Technology can both bring us together and drive us apart. The cell phones, conferencing platforms and gaming consoles that enable us to work, play and communicate with family and friends can also burden us with the demands of an always-on world.
As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, now feels like a good time to take a literal step back from our devices and gadgets and remember what really drives human connection within our communities and workplaces and within ourselves.
For me, those connections are strongest when we can balance the demands of the modern world with the strength of our inherent culture, ensure a diversity of voices contribute to technological advancements and business decisions, and allow all people to be their authentic selves in the workplace and beyond.
Balancing culture and profession
I approach this conversation from the perspective of a Native American and Black woman who’s also a technologist. From a cultural perspective, I find power in my past as I can tap the energy and customs of my ancestors to overcome the pervasive presence of technology.
For example, when I feel overwhelmed with others’ energy and expectations, I turn to a cleansing ritual called smudging to clear out negative spirits and burdensome expectations. As a child, I remember healing weekends with ceremonies, swimming and hot houses to rejuvenate. Today, I emulate hot house meditation to clear my mind and recenter. Beading and sewing are other activities that connect me to my ancestors and help me be present in my own spirit and mind.
As a technologist, I accept that as technology advances, the pace of change will only get faster, and I understand that my future, both personally and professionally, requires active participation with the tools and technologies of modern life.
The strength I draw from my heritage is essential for me to not only navigate the digital world but also contribute my voice, experience and perspective to ensure technology works for everyone.
The value of diversity in the corporate world
Being able to show up authentically at work isn’t just for my personal well-being—it’s vital to the work I do. Many of the solutions developed in labs today are done without the benefit of diverse, multicultural teams. This leads to exclusion and spells trouble once these advancements enter the real world.
Take something as simple as an automatic soap dispenser. The tool uses near-infrared technology that is activated when light is reflected from a person’s hands to a sensor. This usually works for people with lighter skin but not so for those with darker skin. Because darker colored skin absorbs more light, it doesn’t as effectively trigger the sensor.
Some people have challenged my experience; after all, they say, the technology was tested, so surely it should work. And it does—for some people. This is a simple example of the criticality of diverse teams.
Of course, the stakes involved with having a diverse and inclusive workforce are higher than getting soap from a dispenser. A study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology revealed that Black and Asian people were 10 to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white people through facial recognition technology. Women are more likely than men to get whiplash in a car crash because airbags were tested on average-size men. In healthcare, an algorithm perpetuated racial prejudices by relying on a limited data set of healthcare cost history to determine which patients qualified for extra healthcare services.
All these examples demonstrate how a lack of representation among technology teams could lead to solutions that serve a narrow slice of the population.
For technology to work better, we need more hands in the room. We need all voices, all perspectives, all experiences to be part of the creative process. This is how we can ensure we don’t inadvertently create and perpetuate bias into technologies and systems and that we start to solve some of the problems that already exist.