Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Computer science is patriarchal

The future of technology seems bleak
Shilpa Sweth
Daily Collegian (2023)

The computer has traditionally been a woman. Before the invention of the electronic computer, the word “computer” meant a female worker who was part of a team with many other workers doing hundreds of thousands of computations. The 2016 film “Hidden Figures” is a testament to this reality. The film follows several Black computers working in NASA whose jobs were being threatened by the advent of electronic computers. The women succeed in keeping their jobs by negotiating with the male management to allow them to retrain as computer programmers, foreshadowing a new era where programming was a woman’s job. One can hardly imagine a time when most programmers were women. Today, we see posters and events, such as Hack(H)er, in our schools and universities that encourage girls and women to code and program.

The gender relations of the early computer industry are why we call hardware, hard, and software, soft. Pre-computer meanings of the word “hardware” usually referred to metal tools and implements: hammers, bolts, nails—things you can buy at a hardware store. The associations that a patriarchal society made are clear: men would create the hardware and women the software.

But even this gender-system would not last. Starting in the 1980’s, women’s participation in the computer industry rapidly declined to our current situation. The inflection point was around the year 1984, according to NPR, who hypothesized that this inflection point was attributed to the proliferation of the home computer, which was often marketed towards boys.

Ultimately, the history of computer science is the history of primitive accumulation. Perhaps most illustrative is the history of Turtle Island, where European colonists expelled Indigenous peoples and imposed western concepts of land ownership and tore African peoples from their homelands to slave away in their plantations. In other words, Capitalism consistently expands into traditional spheres of non-capitalist production to make a profit. Computer science is profitable because it sought to exploit women by ignoring and hiding their contributions and seeking to replace them with cheaper sources of labor, whether by automation or the framing of computer-related jobs as masculine.

This long, sordid history of feminine exclusion from the computer industry is perhaps why our current tech landscape is so terrible. Social media companies, such as Facebook and X, headed by the most irksome men invade our privacy and sell our data. Generative AI companies compare themselves to the industrialists who put no end of traditional women textiles workers out of a job. Proponents AI talk of replacing artists, but can only show grotesque amalgamations, while also peddling tools that have been used strip women and girls of their clothes.

Patriarchy in computer science is not unique in its exploitation of women. There is nothing particularly specific to computer science that leads it to patriarchal tendencies. The issue is much broader: western science is patriarchal. Anarchist critiques of science contest the idea that science is objective. In Ruth Kinna’s essay, “Anarchism and Political Science: history and anti-science in radical thought,” she summarizes anarchists’ critique of Western Science; that it is a tool of the elite, that it is spiritually Christian and that due to science’s interwoven nature with the dominant societal systems, it reifies prejudices that already exist. “When science … already enmeshed in authoritarian political systems and harnessed to interests built on prejudicial exclusions and structural inequalities”

For example, there is a long history of medical science progressing through experimentation on non-white people, specifically women. James Marion Sims was a physician who, with funding from plantation owners, experimented on enslaved Black women, earning him the title the father of Gynecology. This is by no means an isolated incident in the history of science. Science has traditionally reinforced the power and authority of the dominant group over all others.

Thus, patriarchy in computer science is no more than a consistent reflection of science’s history of exploitative knowledge gathering. But what does this mean for the future of technological developments? Are we doomed to this vicious cycle of self-perpetuating prejudices? Many tech companies seem to think so. OpenAI, for example, peddles the need to develop AI oxymoronically because of the “existential threat” that an undeveloped AI could present, which makes perfect sense, unless you think about it for more than a second. The imaginations of the leaders in tech show that the development of technology is still linked to the history of societal privileges, and thus, I imagine that in the future technology with augment the power and riches of the elite and men.

While the picture I’ve presented here is a rather depressing one, it is not inevitable. We can still stop our future from resembling the dystopian world that we envision in our most pessimistic moments. But that requires us first acknowledging how deeply rooted our problems are, and then working to fix them. Whether or not we have the humility to even acknowledge the systemic issues we face is what remains to be seen.

Benjamin Zhou can be reached at [email protected]

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