The Myth of Progress in Silicon Valley

a response to: “The Myth of Progress”, Eileen B. Leonard

(for my class on Technology, Gender, and Society)

Technology is described as innovative. It’s disruptive. It’s on the bleeding edge of creating big changes. In “The Myth of Progress”, Eileen B. Leonard discusses how advancements in technology are not always progressive and often contribute to social inequality.

Society tends to have positive feelings about technology, Leonard explains, but privileged social groups tend to feel more positive than social minorities. This is because the focus of technology is often on luxury items instead of education, public transportation, health, and other things that people need most. Leonard then notes how Western society determines how developed other countries are by how much their technology resembles Western technology.

“the Ideology of progress encourages violent aggression by justifying colonialism through claims that Western civilization is the epitome of all that is desirable.”

Her book was published in 2003, but her words are still relevant today and especially relevant in the Silicon Valley.

Startup culture began to rise in the Silicon Valley shortly after 2003, as many people started their own small companies. Most startups believe that their product is groundbreaking and world-changing, and this strongly contributes to the ideology of progress. A popular website reports news about startups, “The newest companies that could change the world”, but lists articles about dating applications and expensive watches. What impact are these products making? Are they contributing to positive progress? Many dating applications have high rates of harassment. Some wearable technologies are designed and developed by men and do not work very well with women’s bodies.

A significant reason why many startups are not changing the world is that teams who build their product are not very representative of the world, or even of the Western population.

Tech companies are often primarily male, white, abled, and wealthy. Designers and developers are a majority of San Francisco’s population, and this can lead to a lack of awareness or concern about challenges and differences of the people not represented well in their field.

A friend of mine was telling me about a project she was working on to track a user’s movement with their phone, and how it worked great in men’s pockets but not women’s bags. This is because the people on her team that were creating and testing the product were mostly men. Similarly, developers in startups often have a low priority for compatibility with screen readers for blind users.

Young entrepreneurs focus on technology that can help them, such as delivery laundry service, and less on helping users with less money to spend.

The dense population of privileged technology workers in Silicon Valley doesn’t only hurt social minorities in the area, but also affects the impact the technology can make around the world. It can be difficult for developers living in California, USA to imagine how a user in France, China, or Kenya would use the product. As a small but still significant example, Facebook recently changed their notification icon, a globe, to show the side of the world with the user’s country instead of always showing North and South America. More seriously, several initiatives to bring educational technology to poor and developing countries have made minimal or negative impact. My friend from Kenya says that most of the money for the One Laptop Per Child campaign was absorbed into a corrupt government, and the schools in her neighbourhood only received a few laptops. Leonard writes about the blind focus on Western culture, and this ignorance is still harming the progress of certain technologies.

The lack of diversity and impact in many of these companies has made it difficult to achieve my career goals. I want to work at a company that creates clear, positive social change. I want to work at a company that considers users with different abilities, incomes, and levels of internet access. From the companies I’ve talked to that care about social good and aren’t just thinking about interesting technology or making money, many aren’t focusing on their users’ needs.

They say accounting for diversity affects a “small percentage of users” and that low income users don’t have as much money to contribute to the company’s profit.

Startups have limited resources, so it’s understandable that they would initially focus on certain users. However, I worry that companies who don’t consider people outside of their own demographic in early stages will have significant trouble making their product more accessible later on.

Right now I’m focusing on finding a job in educational technology. I want to help all students of varying backgrounds feel curious and inspired to learn things. It’s really challenging to find companies that are making actual progress in the education system, although all of them will boast that they do. Within this group of companies, it’s even harder to find ones that focus on the users that most need educational progress.

Leonard described how easily people followed the myth progress in 2003. These days, the culture in technology is obsessed with “the next big thing”, creating progress, and making people’s lives easier. Buzz words like “innovative”, “disruptive”, and “bleeding edge” are in all of the companies’ product descriptions. But how many companies are keeping up to their word?

Reading from my class:

Leonard, Eileen B. “The Myth of Progress.” Women, Technology, and the Myth of Progress. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2003.