How Elite Users Getting First Access To Tech Reinforces Inequality

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright Wearing Google Glass (Credit: NDI Twitter)

Close your eyes and think of the last person you saw wearing Google Glass. While it may have been Madeleine Albright, it’s more likely the wearer looked something like the stream of dudes pictured on the White Men Wearing Google Glass Tumblr. While the Tumblr is obviously a self-selecting sample, it reflects all too well most depictions that accompanied media coverage of the device so far. But the real issue is less media coverage and more an inherent level of early adopter privilege that allow some more access to and influence over emerging technology.

And being part of that early adopter class isn’t just about who gets to play with the fun new toys first, it’s about who has the ability to influence the development of uses for technology that will guide future products and how the device is rolled out to a larger audience. While the technology itself is neutral, the ways society decides to use it are not — and due to a variety of social and economic factors, an elite class often gets to make the first decisions about how technology is used before it trickles down to other classes who might have different, perhaps even more immediate, needs for it.

As Jamelle Boiue pointed out earlier this year, implicit networking connections and economic opportunities have made influencers in the tech sphere a fairly homogenized group that includes a lot of white males. While communities of color are huge users of technology, they are often underrepresented among those providing commentary that helps craft the future of the space or designing the actual technology — as are women.

When Google’s own Sergey Brin inadvertently confirmed assumptions of who the initial audience for Google Glass would be when it comes to gender by contrasting using Google Glass with the “emasculating” experience of a smartphone at a TED talk, it was likely just poor word choice. But it also hit a little close to how women using technology are stereotyped and reinforced the logic behind the findings of some research suggesting cultural stereotypes drive women down other career paths despite aptitudes for math and science.

But the lack of that female input in the early stages of development and user testing can result in tech overlooking resources or services more geared towards their needs. Remember how Apple’s Siri couldn’t find abortion providers, but could find strip clubs and escort services?

The systematic exclusion of minority and female voices from the development and early use of tech products is an unintentional byproduct of a larger system of social and economic inequality that is by no means exclusive to this particular device. But the White Men Wearing Google Glass Tumblr can be a vehicle to discuss how the structures controlling who has access to technological developments first influence its deployment, and if incorporating diversity into that system can maximize the benefits of technological innovations for all potential users.