Generative artificial intelligence, or AI, projects are being launched faster than anyone can handle. I’m overwhelmed attending AI hack weeks or meetups in San Francisco largely because so many products being built have raised questions about the way society seems to view women and people of color.
The media and many avid tech users have called out Lensa AI for its fetishization of Asian women and its sexualized portraits of women with unrealistic bodies. Ultimately, it has led to theories that Lensa AI appears to be trained on a combination of porn and anime data sets. While I have tried to start conversations about this with founders, builders and hackers, I am disappointed that few developers are addressing how AI tools seem to consistently sexualize women.
All I have to do is search “AI deepfake porn tools” on Google to see half a dozen appear. The Twitch deepfake porn scandal went viral in mainstream media. For women like me involved in the AI ecosystem, I knew this was bound to happen. A year ago, we read stories of women disclosing sexual harassment and groping in the metaverse.
The world of tech thrives and profits off of the consumption and objectification of women. I’ve grown up in an entrepreneurial environment in which the founding stories of companies like Facebook and Google are lauded. What we don’t talk about enough is that many of these same companies first emerged as apps to degrade and rate women. Given that the origin stories of so many glamorized companies are toxic and deeply misogynistic, it’s not surprising to me that the use of so many tech products seem directed toward women’s suffering.
For the last two years, I’ve been deeply involved in Web3 through attending conferences and collaborating with some of the biggest players in the space. I’ve seen firsthand a misogynistic and racist culture in which contributors of top decentralized autonomous organizations hide behind nonfungible token profile pictures while they amass millions of dollars. Most of all, I’ve seen the way in which a single bad actor with power and influence can destroy any good intention behind a piece of technology.
I started building in Web3 with rose-colored glasses on and studied fundamental theories behind the first cryptocurrencies. I had a vision of a world where financial independence and fighting against existing capitalist and financial institutions was the goal. I still believe that Blockchain has the potential to financially empower historically marginalized women and people of color to ensure fair access to capital. What I’ve come to realize is that we have a lot of work to do to get there — we are nowhere near close.
This has caused a lot of cognitive dissonance for someone like me, and I have started to question my role in technical communities. I have always seen my presence in tech as an asset. There are few people with the academic background I have that are willing to spark conversations about how tech is being used.
From a sociological perspective, creations like AI deepfake porn are another example of the perpetual assault on women’s bodies and how women are consumed for the pleasure of men. In a world where abortion access is being rolled back, LGBTQ+ rights are not guaranteed and equal wages seem impossible to reach, nothing happening in the tech world should be shocking or unexpected. Whatever we let slide now is only the beginning.
The tech industry needs a complete awakening at its core. While we need more sociologists, philosophers and historians building, funding and leading conversations in tech, more importantly, we need to address the fact that the most successful tech products and companies are profiting off the assault and violence of women and people of color.
People like to view tech as an equal playing field. The media tells us that any misunderstood nerd or outsider can build something to have an impact on millions. The joke of “revenge of the nerds” and the desire to prove something may explain why the tech industry is full of male entrepreneurs who would build a metaverse dating app before having any introspection.
Ultimately, I would argue that tech systems and institutions are no different than those in the real world. We are deluding ourselves if we believe tech is a blank slate that is free from capitalism, misogyny and racism.
Where does this leave somebody like me? It is mentally exhausting that there are so few people who look like me or actively have these conversations in spaces where I spend so much time. The fact that so many of these technical industries were not made for people like me is a good enough reason for me to stay.
What I need us to do is to not stop asking questions or critiquing the tech that we put out there. At every step of the way, we need people who can spur critical thinking about what we are building and, more importantly, why we are building.