The Power of Default
Reading time: about 6 minutes
Oh, hey there! Before you read this blog post, I want to say that it contains a lot of talk about equality and how some groups of people are not seen as equal compared to others. I'm passionate about changing that. If you know that a feminist point of view makes you angry, I recommend reading but take some deep breaths before commenting. Try to be friendly, like there was actual human reading your comment. Thank you!
There's a lot of power with the default. And with default, I mean default selections in (digital) services, apps, and others - but also in the fact that some groups of people are seen as the default, "normal", compared to other groups.
Why I'm writing about this theme? Well, I believe that we, as developers (or, basically, any role in the tech industry), need to be really conscious of this topic so that we don't accidentally (or, in some cases, on purpose) exclude, or even discriminate, some of our users. We need to recognize what our decisions can do to actual people.
In this blog post, I'll first talk about who is default and who is not, then about the default in tech, and finally, I'll discuss using the default for good.
Who is Default and Who is Not?
The Default in What We Don't Say
The default is visible in what we don't say and what needs to be explicitly said. Let's take an example from sports: When writing this post, the FIFA Women's World Cup is ongoing. Do you know what the men's tournament is called? FIFA World Cup. There is no mention of men; it's just an assumption that everyone knows it's about men; it's the default.
However, I want to mention that I love how Finnish YLE (the national broadcasting company) is talking just about "Jalkapallon MM 2023", meaning Football/Soccer World Championships 2023 — so they don't mention gender.
That is, of course, a problem for some; some Finnish people have complained online that it should be called women's football. Well, the same people have a history of saying that they're defending women's rights in sports when they're just being transphobic. Talk about caring about women's sports now.
The other example of the default is the color of skin. Have you ever noticed that when someone is describing a person, they often mention the color of the skin only if it's not white? It's as if white skin color is a default.
The third example I want to highlight is heteronormativity and its defaults. If someone says they're in love and has not explicitly told that they're not heterosexual, others often assume that if that person is a woman, the person she's in love with is a man, and vice versa. To be seen, they'll need to tell that they're, e.g., gay/bi/pansexual (or something else). The default assumption is that everyone is heterosexual.
And yes, heteronormative assumptions often forget that gender is not binary - which makes other genders than men and women invisible.
The Default with Professions
As a woman in tech - and especially in a technical role, I constantly face the fact that the word "software developer" is a gendered word for many. There's this implicit assumption that developers are men. This belief is visible in how people speak - it's not once or twice when the hypothetical software developer is gendered as "he" (not, e.g., "they). It's also visible when I meet new people - there have been situations where I've assumed to be in a non-technical role, such as HR or marketing, or a designer, just because of my gender.
And this default with professions is detectable in other disciplines as well. It can be created through words, or it can be implicit. In Finland (and in many other countries), nurses are assumed to be women. Firefighters (no, I'm not going to enforce the stereotype by calling them "firemen") are often assumed to be men.
If we talk about high-paying roles, the assumption is that these people are men. There's this joke I've heard: "Women just don't want to be in the high-paying positions, they choose the lower paying ones, such as woman-CEO, woman-doctor, woman-lawyer, etc."
Defaults with professions are usually implied, something that's not said out loud. I gave examples from gender - but the other aspects have their own defaults. They all work the same way - often whiteness, cis-gender, heterosexuality, living without a disability, and other aspects are assumed.
The Default in Tech
The other part of the power of the default I wanted to discuss is the default in and with tech. There are lots of occasions where the default selection affects how we operate - and that's often intentional. The creators of services know how the default selections affect us, so they utilize them, often for profit.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher discusses the default settings in her book "Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech." She writes:
Defaults also affect how we perceive our choices, making us more likely to choose whatever is presented as default, and less likely to switch to something else. This is known as the default effect.
And this is exploited often. It can be tip amounts defaulting to one of the higher options or preselecting accepting marketing emails. Or it can be the preselection of the pricing option in the middle when subscribing to a service. Of course, defaults can make our paths on these services faster - sometimes, it's just about that. But unfortunately, often, it's part of a design to profit more.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher also writes about the defaults in voice assistants like Apple's Siri, Google Now, and Amazon's Alexa. The default voice was a woman's for a long time for all of them. Apple switched to a non-woman default voice some major updates ago, but the other two have a woman's voice on by default.
As these voice assistants are, as the name states, assistants, it's as if the default gender for assistant, helper, should be a woman. And with this, I mean in the eyes of the creators.
In general, there's a lot to unpack about these voice assistants. If you're interested, there's a publication about the problematic design of these assistants: UNESCO and EQUAL Skills Coalition: I'd blush if I could: closing gender divides in digital skills through education, specifically the Think Piece 2-chapter.
And as a final example for this section, have you ever paid attention to the default options of forms when, e.g., registering on a service? If they have default options and ask for gender, the preselection is usually "man." And if they ask for other things, it's often one of the abovementioned aspects, which I've mentioned as the default.
Using the Power of Default for Good
The nice thing about the power of default is that we can also utilize it for good. As developers, designers, and in other roles in the tech sector, we can change the defaults to more inclusive options. We can ensure these defaults are not used for discrimination and exclusion.
We can also affect how the technology itself behaves. As Caroline Criado Perez writes in her famous book "Invisible women", we have the data about inequality in our systems. "(but) whether or not coders will use it to fix their male-biased algorithms remains to be seen", she continues. In this case, she was writing about translations and how gender-neutral sentences were translated into English stereotypes - like Finnish "Hän on koodari," which is gender-neutral, would often be translated into "He is a coder."
We have the data about inequality; we have studies; we have what we need. Are we going to work on changing the default, which has for too long been a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual man without disabilities? We have the power to change that. All we need to do is pay attention, educate ourselves, and act.
Oh, and by the way, if you fall into the categories that I described above being the default, and especially if you fall into all of them: You probably can do the most, so I'm counting on you to work towards a more equal world and using your power to do so!
Links in the Blog Post
- UNESCO and EQUAL Skills Coalition: I'd blush if I could: closing gender divides in digital skills through education