Is my CRM racist?

One of the frustrating things about my work is dealing with a rather antiquated system which spits out garbage whenever it comes to a name which includes an accent. I work with teachers from all over the country, and occasionally further afield, and unsurprisingly they don’t all have names like John Smith.

I’m not particularly techy, but I am reliably informed this comes down to how the information is coded which has to do with letters being assigned a numerical value. The standard by which this was achieved was ASCII, up until about 1993. ASCII was notoriously British-centric, which is to say that it gave 52 letters (the 26 letter A-Z alphabet in both upper and lower case) numerical values but entirely neglected any letters or accents from any other language or culture. This post includes some of the interesting pitfalls of trying to create a system of storing a person’s name.

According to Wikipedia, the modern version of ASCII was published in 1986, which built on previous versions dating back to the 60s. Having watched the odd programme my Television Set, it turns out that The Past was Racist. That’s how you can tell it’s The Past. (Other helpful clues include sexism, homophobia and everyone smoking cigarettes.)

I understand that these days most systems use a new standard called UTF8, which has an improved, although not perfect, appreciation of diversity.

Not being the most tech savvy of people I only have a slight grasp of the difficulties involved in turning the rich, varied and complex world of language into a string of ones and zeroes. I have tremendous respect for programmers, developers and computer scientist of all types. I have no wish to belittle their achievements or suggest that they are lazy, prejudiced or incompetent.

That said, they almost certainly are lazy, prejudiced, and incompetent by dint of being human beings. These are not necessarily bad qualities to have. Laziness drives innovation and efficiency. If everyone’s work ethic was dialled up to 11 we’d still be hoeing fields by hand, and not considering how to get the job done faster so we could get some down time. If we weren’t pre-disposed to make snap judgements based on very little information we wouldn’t have evolved past Getting Eaten By Creatures With Massive Teeth. And if we weren’t incompetent we would get utterly hung up on every flaw, and nothing would actually get done, as anyone who has ever dealt with a perfectionist will tell you.

Amongst the tropes I often hear from my more techy friends are: “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, “this can be fast, cheap or accurate: pick any two” and “you can’t take everything into account.” All very good points to make – as systems get built, assumptions need to be made, and priorities need to be set.
But be aware that those assumptions and priorities will say a lot about you, and when taken together with the assumptions and priorities of other people, patterns will emerge and conclusions will be drawn.

When I see my system spit out a string of garbage in place of a ‘foreign’ name (which has decreasingly little meaning anyway) I conclude that it is because the people who made the system didn’t didn’t care enough that they were designating some names as ‘normal’ and other names as ‘abnormal.’ Think that doesn’t matter? A while ago I read this post about the damage done by casually normalising a particular skin tone which makes the point more elegantly than I could.

The funny thing about making assumptions and setting priorities is that we are so often unaware that we have done it. And to me it is our unintended biases which can cumulatively make such a big difference to the kind of society we have, as much as the conscious decisions.

I have my fair share of privilege in this world. So I try to keep my eyes open to how the world would appear to me if I wasn’t white, straight and affluent. Perhaps this could all be cynically chalked up to middle-class guilt. But I still think it’s worth scrutinising my actions through the veil of ignorance when I can.

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