Future Tense

Tech Critics Create a Powerful Response to IBM’s Oscars Ad

Joy Buolamwini wears white glasses, a black shirt, and a red jacket while standing in a hallway.
Joy Buolamwini YouTube

During the Oscars, IBM ran an ad called “Dear Tech.” Afterward, I wrote a piece for Slate explaining my dismay. The commercial depicts big challenges—biases of both AI and humans, misunderstandings between people, data rights, poverty, and male-dominated STEM fields—as issues for technology itself to fix. This idealized and reified narrative loses sight of two fundamental things: Tech companies are creating some of the key problems here, and ethically minded tech workers should be commended for their attempts at finding solutions.

In my essay, I expressed frustration at companies like Amazon for failing to productively engage with scholars like Joy Buolamwini of the MIT Media Lab. Joy and her colleague Deborah Raji conducted valuable research on face analysis technology and racial bias, but the folks at Amazon squandered the opportunity to learn from it.

Now, Joy and a great team of collaborators created an alternative to IBM’s ad. It’s a provocative, line-by-line, video counterstatement. (I admit I’m biased here: Joy is a colleague of mine, and my voice is among those you’ll hear in the video.)

While the original repeats the infantilizing plea “Dear Tech,” this one is addressed to “Dear Tech Company.” The cast might not have the star power of Arianna Huffington and Mayim Bialik, but it consists of people everyone should be aware of. This includes Princeton University professor Ruha Benjamin, author of the upcoming book Race After Technology; Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT; Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts; NYU professor Meredith Broussard, author of Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World; USC professor Safiya Umoja Noble, author of Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism; MIT professor Sasha Costanza-Chock, author of the forthcoming book Design Justice and also faculty associate at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University; Rediet Abebe, co-founder of Black in AI; and Kristen Sheets of the Tech Workers Coalition.*

The point of this video: These companies do more than sell us goods and services. They influence what people believe about issues ranging from what it means to be human to acceptable standards of eroding privacy and tolerable displays of asymmetric power.  The most obvious way that big tech companies influence public policy is through lobbying. In 2018, Google spent $21.2 million on lobbying, Amazon $14.2 million, and Facebook $12.6 million. But this infusion of money isn’t the only way that technology companies shape culture. Product design is a major source of their power, while PR work influences the public conversation about these products. The most dangerous message promoted by the Dear Tech commercial is that socially responsible technology will be on its way simply because people are asking for it. This way of characterizing change suggests tech companies aren’t incentivized to promote outcomes that are more self-serving than giving the public what it deserves.

The new video says, “Let’s make time to understand the impact of technology on people’s lives.” It’s a powerful message. Too bad this ad doesn’t have an Oscars-sized budget behind it.

Correction, March 4, 2019: This article originally misidentified Safiya Umoja Noble as a professor at UCLA. She is currently at USC, though she will be joining UCLA later this year.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.