The Fourth Industrial Revolution Needs Equality Tech

By Nikita Shrubsole, Digital Policy and Advocacy Officer and Nora Lindström, Senior Lead for Digital Programming and Influencing, Plan International

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a digital revolution disrupting industries and transforming societies. Our digital future must not be built on technology that contributes to reinforcing existing power structures and exacerbating inequalities. It must be founded on technology that advances equality and challenges harmful norms and stereotypes. The Fourth Industrial Revolution needs Equality Tech.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. It is impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, altering how companies, governments and individuals operate, from the way we live, work, and relate to one another, ultimately leading to societal transformation.[1]

The impact of the revolution is however not equal. With the field of technology dominated by men, the digital products and systems that increasingly underpin our societies are primarily created by representatives of less than half of humanity.

Digital products and systems absorb the biases of their creators. As such, our digital future is being built on technology that contributes to reinforcing existing power structures, reproducing harmful norms and stereotypes, and exacerbating inequalities. This translates to – among other things – an internet rife with gender-based violence, sexist virtual voice assistants and algorithms that discriminate against women and girls.

Technology is not working for the whole of society. At a time when our virtual and physical worlds are merging, we risk hardcoding inequality and marginalisation into the foundations of our interactions and relations.

Social media is just one example of a product that has not been designed and developed with diverse users in mind. Online, girls are silenced by a toxic level of harassment and driven from online spaces, depriving them of their right to free speech, information and education.[2] Now, many social media platforms are undergoing retrofitting to make them safer for girls and other targeted groups, but this would arguably not be necessary had the platforms been designed more inclusively in the first place, had the creators of the platforms recognised the significant risk of harassment their lack of robust content moderation and reporting mechanisms exposed non-dominant groups to.

The need for Equality Tech.

If bias is the inevitable outcome of creation, and we know it can result in discriminating tech, then surely we can also harness its power to progress equality. By embracing the inherent bias in technology, we can develop digital products that help us challenge harmful norms and stereotypes, and that nudge us towards more inclusive behaviour. This is Equality Tech.

Equality Tech is technology that, in itself, advances equality by harnessing the inherent bias in technology.

Sheboard is an example of Equality Tech. It is a predictive text app that encourages its users to use less gendered language when typing about girls and women. It works just like a regular smartphone keyboard, but when typing something related to girls or women, it suggests less gender stereotypical words than many regular keyboards. In this way, the app nudges its users towards using more diverse language.

As technologies merge with humans’ physical lives, the Fourth Industrial Revolution must be founded on technology that advances equality and challenges harmful norms and stereotypes. Much like laws and policies, technology should be designed and developed to liberate, not discriminate, to advance equity, not marginalise and violate.

Businesses have a key role to play here. While there is a glaring need for more diversity among the creators of tech, there is also a need for design processes that are intentional about inclusion. There is a need to develop products and services that embody the concept of Equality Tech. And it makes business sense too – who wants to be featured in headlines for deploying racist, sexist tech?

You can find out more about Equality Tech here

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