Pandu Supriyono

Short book review: Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech

Technology that causes harm

This book by Sara Wachter-Boettcher was a fairly accessible read that glances over, amongst other things, the ways in which technology can cause harm; both for individuals and society at large. An example the author illustrates is of risk calculation software to guess the chance that an offender might commit another crime in the future. Prejudices and biases of developers have been baked into the software such that black people are more likely to be flagged as "high risk" than white people, even when given the same variables. Another example was Apple's Siri - when asked for help for self harm prevention or sexual assault, it replied with witty jokes instead of actually providing the help that the user urgently needs.


My favorite element that the author points out is that of "Delight", which refers to a component that our industry likes to invest in -- cute and clever features that exist on top of your app. An example being Siri's jokes or Facebook's jubilant "Year in review" which celebrates your past year with balloons and confetti, even if that year marked something that caused great sadness or trauma. What happens is that "delight" tries to hide shortcomings of your app, and diverts attention away from the sometimes harsh, real life needs of users.

Limited in-depth analysis

What I find slightly disappointing about the book was that it didn't seem to go sufficiently in depth. I had the feeling that we glossed over a lot of topics, and just when we started dissecting a topic, we were led to another. That some of the examples were some commonly known (at least, among tech people) compounded the feeling of superficiality. Examples of these are as the racist Microsoft Twitter bot and the black Google Photos user and their friend that were categorized as gorillas by the Google Photo's image recognition algorithm.

The most engaging parts to me were indeed the more in depth (but limited) analyses and observations. At some point, the author describes a woman's alienating experience when sitting in a room with board members discussing a feature "aimed at women", coming up with ideas based on, among other things, derogatory perceptions of their wives. Another extremely poignant analysis of the industry was related to the industry's veneration for "clean" designs (such as those of Uber and Google), which hides inherent subjectivity and injustice under a veil of objective, clean shapes and neutral colors. The effect is that we don't question these apps and see them for what they truly are.

At the same time, that it did not go very far in depth makes me view the book as a critical read for web professionals that are starting to think critically about their work and how it is received in society. That it was written in a clear and relatively simple way makes it even more accessible to an audience that is not even looking for something difficult or challenging to read.


In summary, this was a good read which, without being too difficult and brain-busting, challenges many things that we have considered "normal" in the industry. In the near future I'll be looking for books like these that go more in depth in its analysis.