Book Review: Technically Wrong by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

The copy I read of this book was borrowed from my public library. 

Technically Wrong Cover

Technically Wrong takes the reader through an accessible discussion of issues currently affecting how technology is built and the biases built into it. Drawing on very recent examples including Uber and the 2016 US presidential election, as well as more universal examples that have had long ranging impact across technolology such skin tone and pretty much anything involving images, Wachter-Boettcher effectively shines a light on the practices that regularly frustrate many of us.

For women or persons of color who have run into these issues before, or been brushed aside as “edge cases” when we point out hardware or software problems, much of this will sound familiar. The belittling and sexual harassment or exclusion of women; the persistent othering of anyone not white; the heavy drinking young white male tech culture that has been told and continues to tell itself (and the rest of us) how brilliant and wonderful it is. Wachter-Boettcher is pragmatic about this culture, how it has spun it’s own web around itself with the glorification of the programmer and the reinforcement of their culture– nearly always “requiring” a degree from Stanford or MIT and the reliance on hiring those who already have connections in the industry.

Her overarching point, however,is that this can be changed and should be. That we should not blithely accept what we are presented with as immutable. With straight-forward examples of how forms require information they don’t need or ask for information in a way that asserts unnecessary or inappropriate choices, she indicates how more critical thinking and diverse representation and engagement is needed.

Perhaps the most interesting point for me was when she was addressing “meritocracy” — a phrase that at this point automatically conjurs in my head a petulant white dude who next will be telling me about his current trendy workout habits and how because I don’t love IPAs I will never be a true beer connoisseur. I hadn’t realized the source of the phrase: it comes from a satirical book from sociologist Michael Young in the 1950s.  It wasn’t intended as praise but as something to watch and worry for… That put a whole new spin on things for me.

She also vocalizes frustration I’ve felt but have not been able to coherently express: the problems with middle-school coding camps and the exclamation points which surround those with then how those minority and/or female participants are treated in the classroom, on projects, and in the workforce. Her derision is appropriately aimed at those who constantly assert the pipeline/lean in issues rather than addressing the toxic existant culture.

It’s a relatively quick read — about 3 hours for me while also doing laundry and cooking on Sunday morning. A fun fact: about halfway through the book I put up an Instagram post of the cover which I pushed to Facebook and Twitter.  Of the responses/likes/engagements I got by the time I sat down to write this post: there are only two men represented and one of them is transgender.

This book is recommended as a good reminder for those of us who are regularly in this every day, the examples are useful as ones we can remind others of. I’m also going to suggest it as reading for my Clinical Informatics fellows (all but one are male) because they are the ones whose goals are to build systems in healthcare and I want them to remember that *I* am not an edge case for “normal” health.