Breaking Brown

November 21, 2011

over at tech crunch, a thoughtful critique of silicon valley’s meritocracy

Over at Tech Crunch, Eric Ries offered both a thoughtful critique and remedy for Silicon Valley‘s race woes. The piece wasn’t, however, without it’s flaws. I have an aversion to thinkers who attempt to boil down complex arguments into elementary if and then scenarios, so this bothered me at the onset:

One side says: “All I see is white men. Therefore, people like Michael Arrington must be racist.” The other responds, “Silicon Valley is a colorblind meritocracy. If there were qualified women or minority candidates, we’d welcome them.”

No, not everyone is saying that. You’re saying that because these are the two points of view that resonate with you.

And early on, Ries gets bogged down in the minutia of explaining how systems can, on their own, become biased without any deliberate cooperation from the people who run the system:

And what the grownups have discovered, through painstaking research, is that it is extremely easy forsystems to become biased, even if none of the individual people in those systems intends to be biased. This is partly a cognitive problem, that people harbor unconscious bias, and partly an organizational problem, that even a collection of unbiased actors can work together to accidentally create a biased system.

This idea of unintentional bias is something that I find increasingly unsettling because it implies that bias – usually in the form of racism or sexism – is something that just happens ( like gas or acid reflux). And if racism and sexism are things that just happen, then no one really bears responsibility for causing or fixing them.

But my laugh out loud moment came after reading the following:

All experts in the musical world agreed on the reason: male performers had superior aptitude to female performers. They gave all kinds of explanations for why, that had to do with men’s allegedly superior skill, hand-eye coordination, interest in music, and their willingness to sacrifice so much to become a professional musician. And yet, by the 1990s, these ratios had changed dramatically. No conductors went to political correctness anti-bias training camps. No hand-wringing was needed. They hit upon a solution – by accident – that practically changed orchestra selection overnight: they had performers audition behind a physical screen, so that the judges could not see their race or gender while they played. When rating performers anonymously, it turned out that men and women played equally well, on average.

Well if it turned out that the women were only treated fairly when using the black screen, it also turned out that the men were sexist. This isn’t a case of systemic failure caused by unbiased people. It’s a cased of biased men creating a biased system.

And calling someone sexist doesn’t mean that they were intentionally sexist, or racist for that matter, but that they engaged in such behavior. That instead of doing real critical thinking, they defaulted to their conditioning , which in a society dominated by white men, is often sexist and racist.

Having said that, I must say that I agree with the remedies laid out by the author. Tech investors and funders should blind screen and see if they can still exalt themselves as unbiased.  I think this is a workable solution.

But for folks like Arrington, I don’t buy it. I see him in context he’s created and since he’s always been a bully and an asshat, I believe he’s aware of his bias and leverages it to help his “pattern matching” peers. For him, I think it has more to do with strategic leveraging than the unintentional oops.


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2 thoughts on “over at tech crunch, a thoughtful critique of silicon valley’s meritocracy

  1. Eliza Nigl says:

    Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

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