After George Floyd’s killing, the Black Lives Matter movement has put pressure on Silicon Valley tech companies, down to the DNA of their software, the program code. Google wants to subtly eliminate racist terms from the familiar computer slang. Specifically, this affects the code behind the Chrome browser. It is intended to replace common terms such as ‘blacklist’ and ‘whitelist’ with less catchy ones such as ‘blocklist’ and ‘allowlist’. The colors black and white were previously symbolic of the trustworthiness of websites. The blacklist, therefore, includes pages that are classified as dangerous and are blocked for the browser user. This clearly goes on to show that Google is against racism.
Another example from the programming language are the terms ‘Master’ and ‘Slave’, which regulate the access to common data hierarchically. A device defined as ‘Master’, is given priority in the network and controls all other ‘Slave’ devices. Nat Friedman, CEO of the Github platform, also supported a Google developer’s request to remove these terms. It is the most important place on the internet to exchange and edit software code.
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People often don’t know that certain terms are racist but that doesn’t make them less racist. Color symbolism and racism are historically intertwined. To build a system of enslavement, the oppressors needed a narrative to deceive people about why it was okay. At that moment, one invented different races and adopted the Christian color symbolism to distinguish between good and evil.
This color theory still shapes our language today. With words like Darkweb, Black market, or Dark Lord, color is used as a synonym for bad, bad, or illegal. In the long term, these terms are part of everyday language. Google has the chance to change something with immediate effect.
Language Decides The Future
Language creates reality and there is hardly an area in which you can take this principle as literally as with program code. This language is a command to act, a law for the machine that does not allow deviations. Whoever writes the codes of modern infrastructure in Silicon Valley usually not only belongs to a well-paid elite but also helps shape the options for action in a digitized society.
Discriminatory terms in the code are problematic if they are also in everyday language. Code is primarily only accessible to the programmer and therefore only has an impact on the reality of the programmer and not the end-user. There are many commonly used terms such as ‘Blacklist’, which should be avoided, clearly showing that technology a giant like Google is against racism.
Technology is Not Neutral
When these methods are used in software tools such as digital voice assistants, recommendation systems or to create content, the actions of the software are learned from a large number of records of human behavior. The software thus assumes and reinforces discriminatory behavior. This could be observed directly from the example of several chatbots, who have been trained to chat with users and have adopted their offensive behavior.
Areas in which algorithms can further advance unconscious discrimination can be understood by the example which leads to dark-skinned people recommending rental apartments rather than condominiums online since this corresponds to the observations with which the algorithm was fed.
Real Commitment or Image Maintenance?
Efforts to cleanse code from offensive language have been in software development for years. Already in 2014, Drupal, a free content management software for websites, banished the master-slave terminology from its code.
The involvement of Google and Github could now give the movement more reach because they put code open-source on the net so everyone can access it and it, therefore, forms the basis for many other websites and private applications.
However, the announcement of language changes in the code is met with outrage among some African-Americans. For some people, the step might be hypocritical as it shows a lack of understanding of the underlying problems in society where everyday racism is often invisible.
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The industry faces a lot of problems, from the working conditions of its employees to the urgently needed data protection guidelines for the users of their products. Taking this step might not be good enough as the replacement words might just replace the ‘derogatory terms’.