In the summer of 2017, a now infamous memo came to light. Written by James Damore, then an engineer at Google, it claimed that the under-representation of women in tech was partly caused by inherent biological differences between men and women.
That Google memo is an extreme example of an imbalance in how different ways of knowing are valued.
Silicon Valley tech companies draw on innovative technical theory but have yet to really incorporate advances in social theory.
Social theorists in fields such as sociology, geography, and science and technology studies have shown how race, gender and class biases inform technical design.
So there’s irony in the fact that employees hold sexist and racist attitudes, yet ‘we are supposed to believe that these same employees are developing “neutral” or “objective” decision-making tools’, as the communications scholar Safiya Umoja Noble at the University of Southern California argues in her book Algorithms of Oppression (2018).
If tech companies are serious about building a better society, and aren’t just paying lip service to justice for their own gain, they must attend more closely to social theory.
If social insights were easy, and if practice followed readily from understanding, then racism, poverty and other debilitating systems of power and inequality would be a thing of the past.
New insights about society are as challenging to produce as the most rarified scientific theorems – and addressing pressing contemporary problems requires as many kinds of knowers and ways of knowing as possible.