Is the machine telling the truth?
These conversations often feature an insistence the world cannot change, alongside a deep desire for guaranteed proof that things could be better
After a talk I did last week, a young man came up to me to ask me various questions about feminism, gender, #MeToo. At most events, I encounter at least one or two such young men. One of the things he wanted to impress upon me was that data can help you predict everything. Moreover, data overwhelmingly mirrors evolutionary biology and shows that gendered behaviours are hard-wired. Data can help us understand most things of course. For instance, my data from encountering many such young men (always young men) had taught me not to react to his tone. These conversations often feature an insistence the world cannot change, alongside a deep desire for guaranteed proof that things could be better.
When proof is open-ended, requiring slow exploration—that is, it 'feels' true but cannot be tangibly proved right away—it seems to become both, alluring and suspicious.
He informed me that he had annoyed another speaker at the event with such questions. "I mean just because I'm rude doesn't mean it's not true, right?" he added. "Sure," I laughed. "But just because it's true doesn't mean you have to be rude, right?" To have a statement of interpretation presented in a logical format gave him pause, but he switched to warning me that most people who work with data and algorithms are men, of privileged identities, who had bad skills with wooing women and so, if women were all going to choose a certain type of man (100 women choosing the same one man, but not any of them) there was going to be mayhem, naturally, also known as the incel movement.
This conversation happened alongside the news that Apple had allowed third party workers to listen to voice recordings from their digital assistant Siri creating massive privacy concerns and also, that Siri's responses had been tweaked to avoid using the terms 'feminism' and '#MeToo' among others. These were seen as controversial terms. But they are factual. Feminism really has changed things, feminists actually exist and #MeToo has actually happened. In the apparently uninflected universe of technology, why the discomfort with some facts and not others?
That Apple and most corporations and technology platforms persist at not being transparent about data, quickly apologising if caught, reveals many things, including, that data is value-neutral only until someone looks or listens to it. After that, what we see as significant data, how we arrange and interpret it, is all filtered through biases, desires and agendas.
The need to believe in a value neutral space, similarly to fundamentalist rather than spiritual belief in God, or to absolutist politics, responds to how life continues to feel difficult, even unfair, despite doing all the 'right' things—studying, acquiring wealth, marrying and so on; to an inability to cope with parallel or contradictory truths. That a futurist space like technology, resists imagining that humans can and do change, that humans and technology act on and impact each other, reveals how incomplete our educations are, if they do not include emotional and poetic education in the form of art, humanities, philosophy, psychology and approaches which bring an understanding eye to the data of human flaws, urges, pain, love and violence. Here's to imagining a world in which Siri is not afraid of feminism.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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