeks for our first after-Tanya-tweeted-about-BlackLivesMatters-sale to happen, and over 4 weeks for sales to go back to normal. There could be several reasons for this, such as people spending their time demonstrating and protesting instead of buying AppSec training. It could be that we did less less tweeting about our products and membership during that time, to give voice to more important things. The economy could have slowed down to covid… But… It’s hard to shake the feeling that the two were related.
As a company, we felt supporting those who suffer systemic oppression and violence was worth losing out on a couple thousand dollars in sales.
With this in mind, we are going to review books that cover how technology can be trained to be biased, and how algorithms and systems can have bias designed directly into them. We are also going to discuss a book that discusses how to change public policy in order to reverse and/or stop bias within governmental processes, laws and systems that harm marginalized groups.
Book #1 Technically Wrong
Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech
Written by: Sara Wachter-Boettcher
This book is an excellent introduction to the idea that data can be biased and that algorithms can reinforce racist, sexist, homophobic and other societal discriminations. As someone who already considers herself somewhat aware of these problems, has attended several lectures on how to abuse AI/ML, and has a long history in the tech industry creating technical solutions and systems, this was not news to me. That said, the author covers several different ways that bias can sneak itself into these systems and makes it extremely clear to the reader how this can happen by accident, or by negligence. There are several stories of real people who are affected by these issues, and also quite a lot of statistical information proving that the issues are widespread. I found the book extremely easy to listen to and almost ‘light’ in the way it is written, despite the fact that it is about a very serious topic. For someone who is not already well versed in this topic, this is an excellent introduction. If you are like Tanya and have already read other books on this topic, you may want to start with the second book (below) in this review. However, if you are recommending a book to someone who doesn’t know anything about this problem with tech, or who you are trying to convince that there is indeed a problem, this book is perfect.
Book 2: Algorithms of Oppression
How Search Engines Reinforce Racism
Written by: Safiya Umoja Noble
This book is written a bit like a PhD or a master’s dissertation; it is highly technical, with many, many references to other people’s work. The narrator speaks a tiny bit like a robot, but if you can get past that, this book is enlightening. This is not a light read; this is not only due to it being quite technical in nature, but also due to the very serious subject matter. As someone who is interested in this topic, I found this book illuminating. The author covered several instances that I had never previously seen in conference talks or articles, as well as provided numerous references, quotations, studies, and other statistical information as supporting evidence for each point she made in the book. That said, this topic is tough. I was unable to listen to the entire chapter on revenge porn, as I found it too distressing. Both authors, from the book above and this book, call for the recruitment of experts in black studies, women studies, Jewish studies, LGBT studies, etc. to large high-tech companies, in order to ensure that these types of issues are not overlooked when designing the systems that so many of us use on a daily basis. The author points out that expecting someone with only an engineering or software development background to understand the complexities of ensuring that software is not biased is going to continue to lead to our current disappointing results in the many examples she illustrates throughout the book. I feel that she proved her point, over and over and over, and made me feel that the situation is urgent (it is). She also suggested solutions that are actually achievable without that much effort (when compared to the changes the next book suggests), and that I hope tech giants implement in the near future.
If you design technology systems, or design or train machine learning algorithms, you need to read this book.
Book 3: How to Be an Antiracist
Written and Narrated by: Ibram X. Kendi
This book reminds me of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, by Mychal Denzel Smith. In both books, the author explains how he became aware of how his own biases affected others via personal stories of his life. However, in How to be an Anti-Racist, the author also explains how various policies, systems, processes, laws, and other structures of society, can be and are racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminating. The stories he shares are deeply personal, vulnerable, and telling. He breaks up his intimate narratives of self-actualization with explanations of various policies, court rulings, cultural situations from the United States, and systems that harm black lives. He also provides ideas for solutions, improvement and harm reduction which are a breath of fresh air. This book is touching, thought provoking, and it may cause you to question some of your previous decisions, ideas, and more-private thoughts. I strongly recommend this book, for anyone.