Can Software Make You Less Racist?

I don't think we computer geeks appreciate how profoundly the rise of the smartphone, and Facebook, has changed the Internet. This is something that really only happened in the last five years, as smartphones and data plans dropped radically in price and became accessible – and addictive – to huge segments of the population. People may have used computers in 2007, sure, but that is a very different thing than having your computer in your pocket, 24/7, with you every step of every day.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at
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This post highlights one of the things I like about the downvote button on certain subreddits where - when you hover over the downvote button - it reminds you why you should downvote. Not because you might disagree with what was posted, but because the post isn’t constructive, is offensive or some other similar reason.

I tried using the Nextdoor app for a few months but found it to be far too chatty and apparently I just live in a boring neighborhood. Hopefully most of their users find it useful, though.


This is an interesting juxtaposition to your “They Have To Be Monsters” posting from a couple of months ago about the internet making people more likely to be assholes (actually, the underlying idea was that the internet required less “cost of emotional labor”, leading to people acting more like assholes, since there is less risk/cost for such behavior).

I have some personal misgivings about the internet as a tool for public shaming (I’m not saying it doesn’t have its place, or that it’s even avoidable, only that it’s a dangerous tool for social justice that has to be treated as such, like you’d treat a gun, or dynamite.)

But I like the sort of irony of this sort of “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” bad behavior actually being the catalyst for good behavior / positive social change. Rather than “hey, I got a youtube video of this guy spanking his kid, let’s terrorize him until he has to change his name and move to a new town,” it’s more about making people more accountable for their actual online behavior (“Hey dude, we just figured out that you’re sweetheart1980 who always posts racists comments on every news story. What are you, some kinda racist?”) thus increasing that “cost of emotional labor” and thus leading to billions of people connected to each other that treat each other with some decency (at least the same level of decency they would exhibit in a coffee shop or at their office), instead of billions of people all feeling anonymous and allowed to be at their worst.

Good things are happening. Humanity is developing a global conscience. “Bad” behavior is immediately criticized by the global Facebook/Twitter community. That’s annoying, too, but will help us find common values in the not so long run. People read and talk about issues.

When interpreting opinions and actions of a group with different value system than you, its so easy to demonize them and assume malice behind their their opinions and actions.
Lets consider that under 200 years people have widely considered that romantic love is possible in Marriage.
Marriage is always been life long contract about creating and raising children and inheritance and property rights that has backing of some higher power. Only recently some group have been trying to change marriage to mean something else while other group tries to keep it as close to original meaning as possible.
And it was about children and property issues that gave government any reason to keep record of said contracts and make laws around it.

I personally think it would be far better to have some other word for gay’s Special Romantic partnerships, and deal separately but equal way than having two groups who talk past each other fighting about it. And just stop trying to legislatively force other people call their “higher power” for your own contract when they clearly believe that higher power don’t agree with said contract.

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I agree with you that what this software had done is fantastic. However, you opened by denigrating the older population.

There is currently a significant push to marginalize anyone over a certain age as automatically racist, bigoted, etc. The thing people forget in those statistics, is that people change. Even older people. And they are changing. My parents have both surprised me many times by becoming more and more progressive with time.

Also, older people really do have a lot of valuable experience and can help society progress more quickly. They’ve learned a lot of difficult lessons the hard way. However, if we just ignore and denigrate everyone who is older, then we, as a society, have to relearn everything they have learned. All it does is slow down progress. If you are only allowed to contribute when you are between 25 and 35 then there isn’t much progress that can be made. Instead, stupid mistakes will be made over and over and over.

In fact, if we apply such logic, we should already stop listening to you. You’re probably too old and bigoted to understand.

It’s a dangerous way of thinking.

Instead, if we understand that people can and do change, then the older population is simply a group that hasn’t yet been exposed to enough information to change their minds. Many forget that the reason younger people agree with recent science is because that is all they have been exposed to. They’ve never seen anything contrary.

On the other hand, older people have lived in a world that fed them a lot of contrary information that reinforced various biases. As rational human beings, they have not yet seen enough data to be sure that the recent information is better. Some of them have not yet been exposed much at all. But it’s an education problem, and it is solvable.

But writing off the older population as a lost cause is a waste of a lot of knowledge and understanding that they can contribute.

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65+ years old 39%

Are there progressive septuagenarians? Sure there are. But not many.

39% of all the septuagenarians in the country is a heck of a lot of people, Jeff. A heck of a lot of people.

“Many” wasn’t the best choice of word.

But aside from everything else - 20-something percent of septuagenarians aren’t white. And I suspect their experience of race is a bit different.

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Jeffreyd, I don’t think Atwood was suggesting we ignore and denigrate anyone. He was pointing out the statistical fact that older people tend to be socially regressive. The way socially regressive attitudes present themselves is often racism.

Discussing facts is not the same thing as advocating behavior. You accused Atwood of advocating the behavior of ignoring older people. Can you point to the part of the post he says that in?


A draft paper on a study by researchers at Princeton and University of Bath showed that machines trained on human language texts contain bias.

We show empirically that natural language necessarily contains human biases, and the paradigm of training machine learning on language corpora means that AI will inevitably imbibe these biases as well.

The researchers suggested a way to mitigate the bias, which was similar to Nextdoor’s issue specific approach you mentioned above:

Instead, we suggest that mitigating prejudice should be a separate component of an AI system. Rather than altering AI’s representation of language, we should alter how or whether it acts on that knowledge, just as humans are able to learn not to act on our implicit biases. This requires a long-term research program that includes ethicists and domain experts, rather than formulating ethics as just another technical constraint in a learning system.


Are you saying the comic posted does not denigrate the older population? It is saying that “many old people are currently racist and 50 years form now they will be homophobic.” This is posted in the context of saying that older people are generally regressive and racist.

Here is the definition of denigrate I am referring to: “to speak damagingly of; criticize in a derogatory manner; sully; defame:”

It seems to me that calling people fossilized bigots, racist and regressive is denigrating them. Don’t you think so?

The portion of my comment regarding ignoring the older class was me starting off on a tangent. I don’t think Jeff was advocating that. It’s just a trend I am concerned about.

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The idea that regressive social opinions correlate with age isn’t an opinion; it’s a statistical fact.

Support for same-sex marriage correlates with age. That’s a fact. Not supporting same-sex marriage is regressive. That’s an opinion. When you synthesize the two, you aren’t dealing solely in facts anymore.

I happen to support same-sex marriage myself, so what’s the big deal? Ideas deserve to be debated on their own merits, not by alignment with the current taste-makers’ view of what’s “progressive.” Some “progressive” great ideas: abolition, workers’ rights, civil rights; disastrous ideas: eugenics, collectivism.


Both before and after the comics he qualifies them.

“And those older people will, statistically speaking, be more racist”
“The older the person, the more likely they are to have these “old fashioned” notions…”

This is clearly an attempt to avoid, as you say:

“marginalize anyone over a certain age as automatically racist, bigoted, etc.”

Both before and after he points out that these are likelihoods, not absolutes. Nowhere does he advocate that

“we just ignore and denigrate everyone who is older”.

Continuing with

" if we apply such logic, we should already stop listening to you"

…makes little sense, as he never offers logic like “ignore old people”. You added that, and then used your strawman to conclude he was “too old and bigoted to understand”, as if he had made the even further argument that old people are incapable of understanding. Again, I think he took great pains to avoid those statements.
Yes, the comics denigrate a stastically likely old person, which was relevant to his anecdotal experience with his own family. Howerver, that’s a far cry from saying “all old people are racists and we should ignore them.”

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Support for same-sex marriage correlates with age. That’s a fact. Not supporting same-sex marriage is regressive. That’s an opinion.

No, it is the part of the definition of the word regressive in the political context.

Characterized by reaction, especially opposition to progress or liberalism; extremely conservative: The principal is very reactionary; she wants the school to stay the way it has been for the last 50 years.

Liberalism supports same-sex marriage. Opposing same-sex marriage, and attempting to define marriage as it “historically has been” is regressive. That isn’t an opinion, that is how the lines are drawn using common definitions.

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for posting about the moral and ethical side of computing. As programmers it’s all too easy for us to ignore that side of things, and we mustn’t! Your work is helpful here.

I was disappointed by something you said in this post though and wanted to comment on it. You said:

“To me, failure to support same-sex marriage is as inconceivable as failing to support interracial marriage.”

When deciding if something is right or wrong we’ve got to have an unshakeable standard. And we can’t provide that standard, because we’re evil (for proof, just look how we murder a million innocent babies each year in the US through abortion). We need God’s holy standard. In the Bible God does not forbid interracial marriages, but He does forbid sodomy and promises judgment and wrath on those who give themselves to committing such acts. When we love someone trapped in such a lifestyle we will do whatever we can to help him turn from it, not congratulate him on his way to destruction.

Part of loving these dear souls trapped in the slavery and degradation of sodomy means being the true friend who says, “What you’re doing is wrong, I can’t approve of it.” May we be that kind of friend who truly loves and truly helps.


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I’m all for designing software to minimize it being used to racially profile people, and ensure people are doing things for the right reasons.

I’m less fine with it being framed as protecting progressives from encountering opinions they might not agree with.

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You are basing your “standards” on a very specific interpretation and translation. I urge you to honestly explore alternatives before claiming to speak for God.

Regardless, you are confusing marriage with sex. Support for same-sex marriage should be merely based around the purpose of marriage law and if same-sex couples fit that purpose.

But anyways, @codinghorror probably should have left this whole point out of the blog post, as it’s kind of a stretch to compare it to racism in NextDoor. Do older people even use NextDoor?

I don’t think anyone is doing that, any more than I am writing off my own parents as a lost cause. But there’s only so much you can do to combat decades of indoctrination. If the only voters in the entire country were age 65 and older, the statistics tell us that there would be very little social change.

By 2100, 22.3% of people will be aged 65 or over, up from just 7.6% in 2010. This is going to have interesting political repercussions as the world ages dramatically in the next 80 years.

I believe that marriage is an intrinsic, fundamental human right, regardless of a person’s sexuality. When you refuse that right to other human beings, that is an injustice. As MLK said:

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?

Whether this boils down to “my God can beat up your God”, I can’t say. But I believe in treating other human beings with dignity and respect, and that means sharing with them the same basic, fundamental human rights that I have.

I’m a huge fan of designing software to help nudge people, at exactly the right time, to be their better selves.

As a reader of your blog for many years now, this comes as no surprise. While I too initially found that idea attractive, I’ve grown more skeptical and more apprehensive about its real-world application.

While technology can offer workarounds for some social problems (like racism), it is probably insufficient (and possibly detrimental–via masking and compartmentalization) to actually solve social problems.

It is ironic that you chose a video monologue in which Seinfeld offers biting criticism of the technology that “you gotta have.” He destroys the notion that the modern smartphone fulfills its ostensible purpose: “[for] the people in your life that you need to stay in touch with… Really?” He gives examples of how the technology is commonly used to enable self-centered attitudes and behaviors–not facilitate genuine human connection with our loved ones.

In a similar way, software that nudges people “at the exact right time” to shy away from racist thoughts is potentially counterproductive if it leads to infantilization of its users. If a parent constantly monitors her child’s every interaction and chides the child to “be polite” at the appropriate time, the child will exhibit polite behavior–but we would be hard pressed to determine whether the child is polite.

At least in the case of the overbearing parent we have [competing] cultural models that offer guidance and expectations for when/how to foster independence (sooner or later, we understand the parent will no longer be around). Thus far I see little willingness from solutionists to talk about scenarios in which their “revolutionary problem solving” technologies will be phased out and our lives will be once again filled with “friction.”

In short, I worry that there are negative social repercussions to daily interactions with software that constantly reinforces the message “I know you’re a racist, incapable boor; I’m here to mediate.” And I worry that by the time the pernicious effects manifest, it will be too late to stop using these technologies which we now “gotta have.”

So making it harder to post resulted in fewer posts? I guess that is success…

Yes, my point is that I don’t agree with the idea that “there is only so much you can do.” While sure, hypothetically there is a limit, I am pretty sure 99%+ of them will change their minds before we reach that limit. My point is that people get more liberal with age:

Yes, they are starting from a more conservative beginning, but that doesn’t mean they can’t change! Nor should we feel that “there is only so much we can do.” Again, I am aware there is technically a limit, but it’s much less limiting than many assume.

I really think this is a soluble problem, not something we should just accept as the way it has to be. :slight_smile: