Your Computer is on Fire review: Awaken to tech’s inequalities


Edited by Thomas Mullaney, Benjamin Peters, Mar Hicks and Kavita Philip

MIT Press

TECHNOLOGY is indeed embedded in our lives that we will often forget it is there at all. YOUR PERSONAL COMPUTER is burning is a vital reminder not merely of its presence, but that people urgently need to extinguish the problems connected with it.

The book challenges us to a radical rethink to ensure that we can tackle a large range of problems, from algorithmic bias to climate change. They are addresed in a assortment of essays, each highlighting problems inside our relationship with technology and proposing methods to fix them.

To solve the problems of race and gender bias in algorithms, for example, Mar Hicks at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, says we must recognise these are deeply embedded features of the tech we rely on, not mere bugs. “These failures aren’t simply accidents,” Hicks writes, “they are top features of the way the systems were made to work and, without significant outside intervention, how they will continue to function.”

The results of algorithmic bias could be severe, as regarding facial-recognition software erroneously flagging up innocent persons as criminals or as suspects in crimes they haven’t committed, says Safiya Umoja Noble at the University of California, LA. Nonetheless it isn’t too late, she writes: “We’ve a significant possibility to transform the consciousness embedded in artificial intelligence and robotics, because it is in fact a product of our very own collective creation.”

Your Computer is burning gives many types of how our tech is normally developed by and made to work for a select few, despite having a diverse selection of users globally. Halcyon Lawrence at Towson University in Maryland writes that for speakers with a “nonstandard accent” – including herself, as a speaker of Caribbean English – “virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa are unresponsive and frustrating”.

Even something as basic as the QWERTY keyboard was designed around the English language, with complicated adaptations bolted on as time passes to accommodate speakers of languages such as for example Arabic and Chinese, writes Thomas Mullaney at Stanford University, California.

Furthermore to supporting programmes to introduce more young persons from various backgrounds to coding, big tech must do more to improve diversity in its institutions, particularly at the very top, argues Janet Abbate at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.

The collection also interprets its central metaphor in a more literal sense, with Nathan Ensmenger at Indiana University in Bloomington arguing that people have to reckon with the physical impact our current make use of technology is having on the planet. His chapter, “The Cloud is a Factory”, starts by recognising that cloud computing is “profoundly physical”, requiring enormous amounts of energy, resources and labour.

This theme is found by Benjamin Peters at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he writes: “The globe is ablaze, and few have the collective language to call to put it out. This book sounds out a demand that language… The challenge of anyone who lives inside our broken world is not to delay to some future date the fact that the needs of the numerous outweigh the privileges of the few here and today.”

YOUR PERSONAL COMPUTER is burning asks more questions than it answers, nonetheless they will all be essential in challenging the world to create our technology better and fairer.

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