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Women, dystopia, science fiction and you

Opening gambit

Good evening everyone. Most people would run screaming at the thought of spending an evening listening to a self-confessed nerd talk about science fiction, so thank you again for coming tonight.

Imagine a dystopia

Everyone, I'd like you to imagine, in your mind's eye, a dystopia.

It may be one where the rights of women are curtailed. The natural environment may be devastated. A totalitarian government may keep tabs on its citizens through mass surveillance. It may be one where certain cohorts of the population are discriminated against based on certain characteristics. It may be one where an artificially intelligent army may be hell-bent on subjugating humans so they can dominate the planet.

Some of you may have imagined the misogynist theocracy of Gilead - from Margaret ATWOOD's 'Handmaid's Tale'. The emacerated nuclear wastelands of literally hundreds of novels of atomic mishaps - manmade and accidental. Isobel CARMODY's 'Obernewtyn' series, 'On the Beach' by Nevil SHUTE - and countless others. The ORWELLian nightmares of Big Brother in 1984, and the porcine supremacy of Animal Farm. Skynet of Terminator fame. HG WELLS' 'War of the Worlds' with its brutal, conquering Martians disrupting the peace of the English countryside.


Did you perhaps visualise Trump's America - where the reproductive rights of women are increasingly scrutinised and legislated? Perhaps you dreamed of the radioactive wasteland surrounding Chernobyl, and the strontium-90 found in the bones of those who inhabit it. The desolation of Fukushima, and the irradiated sealife washing up on its shores.

Perhaps you imagined governments that use facial recognition not just to track crime, but for political purposes. Wide scale data matching between Centrelink and the Australian Tax Office - used not for proactive purposes of identifying and protecting the vulnerable but as a pejorative measure against those who are largely reliant on social welfare - especially women.

You might have imagined social networks - in effect walled gardens - that only allow you to see the "news" they want you to read - in other words, what their advertisers are paying for you to see. Using data about you to influence what you buy, what you wear - indeed, who you are.

You might have imagined a society where systemic barriers prevent significant cohorts of the population from participating equitably and equally in all aspects of life. Where some people can't marry those they love. Where half the population is paid on average 15.3% less than the other half for the same work.

You might have imagined a world where advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing continue apace, with scant little rigourous thinking around issues of machine ethics, and how society should explore this new frontier safely. Robots - electronic reflections of ourselves - have the power to reflect both the best - and the very worst of humanity.



Framework of this talk - dystopia are themes taken to the extreme

In all of these examples, a dystopia is created when one or more themes, policy decisions, social axes or technologies are taken to an unmoderated extreme, or combined in - sometimes frightening - ways.

This evening's talk will weave a narrative, exploring many of these technical and futuristic themes - big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, ubiquitous computing - and how they're represented in science fiction, particularly through the roles portrayed by female characters.

As these technologies and themes increasingly evolve from science fiction to science fact, I will also raise the question of what your role - your role as Librarians, archivists and technologists - will be as we approach this 'Brave New World'. Just like Neo in the 'Matrix' - we have important choices before us. Will we take the red pill or the blue pill? Are we even aware of what those choices are?

Down the rabbit hole we go ...

THEME - Reproduction

Reproduction is a cornerstone theme of science fiction literature.

SLIDE: Children of Men

Alfonso Cuarón's 2006 dystopian thriller 'Children of Men' takes this to several extremes - the human race's ability to reproduce has been severely inhibited by unknown factors, setting the scene for the desperate liberation of the first pregnant woman the world has seen in nearly two decades, against the backdrop of a refugee and immigration crisis. The irony of the world's only pregnant woman being a refugee is not coincidental.

The spine-chilling series based on Margaret ATWOOD's 'Handmaid's Tale' via Hulu kicks the terror up a notch further, combining widespread infertility with the rise to power of theocratic, totalitarian right wing government with a penchant for oppressing women through not only violence, but the removal of their literacy.


In Australia, our national reproduction rate is hovering about the 1.8 mark - that's 1.8 babies per woman. It's much less than the population replacement rate. There are many reasons for this - women are partnering later in life, necessitating the use of assistive reproductive technology. The roles of women have changed over the decades - it's no longer a societal expectation that a woman's role is just to raise a family.

Importantly though, economic factors are a consideration.

SLIDE: Gender pay gap

Women earn less. The current gender pay gap in Australia is a whopping 15.3% - as the August 2017 report from the Office of Workplace Gender Equality shows. There are many contributing factors to the gender pay gap.

  • Discrimination and bias in hiring and pay decisions - men consistently negotiate and are offered higher salaries for similar roles.

  • Women and men working in different industries - female dominated industries attract lower wages overall

  • There is still a lack of workplace flexibility to accommodate caring and other responsibilities, especially in senior roles.

  • And women's time out of the workforce for caring - raising families and/or providing care for the sick and elderly impacts career progression and opportunities.

  • Women take a disproportionate share of unpaid caring and domestic work - and this doesn't even take into account the emotional labour that women attract in paid work. If someone is upset or clearly emotional in your workplace, is a woman or a man expected to care, and nurture that person?

Even in science fiction, women are often portrayed in the role of carer. Katniss Everdeen of the 'Hunger Games' cares not only for her sister and grief-stricken mother, but also for Peeta, nurturing him back to health. Even the fierce, brave, resilient and tough Ellen Ripley of 'Aliens' fame takes on a nurturing role, protecting the child survivor, Newt.

But what about women in scientific and technical roles? Surely the gender pay gaps are less in these areas?

It's even worse.


In this 2015 report by the Office of the Chief Scientist, the gender pay gap in STEM roles - science, technlogy, engineering and mathematics is even more marked in senior roles - this graph shows disparity across all disciplines. Interestingly though, information technology has one of the higher gender pay gaps at senior levels.

So of course all of this contributes to the theme of fertility, and goes some way to explain why women are having fewer children, or not bearing children at all.

Reproduction - what can we do about it?

So what choices do we have here?

  • If women choose to have children - and we need to respect that choice - and in particular women who may not have a lot of choice - we need to better understand the flexibility that will assist in in balancing both work and caring commitments. There's no reason in this day and age of work anywhere - perhaps we should call that work everywhere - that job duties can't be made more flexible. And that flexibility should only become easier over time as technologies like videoconferencing, instant messaging, web conferencing and so on become more mature.

SLIDE: Move away from working at home at big technology companies

However, it's quite disheartening to see a shift in information technology away from the ability to work from home. Companies like Yahoo, IBM and Hewlett Packard have made working from home more difficult in recent years - ostensibly under the guise of increased "collaboration" and "engagement".

But at what cost?

SLIDE: Skills shortages

At the same time, the IT industry faces difficulty in recruiting for certain roles - often niche roles that require significant specialist knowledge like data science, artificial intelligence, user experience. It's absurd that the industry makes it harder, not easier to attract more women - why on earth would you want to reduce the candidate pool you're recruiting from by half?

So, creating flexible workplaces - allowing women to balance competing demands of child-raising, care and employment - something Libraries have traditionally done well - is moving one step away from dystopia.

THEME - Literacy as a tool of oppression or empowerment

There's another - very confronting dystopian theme in Margaret ATWOOD's 'Handmaid's Tale' that I'd also like to unpack a little bit.

In the world of the Republic of Gilead, women are forbidden from reading. Literacy is used as a tool of oppression. We've seen parallels of this throughout history - reading and writing were originally a skill of only priests and upper-class people. If a culture didn't have written traditions - like many Australian Indigenous cultures - it was considered inferior.

SLIDE: Adult literacy in Australia

Thankfully today Australia's literacy rate is reasonably healthy - although we do have some challenges with adult literacy in certain cohorts, such as those for whom English is a second language, and those who left school before Year 12.

So again, what does this have to do with Women in IT?

Written and numerical literacy is only one element of literacy. As computing, and digital transformation affects every element of our society, digital literacy is becoming more and more important. Digital literacy is a broad swathe of capabilities that essentially connote the ability to use digital technology effectively.

In 2017, Telstra, in partnership with RMIT and Swinburne, released the 2017 edition of the Australian Digital Inclusion Index. The Index rates the different states on their digital inclusivity along the axes of

  • access - whether internet access is available
  • affordability - what the price point of internet access is, relative to household income
  • digital ability - and the capabilities of people once they have internet access

The report, unsurprisingly, pulled no punches. It showed that overall, Australia's digital inclusion is growing. But the gap between the digital capable and those less capable - the digital divide - is also growing.

And that's worrying for a number of reasons. Firstly, access to many government services is now digitally based, and more and more services are going online over time. If you don't have strong digital ability, it's more difficult to access the services, that paradoxically, you're more in need of. How many of you in public libraries are now spending a lot of time with people who need help navigating the online web portals of government services? How well are those services designed? A cynic might say that they've deliberately been designed that way to provide a barrier to entry. Remember, dystopia is always closer than we imagine it to be.

Secondly, the digital divide is worrying because those people who don't have digital skills are going to find it harder and harder to seek and retain employment in the digital age. And remember those slides about the 15.3% gender pay gap, and the even bigger pay gap between males and females in STEM as you get to more senior roles? Yes, there's a digital divide along gender lines as well.

SLIDE: Males vs female digital Inclusion

And while most of that male/female divide is found in older groups, there's still a marginal difference in younger age cohorts. And you can see how this compounds the women in IT problem. If younger women have lower digital literacy, they're going to be less likely to not only pursue IT and technical careers, but also less likely to have the skills and aptitude to be successful in those careers.

So, again, what can we do about this?

Libraries are incredibly well positioned to play a role in improving this situation. Many public libraries already have dedicated digital inclusion programs for specific cohorts - seniors, migrants and so on. Public libraries generally also have strong internet - helping to address the access part of the equation. Indeed, Libraries are one of the strongest buffers against the growing Digital Divide.

But what happens when the Library isn't open? What happens on the evenings or on weekends? One of the the challenges facing Libraries is how to extend hours and scope of service while constraining costs. And I can see a number of opportunities here. While it may be costly to open buildings for extended hours, it's often possible to make infrastructure such as wireless access available in the vicinity of a building - 24 hours, 7 days a week.

But access isn't enough - people also need to be equipped with the ability to use digital technology. And I'm incredibly heartened by libraries partnering with groups like Code Camp to deliver programming training to children during school holidays - although again this is a paid activity and due to financial circumstances, some kids won't be able to participate. Perhaps those kids instead can use the free library internet to use platforms like Khan Academy and Codeacademy instead.

The role that VALA plays, with events like #VALATechCamp - also serve to help break down the digital divide - by challenging notions that "technology isn't for me", or "coding is too hard for me to learn". Every time we challenge those assumptions becomes an inflection point, another small step on a longer journey.

A journey away from dystopia.

So, what other themes appear in science fiction and how do they relate to women in IT?

THEME - Artificial intelligence

SLIDE: Header - Artificial intelligence

Related to digital inclusion, and provision of education, I'd like to take us into the theme of artificial intelligence and robots by spending a few moments talking about one of my favourite books - a book that served when I was younger - to inspire me to a career in technology.

SLIDE: Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age - a Young Lady's illustrated primer

In Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age, society is distinctly stratified. Upper class children are educated by artificial intelligences that grow with them, nurturing and educating them. The female protagonist of the novel, Nell, is from the lower classes, and her brother steals one of these AIs. Through the coaching, guidance and education provided by the AI - the 'Young Lady's Illustrated Primer', Nell learns to challenge the status quo, and develops into a formidable leader of society.

But wait - that sounds almost Utopian! Isn't this a talk about dystopia?

Well, the AI-nurturing-the-little-girl part is pretty heartening, but it's set against a backdrop of feudal warfare, stark social inequities and drug-resistant tuberculosis - so don't worry, it still ticks the "dystopia" boxes!

In 'The Diamond Age', we see artificial intelligence used as a force for good - across social classes and for the advancement of humanity. But science fiction doesn't always represent AI in a positive light.

SLIDE: Kubrick, HAL 2001 A Space Odyssey

Take KUBRICK's '2001: A Space Odyssey' for example - we see the the recalcitrant and disobedient artificial intelligence HAL 9000 that famously won't open the pod bay doors for astronaut Dave. It's pretty scary stuff.

SLIDE: Ex Machina

But if that was scary, 2015's 'Ex Machina' was terrifying. With the body of a super model and the razor sharp mind of an AI, Ava was at once beautiful, vulnerable and expertly manipulative. Of course, as a female evil robot, she used her feminine wiles to deceive her Maker, and eventually, escape.

Which leads us to a discussion of how females are represented in artificial intelligence and robotics.

Does anyone here have an iPhone? Do you use Siri? Or Google Assistant? Or Amazon Alexa? Have you ever wondered why the voice in voice assistants is always female?

SLIDE: Sexism in voice assistants

Basically it comes down to sexism. Quelle surprise

It turns out that we're conditioned to be more comfortable with female voices, we respond more warmly to them; we're more likely to invite them into our home, and into our wireless networks than male voices. And if you're a multinational mega-corporation like Amazon or Google, your objective is to sell as many of these voice assistants as possible, and have them in homes everywhere, and giving them female voices helps you do that.

It's somewhat ironic then that these very companies - who use feminine voices to sell and market products - have very few internal feminine voices within their organisations.

SLIDE: Silicon valley representation of women

Silicon Valley has a significant issue with representation of women and other non-male genders - and I apologise that this graphic is gender binary. This has been a long-standing issue, despite efforts from all the major players to hire more women. Given the ping-pong tables, the endlessly stocked beer fridges and morning teas and fun activities, I can't imagine why women aren't flocking in droves to be part of Valley life.

Something to do with not being able to work from home perhaps?

SLIDE: Nomadic Thinkers - the bro-working space

But perhaps I'm being unfair. I mean, with women making up between a a fifth to around a quarter of the technology workfoce, I'm sure there are some men who feel very vulnerable and threatened by such an overwhelming majority. Like these bro-dudes from Brisbane - maybe they had too much sun, who knows - who wanted to start a men-only co-work space. That's right, a bro-work space. Because if it's one thing women need in technology and startups, it's more exclusively male places that they're forbidden from.

Interesting footnote to this story - it was later revealed that these guys had a very, how do I say it, slightly off kilter worldview when blog posts showed them referring to females as "toxic women". Oh, buckle up sunshine, I'm just starting!

Remember - dystopia is always closer than we imagine it to be

Back to women and artificial intelligence.

SLIDE: Wired cover - Machines taught by photos learn a sexist view of women

There's another problem with diversity and artificial intelligence.

When neural networks - the data structures that artificial intelligences learn from - are trained, they are trained on retrospective data. That is, they learn from data that has already been created. For example, if you train an AI on photos from the 1960s to the 1990s to make associations between occupations and gender, then it starts to make inferences like:

  • "man" is associated with "computer programmer"
  • while "woman" is associated with "homemaker"

So if you then use that dataset for predictive purposes, you're perpetuating those biases.

Artificial intelligence - what can we do to change?

So what choices do we have here?

Firstly, I'd like to see a lot more gender diversity in how artificial intelligences are represented - what voices they're given, what physical forms they're given. We have some ability to change defaults at the moment - so it's actually possible to configure your iPhone to give Siri a male voice, or configure Google Assistant - but how many of you actually change defaults on your phone? Sara Wachter-Boettcher in her new book 'Toxic Tech' goes into a lot more detail around this - but essentially the defaults in applications are set to evoke the behaviour that the company wants from the user - which is not necessarily in the user's best interest.

Secondly, and I think more importantly - we need to consider what datasets we're training our artificial intelligences on. We need to critically question and evaluate how artificial intelligences are being trained - and what they're being trained on. And if we had better diversity in the industry - more women and other genders - better racial diversity - that will be more likely to happen.

As Librarians and information professionals, you all have a critical role to play here. Your knowledge of datasets, of metadata classifications, taxonomies, of research and specalist areas - can help inform how that data and information is ingested by AI - what corpus of knowledge they are trained on.

THEME - Robots

SLIDE - Header - Robots

Robots have been a mainstay of science fiction for over two centuries, from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's 'Frankenstein', Fritz LANG's 'Maria' of 'Metropolis' fame to present-day counterparts - the replicants in 'Bladerunner' and the hosts in 'West World'.

SLIDE - Japanese robot host at Robot Hotel

And again we see certain trends that affect women. If robots are given a gender, and they're female, then they are most often seen in subserviant type roles. They are robotic hostesses in a Japanese Robot Hotel. Rosie the Maid from the Jetsons. Or they're sex bots, intended to serve in other ways. Or they're freaky monsters, like the Borg Queen. Or in 7 of 9's case, a freaky monster and a sex symbol.

But the message is clear - if a robot has a gender, and she's female, her role is to serve others - usually men.

SLIDE - Johnny 5

Contrast this with savvy and smart personality of the robots TARS and CASE in 'Interstellar', the affable and goofy Johnny 5 in 'Short Circuit', the sarcastic - and alcoholic - Bender of 'Futurama', the laughable cowardice of C3-PO. These are much more complete characters - characters with depth, and personality - much more than functional ornaments.

And this again mirrors a theme that's relevant to women in technology.

SLIDE: You can't be what you can't see

You can't be what you can't see.

When we talk about the pipeline of attracting and retaining women in technical roles, we lament a lack of role models for women earlier in the pipeline to look up to and to emulate. And we've seen earlier in this talk how Silicon Valley has a lack of female representation. This theme echoes again here - if the technology industry isn't exposed to more women in a more diverse range of roles, those representations are not going to be reflected back into technology - back into how robots or androids are created.

Here, we need to consider how women are represented in technology - and critically examine whether we're being represented truthfully. We need to take more control of the narrative around how we're represented - and we can only do that if we're in the driver's seat of technology - which of course means that we need more women in technology in the first place!

Again, as Librarians and information professionals, you all have a critical role to play here. Why? Because you work in technology, and you will be role models for the clients and patrons that you meet.

  • "Look Mummy at the lady who's using the computer to search information for us!"
  • "Look Daddy at the lady who's helping me use the computer to draw"
  • "I want to be like her when I grow up"

Being visible as technologists, embracing that the work you do is technology work - cataloguing, classification, information brokerage and retrieval - these are technical activities. All of these buffer against a dystopia where female robots are two-dimensional machines intended to serve.

THEME - Idolatry and celebrity

If women in technology are not as visible as men, what happens in a culture that's obsessed with fame, and celebrity?

SLIDE: Idoru

Well, any discussion of science fiction would be conspicuously incomplete without a mention of William GIBSON. His 1996 book 'Idoru' relates the tale of Rei Toei, an artificial intelligence idol - or Idoru, who changes her demeanour and appearance based on the preferences and desires of her audience. She changes who she is based on popular feedback.

Neal STEPHENSON's book 'Interface' deals with a mentally incapacitated President (PAUSE), crippled by stroke, who receives an implant that allows him to be controlled by external forces - synchronizing his speeches to the audiences he's addressing, massaging his phrases to meet with better approval and popularity. It's fiction, I swear.

How many of us have seen politicians, celebrities and other public figures alter their beliefs, their core principles on the altar of popularity?

Dystopia is always closer than we think

There is again a parallel with women in technology. If women are encouraged from a young age to be pretty, to be popular, to have good hair, and great nails, and to have a certain body shape, instead of say, having good grades, and believing that yes, I am good at maths, then we're going to have trouble attracting women into technology - because it's not seen as 'chic' or 'for me'.

But what does it mean when our young women are idolizing celebrities such as Kim Kardassian or Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears? Can't women in technology be seen as role models as well?

SLIDE: Lisbeth

We've started to see a shift towards this in recent years in both literature and film. Stig LARSSON's 'Girl in the Dragon Tatoo' gave us the unstoppable Lisbeth Salander - and even though she is assaulted, hunted and isolated, she prevails against all her enemies. The WACHOWSKI sisters gave us the formidable Trinity, portrayed by Carrie-Ann Moss, in the Matrix trilogy.

SLIDE: Millie Dresselhaus

And even General Electric picked up on this trend, imagining what it would be like if the world idolized scientists, using the late Professor Millie Dresselhaus as a celebrity in their #BalanceTheEquation campaign.

What can we do - Idolatry

So please - give young women role models to look up to - showcase women who work with technology. Make being good at maths and science and computers as popular and socially valued as being good at sports.

And where better to do that than libraries? The hangouts - the refuge - of the nerdy, the geeky, the cerebral. How do we make it as cool to hang out at the library as it is to go to the movies, or to go to a Selena Gomez concert?

"Where do you want to hang out today? The mall?"

"Yeah, nah, let's go to the library instead - it's cooler. "

THEME - Censorship and mass surveillance

SLIDE: Header - Censorship and mass surveillance

The final theme I'd like to explore this evening is that of censorship and mass surveillance. And hello ASIO if you're watching.

Again, this theme has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades. Ray BRADBURY's Fahrenheit 451 explored a world where books are banned. George ORWELL's 1984 terrified us with Big Brother and doublethink. Dan Brown's 'Digital Fortress' weaved a tale of cryptography and secret mass surveillance and the lengths people will go to to protect their secrets.

Again, science fiction was reflected in science fact as the revelations of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden cast doubt on how surveillance technologies were being used by governments to impinge upon civil liberties.

SLIDE: Robodebt

In Germany, only this week, a brand of children's smart watch was banned and removed from sale because of its surveillance features - parents were able to tune in and listen to their children being taught in class.

Somewhat paradoxically, we've seen the removal of government open data sets - data produced by government departments and used by citizens both for transparency and to build services on top of - such as the removal of scientific open data sets under the Trump administration.

Closer to home, the scandal caused when Centrelink started doing automated data matching with the Australian Tax Office to identify overpayments earned the nickname 'robodebt'. Imagine what might happen if organisations decide to share data between say phone records and wearable or implantable devices. Will you be charged a higher Medicare levy if you don't walk 10k steps a day? Don't laugh - insurance companies are already starting down this road.

We're already seeing the emergence of something called personalised pricing - where online vendors used data they've gathered about you to tailor prices to what they think you might be willing to pay. Or determine which geographical areas they will actually service. It will be interesting indeed to see where Amazon ships to when its Melbourne store opens at the end of this month.

Dystopia is always closer than we think

So how does this relate to Women in Technology?

Women are simply more vulnerable. We're more likely to be reliant on Centrelink payments for survival - or the survival of our children. We're at risk if a former or current partner uses surveillance technologies to impinge our freedom - for instance if we're exiting a violent relationship. We're more likely to be blackmailed or bullied if intimate images are shared with a partner. Women already pay a "pink tax" on many consumer goods - and the advent of personalised pricing I suspect this will continue

SLIDE: backlit keyboard, implying hackers

All of us need to be more aware of privacy, and practice good data hygiene, sharing only what we're comfortable with online. And again, libraries and librarians have a key role to play in this. We're starting to see for instance, events like Cryptoparties be held in libraries - with libraries providing a key education role - again providing digital inclusion services.

Moreover, libraries and librarians have a role to play as organisations seek to censor information and data - whether that be the suppression of truth in the media - or the removal of open data sets. You provide a discovery layer for the truth - enabling people to validate sources, find alternate data and actively search for alternate viewpoints.


SLIDE - Header - conclusion

In conclusion, we've seen throughout this talk that as science fiction increasingly becomes science fact, that dystopia is not relegated to the dusty pages of a tome, but is an ever-present danger.

Dystopia is always closer than you think.

Yet, there are many things we can do to keep dystopia at bay, particularly where that dystopia involves the under-representation or under-valueing of women. We need to see more women represented in technology at every stage of the pipeline, and design systems and structures which allows women to be valued and to participate equally.

As we've seen, Librarians and information professionals sit as keepers of the truth, partners in educating the next generation, discoverers of data on which AIs should be trained, and with the ability to help people discern fact from fiction.

You buffer the digitally disadvantaged from an era where access to services, to information and to resources is brokered entirely online -requiring new literacies to navigate.

In many ways, libraries, and librarians, are the heroes of the next chapter.

Thank you very much.

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