Friday, March 08, 2013

Algorithms, Excuses, and Outrage: Demanding Social Responsibility from Companies

Allyson Carr is the Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics.

Today, March 8, is International Women's Day, and as I was thinking about what to write for it, someone sent me a link to an article that was calling out Amazon for selling offensive T-shirts: specifically, T-shirts advocating violence against women from a company called Solid Gold Bomb. The shirts included spoofs of the phrase "Keep Calm and Carry On" (derived from an old propaganda poster coming out of Word War II Britain) with such slogans as "Keep Calm and Knife Her" or "Keep Calm and Rape A Lot" or "Keep Calm and Hit Her." Amazon has since de-listed the shirts (though it took them a while), and the original company has apologized, claiming that the phrases were "randomly generated" from a computer algorithm they had written which took words out of a dictionary, and that the company did not know about the offensive phrases before it put them on Amazon. Unsurprisingly, few people are buying that excuse. Now, I am not actually saying the company is lying (though it may very well be); instead I am calling it an excuse. Even if the company did use an algorithm to generate a bunch of T-shirt phrases and these ones advocating violence against women just happened to come up, certain words could and should have been excluded from the algorithm, thus avoiding this situation altogether. And, if they were being responsible, any of the phrases that were generated would have been vetted by a company employee before they were posted for possible sale.

At first I wavered over whether to post on this T-shirt fiasco, because the use of such offensive, over-the-top phrases on T-shirts seems like an obvious attempt to seek attention. My usual policy in such cases is to refuse to grant such a gesture the attention it wants and thrives on. The uproar generated by the T-shirts is itself worth commenting on, however, since, in all the reading I've done on it thus far, the condemnation appears to be near-universal. I believe this is a step forward. But the process by which these slogan-ed shirts came to appear for sale on a website is also worth examining. It tells us something about our global commodity culture, as well as our attitudes about the consequences of what we do and what we sell, particularly in the context of a day of reflection such as International Women's Day. It's worth asking why would a company think that it is perfectly fine for this supposedly unfiltered algorithm to produce images and display them as commodities meant for human consumption with no human oversight of the production process? The company can say "it was just an algorithm..." all it wants, but to think that such an explanation in any way excuses them is to fail to understand their basic responsibility as an economically-oriented entity: to be aware of and responsible for the products they are selling. They just didn't care, because they appear to have believed that there was no need for them to take "ownership" of or be responsible for what they were selling, so long as they got the money from its sale.

As I started to research this story for the purpose of writing this post about International Women's Day, I realized that there was a lot more to this story than the fact of some upstart little company selling a product with an offensive slogan advocating violence against women (or Amazon taking their time in taking it down). And while misogyny was likely a contributing factor, (there seem to be no shirts from the company that include the pronoun "him" in the "keep calm and..." category, thus excluding from the get-go the possibility of any "randomly generated" slogans advocating violence against men), misogyny probably wasn't the root cause in this particular instance of a misogynistic message. The more I looked into the story, the more I came to believe that the root cause was something closer to social apathy, rampant consumerism, and the attitude that it doesn't matter what sells so long as it does sell—a sort of "cast your net wide and you'll be sure to catch a few fish, even if you drown a few dolphins" mentality. In fact it apparently mattered so little to this company, that they couldn't even be bothered to go through the creative process of coming up with their own ideas for slogans to sell on their novelty T-shirts, the production of which they presumably outsource; why do that all that creative work when you can have a computer do it for you, and why bother to check what is produced when your bottom line is how much quick money you can make?

(Just as a point of interest, there is an interesting blog post that gets at the technology behind such algorithms. After reading it, I had more insight into some of the processes driving consumerist culture, and how things like this are allowed—emphasis on allowed—to happen.)

So what do we take from a situation like this? I think the first thing we should notice is that, ultimately, the consuming public did not tolerate the sale of T-shirts containing such messages. I actually went and tried to find responses of people saying "this is just a joke, get over it" and I could not find any. That doesn't mean such comments don't exist in some dark corner of anonymous commentary on the 'net, but  the very fact that the overwhelming majority of the response was "are your kidding me?! This is unacceptable!" looks to me like we are finally making some real headway towards making violence against women unacceptable. There are other signs of such progress. Yesterday, in the United States, President Obama signed VAWA (Violence Against Women Act); meanwhile, organizations like Harassmap in Egypt are working to confront harassment and violence against women in an organized way, while giving a space for those who have been abused to speak up, and organizations here in Canada such as Act to End Violence Against Women, Women Against Violence Against Women, and the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women are also trying to address the problem through different kinds of programming, crisis response, and community education projects. There is a lot to celebrate, but there is still a lot more to be done both here in Canada, and across the world.

But I think the second thing we learn from this whole T-shirt fiasco is the need to address the economic conditions that under-gird "marketplace" interactions. Work on issues like violence against women needs to proceed on several fronts at once. Organizations like those mentioned in the previous paragraph do the necessary on-the-ground work of changing hearts and minds. But there also needs to be responsibility taken in the economic realm, on the part of companies, for what kind of message they are sending, and what they are advocating. It is not enough to just release a product into the economic ether without thinking about what effects it will have, or without even bothering to look into what that product is. In demanding that Solid Gold Bomb take ownership of a product it tried to plead was "randomly generated," and by refusing to accept that answer as legitimately excusing the message that came out of their product, we can signal our refusal of a certain kind of market mentality. In demanding social responsibility, even for something as small as simply vetting your own product before it hits the sales sites, we communicate to the manufacturers that we will not tolerate social apathy on certain issues. To claim that this fiasco was simply the result of "computer error," or to deflect blame by saying "an algorithm produced this" does not exculpate the manufacturers of this product, but rather displays their irresponsible dereliction of social duty. We "know" as a society/societies, that individuals are responsible for their actions. We are now beginning to argue and understand that these actions include the manufacture of our products, our programs, and even our computations.


  1. Your post msde me think that the oppression of women is always eager to learn its new guise. Whether that be capitalist or liberal democratic. Or Marxist, and before that Christian, Roman, Greek. There it is, eager to learn the rules of its new realm. Thank you for bringing attention to the t-shirt story.

    1. I wish I could fix the a in made. Everything else is alright. Happy travels!