Primal Numbers – Sexist Tech

It’s no secret that the tech sector has a deep-rooted culture of sexism. This dark side of tech has been hitting the headlines lately, with stories that range from #GamerGate to Microsoft’s CEO saying women should have “faith” that they’ll get a raise. Which raises an interesting question: does technology (inadvertently or not) reflect the beliefs of its creators? From steam engines to smartphones, is technology sexist?

Specifically, that’s the question posed about virtual-reality environments like Oculus Rift, in a recent Quartz article. As the author explains, she and her female peers had problems with nausea and motion sickness when using 3D immersive technology?a problem that their male peers generally didn’t have.

That led to some interesting discoveries while she researched the issue. One involved motion simulators in the military, where researchers found that “women seemed to get sick at higher rates in simulators than men.” The second was that motion and depth perception are linked to hormones. In fact, “there are more sex hormones on the retina than in anywhere else in the body except for the gonads.”

As it turned out, the answer to virtual-reality motion sickness lay in the ways that male and female brains prioritize methods of gauging motion and depth?and the fact that immersive technology relies on the method the male brain favours.

The choice wasn’t a deliberate move on the part of programmers. The technology was simply easier to create.

But the underlying question remains. Do other forms of technology carry inherent biases that put women at a disadvantage, perhaps in the same way that motion simulators might affect a female’s chance of being a fighter pilot?

The easy answer would be to say yes. After all, with men historically in charge of everything (it’s been a nanosecond on the human timeline that women have had rights like not being the “property” of husbands or fathers) it’s only natural that male-built technology inherits an unavoidable bias against women. Right? Not really.

True, men have chiefly been the ones in the science lab or at the drawing board, tinkering away inventing submarines and sewing machines. Even when women were allowed to contribute ideas and research they often didn’t get any credit (check out this National Geographic list for a few of the heaviest hitters).

But in spite of the cultural backdrop of sexism, even during eras like the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, the technical and scientific inventions themselves didn’t inherently favour men.

Take inventions like the telegraph and telephone, for example. There’s nothing about the objects or the way we use them that gives one sex an advantage over the other. The same goes for steam engines, light bulbs, and revolvers, along with gyroscopes, dynamite, and gliders. Society might have been sexist, but its technological advances weren’t.

Fast forward to today and the same holds true for science and tech. Smartphones, computers, and electron microscopes don’t have limitations based on sex. Anyone with the interest and aptitude can figure out how to use them.

Which is not to say that attitudes and opportunities don’t have to catch up. Not when merely questioning the sexism in video games results in death threats and a torrent of online abuse, like the kind that Business Insider details in this article on Anita Sarkeesian.

So no, technology isn’t inherently sexist. Even when the minds behind it are, whether they’re from the 17th century or the 21st.

In fact, maybe we’ve been looking at the age-old issue of sexism the wrong way. Maybe technology is really the answer rather than part of the problem. All we need are some sensors, a laser, and a bit more time in the lab.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.

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