24/09/2020 12:56 BST

Where Are The Women In Netflix's The Social Dilemma?

The erasure of the voices who are shaping the data debate is not just a bad look, it is counterproductive too, writes women leading in AI founder Ivana Bartoletti.

Netflix's The Social Dilemma

We are waking up to the politics and geopolitics of data. By we, I mean us – citizens of both the physical and the digital world.

In the UK, the A levels fiasco confirmed the reality of how algorithms and unfettered use of data can scale up existing inequalities and perpetuate bias.

Unaccountable algorithms in digital advertising curate and edit what we are exposed to, undermining democracy by presenting a different version of reality to each person, thus progressively making it impossible to share, discuss and argue over basic facts and news.

It is apparent the dark side of technology has grown wild in recent years. Too often, we only become aware of it thanks to the courage, bravery and dissent of those workers who are exposing it from within.

Workers at Amazon, Google, Cambridge Analytica and others have told us what lies underneath the benign face of surveillance capitalism – we seem to rely on whistleblowers in the face of the lack of accountability that dominates our digital ecosystem.

It happened at Amazon, where employees opposed the sale of facial recognition software to US law enforcement agencies. And it happened at Google, where Meredith Whittaker and others demonstrated how dissent – to quote Ruth Bader Ginsburg – speaks to a future age. 

Within this, Black women and people of colour have not only been at the forefront but have shaped the narrative around the ethics of technology, demonstrating that technology is not neutral however you structure it, and that algorithmic fairness and social justice need to go further than eliminating the automation of societal inequalities.  

The Social Dilemma does exactly what it advocates against – the elevation of one person to the position of saviour and silencing of the very people it claims to be standing up for.

Part of the reason I wrote An Artificial Revolution was to give a voice to all the women in the sector who are leading the way. We are showing the world that data is not sacred nor neutral, and that if we love technology, we must change the way we think about a technological artefact. If unchecked and not inclusive, a technical artefact can turn into a tool of oppression which uses privacy as a form of control and power.

The Social Dilemma is an informative Netflix docu-film, and I am delighted that these issues are reaching so many and becoming mainstream.

But it is also a film that does exactly what it advocates against – that is, the elevation of one person to the position of saviour and silencing of the very people it claims to be standing up for.

Among a sea of white male tech experts included in the documentary, there were less than a handful of female voices, and fewer still, people of colour. 

Let’s be clear: I am happy when people use their power and influence. However, to paraphrase Ginsburg again, this must be done in a way that brings people along.  

We are at a crossroads. As technology today builds on the trends of surveillance and datafication, this is the time to act. We must protect and harness the value and potential of our technological future.

Now is when we need inclusivity, honesty, and the courage to engage in a battle that brings people with us.

We need to claim our digital autonomy and dignity.

The erasure of the voices who are shaping this debate is not just a bad look, it is counterproductive too. Netflix, will you do justice and tell the world how it is? 

Ivana Bartoletti is a privacy law professional, founder of Women Leading in AI and author of An Artificial Revolution: On Power, Politics and AI