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Elon Musk’s “City-State” on Mars: An International Problem

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The private space industry is booming with companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic all designing spacecraft to transport people into the cosmos. Elon Musk is the closest to launching a space faring program, with near-term plans to send humans to the Moon and Mars. In October 2020, Musk, a genius billionaire, quietly declared the independence of a new country on Mars. Musk claimed he will have humans on Mars to start building the new “free” “city-state” by 2026. He also declared the new “country” will not “recognize the laws of Earth.” 

All three tech billionaires currently face few obstacles to implement their plans. However, one obstacle for all of them will be navigating international law. Musk already appears to be exploiting many soft spots in international politics, which are no competitor to a ruthless tech titan. Musk’s plans are an urgent international problem that requires a new multi-national solution.

Musk’s Declarations About Mars

For decades, Musk has spoken about his desire for humans to become “interplanetary.”  Musk founded SpaceX in 2001 with his PayPal fortune and the goal to put humans on Mars.  After Russia rejected his offer of $20 million to buy several intercontinental ballistic missiles, Musk began manufacturing and launching his own rockets. Musk plans to start sending humans to Mars by 2026 and then shuttling thousands of people between Earth and Mars before 2030. Muskplans to create a city on Mars by 2050 and then a completely self-sufficient city of a million people on Mars by the end of the century.

Musk is an eccentric guy and not everything he says should be taken seriously. However, it is clear Musk is serious about bringing humans to Mars. In 2017 and 2018, he published detailed plans for settling Mars.  In October 2020, Musk published a terms of service agreement for beta customers of his new Starlink wireless internet service. The agreement included a very specific note about the governance of Mars. In Starlink’s “Pre-Order Agreement,” under “Governing Law,” the contract states,

“For Services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities. Accordingly, Disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement.”

Further, in December 2020Musk began selling off all of his possessions to help fund the city on Mars. A SpaceX attorney even stated he is actively drafting a Martian constitution. There is every reason to think Musk will follow through.

Common Heritage of Mankind

Ultimately, a city on Mars would simply be an extension of Earth, though separated by a different kind of sea. National jurisdiction and sovereignty are always limited in several areas: outer space, international airspace, international waters, international sea beds. All these areas are considered the “common heritage of mankind” (CHM). These are areas where activities are expected to be carried out in the collective interests of all states and benefits are expected to be shared equitably. Space exploration is a priority for many nations, as well as for the scientific community. There is zealous global interest in space travel, studying celestial objects, and even operating scientific laboratories in space and on planets.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) explained in Article II that outer space is not “subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” This provision is referred to as the non-appropriation principle. The policy rationale is to dis-incentivize states from “reenacting terrestrial land rushes” and taking boundary disputes into space. Scholars argue that the outer space non-appropriation principle has passed into customary international law.

In this sense, Mars is equivalent to the high seas. According to the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, “international waters” belong to everyone and no one. There is a history of rogue actors declaring “new nations” in domestic and international waters; a phenomenon often referred to as “seasteading.” None of these “nations” have ever been recognized as legitimate. The U.K. rejected a British man’s declaration that a WWII platform was now the “Principality of Sealand.” Italy rejected the “Republic of Rose Island” off its coast and eventually destroyed the “nation” with dynamite. U.S. courts have rejected seasteading as well, deciding that artificial islands on the coast of Florida were under U.S. jurisdiction. 

Private Property Rights in Space

International law is clear about private property rights in space – there are none. Private property rights can only be created by a state on the property over which the state has sovereignty. The 110 countries that have ratified the OST are not allowed to create private property rights. The OST is ratified by all states with space programs and reflects the consensus of resolutions of the U.N. General Assembly on the topic.

Under the OST, states are also liable for the activities of non-state actors, whether they are private corporations or international organizations. States must ensure private activities conform to the obligations of the OST. It is up to each party state to create their own domestic legislation to effectuate this. The U.S. created the ability of private citizens to go into space with proper government authorization and supervision through several pieces of domestic legislation. However, while the OST requires “continuing supervision” by nations of private actors while in space, U.S. laws omit regulating activities in space, instead focusing on launches and reentry.

In the early 2000s, the U.S. adjudicated one case of private property rights.  In 2003, Gregory Nemitz registered a claim of real property rights for the entirety of an asteroid. After NASA landed a spacecraft on the asteroid, Nemitz submitted an invoice to NASA for parking and storage fees. NASA’s general counsel denied Nemitz’ claim and Nemitz appealed in court. The court found there are no private property rights in space; thus, there was no basis for compensation.

However, the U.S. pivoted its non-appropriation policy in 2015 with the SPACE Act, where U.S. Congress “created” private property rights for resources in space. Backers of the SPACE Act compared it to the Homestead Act of 1862 (which the idea of “seasteading” is based on).  In 2017, the U.S. National Space Council proclaimed that outer space is not the common heritage of mankind. Then in 2020, NASA announced the Artemis Accords: new principles for the use of outer space including further solidifying private property rights in space. Nine other countries have signed on. Finally, in 2020 President Trump discussed space settlements during the State of the Union, saying, “now we must embrace the next frontier: America’s Manifest Destiny in the stars.”Following this trajectory (homesteading, Manifest Destiny, etc.), it seems possible the U.S. might actually support some of Musk’s plans for Mars if his actions bring more imperialistic value to the U.S. government than logistical headache. However, it seems unlikely the U.S. would support Musk creating a separate nation.

Some commenters have pondered why Musk provided the Starlink/Mars clause so early (well before any of his employees or customers have traveled to Mars). The prohibition of private property ownership in space appears to have already become customary international law – or is at least on the cusp of crystallizing. Musk will want to say that from his country’s original declaration of independence, he has always been a persistent objector to the prohibition of private property rights on Mars. This strategy would make financial sense, as Martian private property rights would reassure Earth-based investors.

Deconstructing Musk’s Plans for Mars

Musk elaborated in 2020 that he plans for his government to be a direct democracy. Commentators have questioned why Musk would choose that form of government, which may be terribly ineffective in response to resource scarcity and constant danger. Further, Musk has become well known as a CEO who will happily violate labor laws, health codes, and pollution regulations back on Earth in furtherance of his company’s financial bottom line. That does not sound like someone who will actually enact or uphold direct democracy.

So, what exactly is Musk up to? It is not occupation because Mars is not populated and Musk is not a state. It is not discovery because Mars is not terra nullius (available land that no one has claimed yet)and again Musk is a private actor. It is not filibustering (a private individual waging private wars against existing countries, i.e., William Walker: another deranged San Francisco Bay Area-based entrepreneur) because even though Musk is a private actor, he is not conquering. Musk’s actions are similar to seasteading (the concept of establishing new countries in international waters); however, as discussed, seasteading has never resulted in a recognized claim to a new country. The closest comparison to what he is doing is probably secession.

It is possible for new states to be created through secession from existing states. Today, the international community disfavors unilateral secession. Under international law, secession is more likely to be accepted if it is in pursuance of self-determination, democratic governance, and has the support of the people of the would-be state.

Musk could argue he is pursuing democratic goals and has the consent of his people (his Starlink customers: over 700,000 of whom already agreed to the contract). Musk can say he should be allowed to secede from the United States because his state will be even more democratic (direct democracy instead of representative democracy). He may even be able to posture himself as escaping human rights violations in the U.S., citing the recent international outcry about systemic racial injustices in the U.S.

However, Musk will have a harder time navigating domestic law as a citizen of the United States. The U.S. is a “perpetual union” that not allow unilateral secession. Musk will not be allowed to secede per domestic laws. When a secession attempt fails, there are other options. Musk, like other actors with the capacity to go into space, will be bound by the laws of the state to which he is a citizen. This means there is a risk that international commercial enterprises like SpaceX will engage in “jurisdiction shopping” for countries with lenient outer space regulations and perhaps even states who never signed the OST. These companies will search for administrations whose licensing and supervisory requirements may be deficient, defective, or intentionally inadequate.

As a final contingency, Musk is saddling up with a U.S. state with its own notorious rebellious streak. Musk is building a rocket production plant and the first fully commercial launch facility capable of launching spacecraft for long-term space travel in Boca Chica, Texas. It is obvious why Musk chose Texas. First, it is close to the equator for launch logistics. Second, it is still in the U.S. for the purposes of trades and permits. Finally, Texas has an adversarial relationship with the federal government and already attempted to secede from the U.S. (and secession is still a popular talking point). If any state would support a U.S.-state based secession attempt to support Musk, it is Texas.

In March 2021, Musk announced he is “creating the city of Starbase, Texas” on currently unincorporated land in Boca Chica, located in southern Texas near the Mexican border. The top county official protested Musk’s declaration, saying, “Sending a Tweet doesn’t make it so… If SpaceX and Elon Musk would like to pursue down this path, they must abide by all state incorporation statutes. The county is also already anticipating litigation against SpaceX for violating agreements with the county around permits and security.

Many commentors are asking why Musk so desperately wants this specific village. Musk’s new “city” is not simply “near the Mexican Border,” it is on it. Boca Chica borders the Gulf of Mexico to the east, Brownsville Ship Channel to the north, and the Rio Grande River and Mexico to the south. If Musk felt he needed a “free city-state” on Earth, to support his “free city-state” on Mars, it seems within the realm of possibilities he could attempt to secede “Starbase” from the U.S. and create his own country (which barely shares a land boundary with the U.S.). He already unilaterally and illegally declared a new city there.

Musk is already in violation of federal laws. SpaceX was denied a safety waiver by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in December 2020 due to Boca Chica-based launch plans that exceeded maximum public safety risk, but following the permit denial, Musk proceeded anyway and the launch ended in a “fireball” explosion. The FAA delayed the next test planned for January 2021 until an investigation could be completed. A former FAA official noted the lack of FAA enforcement against Musk was “puzzling.” Even after mysteriously avoiding any penalties, Musk, upset about the delay, claimed the FAA was “a fundamentally broken regulatory structure.

Musk already bought out most Boca Chica residents and has allegedly been bullying the remaining few with property damage, trespassing, offers of over triple the value of their property, and threats of vague “other measures” if they do not accept. Once the last residents are forced out, a secession attempt then would only involve resistance by the local and federal governments. Is Musk capable of violent measures? Apparently, Musk and SpaceX employees have been spending time at a nearby shooting range. Further, neighbors have grown accustom to sirens warning them when Musk and company are about to do something that could (and sometimes does) cause imminent physical harm, and then evacuating or taking cover. Not to mention the “fireball” incident. Violence seems within the realm of possibilities.

Musk will likely offer financial incentives for Texas to tolerate his activities. He has already promised$30 million to local governments. Musk has also entwined himself with the federal government to the point of mutually assured destruction. SpaceX secured a $2.9 billion contract with NASA for the upcoming Moon missions (though currently contested by Jeff Bezos) and is already heavily involved with other NASA projects.  NASA has become very dependent on SpaceX and Musk.

With all of this in play and no intervention, the compromise will likely be Texas and the U.S. tolerating Musk’s “Starbase” as a semi-autonomous region. Then, Musk’s Starbase “succeeds” as a semi-autonomous region and extends its territory to Mars as a non-member of the OST. This results in the politics of Musk’s presence on Mars having no precedent, no established legal standards, and no established political principles for analysis.

Conclusion

Soon, the largest obstacle to reign in Musk will be the distance to Mars. Will it really be worth launching a billion-dollar interplanetary mission to make an arrest? Mars is several months away at its closest. It will be prohibitively expensive to reign Musk in after the fact. In 2019, a space law conference discussed governance of commercial activities in outer space and found the world is at an “inflection point” and needs to establish global standards of accountability for private actors. The keynote speaker stressed the importance of governance, not simply governments. She looked to the success of the International Space Station as inspiration.

Considering this, a multi-national consortium should be created to regulate all activities on Mars. The consortium should be established in such a way that even the resources required for long-term interstellar travel are regulated in order to prevent rogue actors from working outside the system to control space access and resources, which are instead intended to be shared with all of humanity. At this point, a security council resolution on the topic may also be prudent.

Musk’s plans are just the beginning. There are two other ultra-wealthy titans of industry behind him and plenty more to come. Musk is just the first and most reckless. The international community must act now. The future of space may be speculative, but the issues are urgent. Space is for everyone. We all must partner together to ensure it remains that way.

Ashley is a law student in California. She is studying public international law and public interest law and policy. Ashley enjoys writing about international law, human rights, sovereignty disputes, and self-determination.

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Deployment of 5G Technology: Scrutinizing the Potential Menace & Its Repercussions globally

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5G, or fifth generation, is the latest generation of mobile telecommunications technology. It promises faster internet speeds, lower latency, and greater capacity than previous generations of mobile networks. 5G technology is designed to support a wide range of new and emerging applications, including the Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, and virtual and augmented reality. The introduction of 5G to the world is a significant development in the field of telecommunications. It is expected to have a major impact on various sectors such as healthcare, transportation, manufacturing, and entertainment. 5G networks will enable new technologies like self-driving cars, remote surgery, and virtual reality to function more smoothly and efficiently.

It is based on a number of new technologies, such as software-defined networks, network slicing, and millimetre waves, which allow for faster data transfer and a greater number of connected devices. This will allow for more efficient use of network resources and support a wider range of applications. Many countries and mobile network operators are in the process of rolling out 5G networks, and the number of 5G-enabled devices is expected to grow rapidly. However, the deployment of 5G networks is a complex and ongoing process, and there are still many technical and regulatory challenges that needs to be addressed.

Concerns & Impact:

In terms of cybersecurity, 5G networks have the potential to be more vulnerable to cyber-attacks than previous generations of mobile networks. The increased complexity of 5G networks and the use of new technologies, such as software-defined networks, could make them more difficult to secure. As the number of devices connected to 5G networks increases, so does the attack surface for cybercriminals. In terms of privacy, with the deployment of 5G networks, the amount of data that is collected and stored by mobile network operators will increase, raising concerns about the protection of personal information. 5G networks will enable new technologies, like self-driving cars, remote surgery, and virtual reality, which will generate a large amount of data. Ensuring the security and privacy of this data will be a major challenge. Also, in terms of supply chain security, the deployment of 5G networks requires a large number of components and systems from different vendors, which makes it more difficult to ensure the security of the network. There are concerns that these components, if not properly secured, could be used by malicious actors to compromise the network. The deployment of 5G networks could also lead to radiofrequency interference with existing technologies such as weather radar, satellite communication, and GPS systems, aviation navigation, and scientific research. Even, countries that are deploying 5G networks are dependent on foreign vendors for the equipment and technology needed to build and operate these networks, which creates national security concerns.

Further, there are several concerns related to the environment and health that have been raised in relation to the deployment of 5G technology. It requires the installation of many more cell towers and antennae than previous generations of mobile networks. The environmental impact of this increased infrastructure, including the potential impact on wildlife and natural habitats, is a concern. The increased use of 5G networks is likely to lead to an increase in energy consumption, which could have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to climate change. Additionally, there have been concerns about the potential health effects of 5G technology, particularly related to the use of millimetre waves for the transmission of data. Some studies have suggested that these waves may have an impact on human health, although the majority of scientific studies have found no evidence of such effects. 5G technology uses the same frequency bands as meteorological radars and could interfere with the accuracy of weather forecasts. Such networks will increase the exposure of people to electromagnetic fields, which could have negative impacts on health, particularly for people who are sensitive to electromagnetic fields.

However, it’s pertinent to note that these concerns are being studied and addressed by governments and regulatory bodies, and steps are being taken to mitigate them. However, it’s important to be aware of these issues and take appropriate action to address them as 5G networks are deployed to ensure that the benefits of 5G technology are realized while minimizing the security, privacy, environmental and health risks.

Conclusion:

Resolving these concerns will require a multi-faceted approach that involves cooperation between governments, industry, and other stakeholders. Governments and industry should work together to develop and implement security standards and best practices for 5G networks. This could include regular security audits and penetration testing, as well as measures to detect and respond to cyber-attacks. They should work together to develop and implement data protection and privacy policies for 5G networks. This could include measures to protect personal data, such as encryption and secure data storage, as well as clear guidelines on how data is collected, used, and shared. They should conduct further research on the potential health effects of 5G technology, and take steps to mitigate any negative impacts. This could include measures such as limiting exposure to electromagnetic fields and ensuring that cell towers are located in safe areas. They should take appropriate measures to minimize the environmental impact of 5G networks. This could include measures such as using renewable energy to power cell towers and antennae, and minimizing the impact of infrastructure on wildlife and natural habitats. They should secure the supply chain of 5G networks. This could include measures such as ensuring that vendors comply with security standards, and conducting regular security audits of suppliers.

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The Indian Drone Industry is Growing Leaps & Bounds

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Rustom-2 drone

Iranian drones have wreaked havoc in war-stricken Ukraine. When it comes to drones until a few years back it was the USA Vs China, but now all countries have realized the potential of these flying machines.

Bill Gates had predicted that drones, overall, will be more impactful than one can ever imagine or think to help society in a positive way, but sadly, today they are being used in warfare at a very large scale. Where does India stand in the Drone Making Spectre?

Today, India uses drones for a variety of causes. It has‍ BVLOS (Beyond-visual-line-of-sight) flights, mosquito eradication drones, drones used for agricultural needs – like spraying pesticides etc., then there are seed-copters used for aforestation (planting seedballs). During the pandemic Indian drones supplied vaccines to far out regions, as estimates suggest that more than 24 lakh Indians die of treatable conditions every year simply because medicines don’t reach them on time. Drones are bridging the gap when it comes to inaccessibility of roads and other means of transport.

In India, drones can be seen everywhere, in weddings events and agricultural fields. There is a huge demand for drones and the Government is encouraging the industry to grow further. How is this emergence happening? Smit Shah, President of the Drone Federation of India is filled with ideas of zestful entrepreneurship and innovation for the Indian drone industry. He shares his views about how things in India’s Drone industry are shaping up.

“Since 2018, we have had multiple regulations and lot of work is happening on that front. Finally, in August 2021 we had our regulations liberalised. So, after multiple policy attempts and iterations we were able to crack the right policy. This is the policy of liberalisation and incentive towards the industry. Since mid 2021, we have had a boost in the ecosystem. We have multiple start-ups now, over 200 working in the drone manufacturing and technology space in the country.” says Shah.

The idea to ease the regulations has worked wonders for the industry and start-ups getting involved means a lot of innovation and experimentation is ongoing in the Indian drone industry. So, how are drones being used in governance and management?  There is a lot of talk of drones being used for surveillance at borders. In what ways does the Indian Government use drones? Shah says that multiple State Governments, the Union Government, various departments and private sector corporations are now adapting to drone usage at a very large scale. The Government has launched the ‘Swamitwa Scheme’ where 6.5 lakh villages are being mapped across the entire country through drones. The National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) has mandated monthly monitoring of all highways via drones. The armed forces are looking for buying drones for security surveillance on all borders using drones. Also they are being used in tracking logistics.

India is using drones in almost all important departments, especially in defence the country is trying to procure and develop the best possible technology for which many private corporations like the Adani Group have forged Joint Ventures with major International drone component manufacturing companies.

For the purpose of warfare India is using drones on the borders to keep an eye on the enemy. It endeavours to make more advancement in the domain. How are things shaping up on that front?

“During warfare you need round the clock monitoring and intelligence and capacity building. So, surveillance capability on the borders and logistic capability on the border means transporting various kinds of resources to the border outposts, including the high altitude regions is what is being looked at now. In India, Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle (UAF) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) are technological terms but are interchangeably used. All these are being used in our border security,” informs Shah.

India is rapidly scaling up its drone industry and is investing a lot on research and development. Not just for domestic use, it plans to use drones intensively for border security by the armed forces. Does India manufacture raw materials and components used in drones? What plans does it have to reduce dependence on other countries and boost its own home-built production capability? What is the road ahead?   

“A majority of the components are imported from different countries.  Now we have Indian start-ups and corporations who are engaged in building local supply chains and local design on drone components. The PLI incentive is encouraging for manufacturing drones and their related components in India. If we see the overall drone ecosystem of drones in India, it envisioned success lies on 4 key pillars. First is ease of doing business, under which policy was liberalised and much of the licence fees was reduced.  Second  is the financial incentive, like the Production Linked Incentive(PLI) under which domestic manufacturing has a 20% incentive with almost zero upfront commitment. One is not needed to do any plant or machinery investment or any minimum employment. It is a straight investment based on one’s capacity, so if you produce goods worth INR 100, you get 20% of your value addition. This is a sunrise sector, so rather than complicating incentives by tying them up with employment or revenue or upfront capital investment – it’s all straight in the face. The third part is protectionism or favouring the local industry via an import ban. At present, import of drones as a whole are banned but the import of components is not. Fourth is enhancing our own skilling, R&D, trying to becoming Athmnirbhar (Self Dependant) in every possible way and benefit our own industries. Though, a lot of technology for the smaller drones comes from across the world including China, US and Europe, for the bigger drones, like the ones used to patrol the borders or for offensive ops, it is specialized so that is coming from our partners or the domestic manufacturers,” elaborates Shah.

Many reforms by the Government have been introduced to encourage domestic production. It is confident that its own ecosystem will battle all odds and will be able to emerge as a frontrunner in drone making. The Government and industry are working in tandem to achieve this goal. In January, 2022, the Indian Government  has offered a 100% subsidy or 10 lakhs, whichever is less, up to March 2023 to promote the use of drones for agricultural purposes and reduce the labour burden on the farmers. Also a contingency fund of INR 6000 per acre has been set up for hiring Drones from the Custom Hiring Centres (CHC). Together, the subsidy and contingency funds shall help farmers access latest drone technology at a very reasonable price.

Does India export drones to any other countries. If NO, by when does it intend to do so? What are its plans to become a recognized name in the drone export segment?

“Slowly and steadily India is looking at exporting. We are looking at certain initiatives to scale up our export segment and expect good results very soon. Our first goal has to be design independence. In terms of supply chains it is difficult to become 100% India made as many raw materials are imported. For that we need to have our own designs and supply chain reliability. In supply chain reliability there are 3 things, first we have domestic supply chains, second we have primary supply chains and third is we have secondary alternate supply chains. If we build good supply chains then we do not have be dependant by the traditional definition because then we have backup & balance of the supply chain. In today’s global civilization we can’t become completely independent.  The right approach is to be dependant but also balanced.  Some aspects of our drones may be better than others and vice versa. We are not yet ripened in this as our Information Technology (IT) sector is. India is trying to have its own electronic manufacturing fabs, so things are gaining momentum. In five years the game will totally change,” asserts Shah confidently.

The industry and Drone Federation of India is optimistic that in a few years to come India will be a champion drone manufacturer and may export to other countries as well. Be it the procurement of raw materials or other critical components it seems to be progressing fast for self-reliance in the drone industry.  

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Is tech industry still a boys’ club?

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Young women participate in Kazakhstan’s first nanosatellite development programme aimed at women. © UNICEF/Zhanara Karimova

Authors: Ash Narain Roy and Jisha Jacob*

The Nobel Prize, says the 2022 literature laureate Annie Ernaux, is an institution “for men.” She further says that “speech has almost always been monopolised by men.” If even the hallowed Nobel Prize is still “bound to traditions” and “is perhaps more masculine,” as the French writer contends, what about the world of science and big tech?

The tech industry remains a male bastion. Citing the abysmally low percentage of female employees, the New York Times says, that the doors to the technology field “remain virtually closed to women.” The Los Angeles Times has similar observations about sexism in Silicon Valley. It says, the tech industry “lags decades behind other industries in its treatment of women.”

The big tech is far worse. Elon Musk, the new Twitter boss, often mocks advocates of the LGBT+ community. It is anybody’s guess where women will find themselves in his scheme of things. He would perhaps expect women to “follow the white rabbit.” (It is assumed if you follow the white rabbit, it will ultimately lead you to the truth). Or you may enter an alternate world. Musk isn’t playing “four-dimensional chess,” he is defending “the future of civilisation”!

Emily Chang in her book, Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, says that the big tech industry “has self-selected for men: first, anti-social nerds, then, self-confident and risk-taking bros.” No wonder therefore, “deep-rooted sexism prevails” in their universe and their meetings in hot tubs and at strip clubs are considered small ‘pecados’.

That women are under-represented and hold far fewer organisational positions in big tech companies like Meta, Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft is an open secret. As Francine Bermen and Jeniffer Lundquist say, a large number of high-profile whistleblowers are women. “Frances Haugen exposed personal data exploitation at Meta, Timnit Gebru and Rebecca Rivers challenged Google on ethics and AI issues, and Janneke Parrish raised concerns about a discriminatory work culture at Apple, among others.” (Bermen, Francine and Jeniffer Lundquist, 2022)

“Why can’t a woman be like a man” has been a grumbling refrain in most walks of life. Literature, science, films, politics have all perpetuated such perceptions. In the footnote of his famous lecture, “The two cultures and the scientific revolution,” eminent British scientist C.P. Snow said that since childhood women are given training to be a “good wife” and a “good mother.” He further said that women lack training to become a good scientist or a physicist. But he ended up saying “whatever we say, we don’t regard women as suitable for scientific careers” for which he would have been heavily trolled today. (Snow 1959) Technology is widely considered a male- dominated industry. Psychologist Janet Morahan-Martin of Bryant University explains that men are more comfortable using a computer since childhood than women. This exposure to technology in the early stage of their lives has led to the masculinization of computer culture.

Big tech and masculinity

What is masculinity? Does it really have to do anything with technology? In a larger sense, masculinity refers to how men perceive themselves. It is a manner of thinking and being that is socially formed. Victor J. Seidler of University of London offers an interesting explanation positing that men have assumed rationality as masculine based on a “rationality appropriated from and denied to others.” Men have made it a basis of male power “affecting what men see, hear and regard as important.” Brian Easlea, in his book Fathering the Unthinkable: Masculinity, Scientists, and the Nuclear Arms Race, argues that men’s propensity for science was mostly a “compensatory mechanism” for their inability to procreate and their vulnerability on the sexual level. (Easlea 1983)

Power and masculinity go hand in hand. The idea of masculinity is often associated with gaining increasingly greater power. Men now stand at the top of the technological pyramid thanks to this power. It appears that using power is fundamentally unbalanced. Men unquestionably make the important decisions. Whenever scientists are mentioned, “men” is always used as the pronoun. For instance, C.P. Snow referred to members of scientific communities as “men of science.” Men are thus at the top of the tech pyramid.

Lucie Greene, author of Silicon States: The Power of Politics of Big Tech and What It Means for our Future, cites the examples of Siri, Alexa, and all the verbal subservient assistants which normalize sexism. Twitter has an atrocious record of failing to address misogyny. Amnesty International has found women’s experience on Twitter as “toxic.” Women continue to be the victims of “digital violence.”

According to one source, women roughly represent about 25 % of technology workforce. When it comes to senior corporate leadership positions, the less said, the better. Only 8.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women and less than 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

The Google UK: Gender Pay Report 2018 says that there are more males than women working at Google in top leadership positions and technical occupations, Due to the underrepresentation of women in senior leadership, technical and engineering roles, and roles with a lengthy tenure, the percentage gaps persist in the majority of the leading tech businesses. Men are more likely than women to fill senior positions. Only four women appear on a random Google search of the top 48 or so tech companies.

Stereotypically gendered technology

The masculinization has produced what is known as stereotypically gendered technology. It is crucial that women work in an industry that is predominately male. Who designs a product and who stands to gain from it should be taken into consideration when it is designed. Men may design a product that is primarily used by women, which could result in subpar design. It might not fit the specifications set forth for technology that women can use. An average-height woman, for instance, cannot reach the bottom of a washing machine tub to pull the items out. Another dated example is the fact that since the 1970s, the crash test dummies used to test car safety have been modelled on men for an average male weight and height. It has only now been rectified. This digital world needs more female designers because it is mostly created by men for men.

Ironically, the early programmers were not men, but women. The 1940s saw computer operation and programming as women’s space. By the 1960s when computing gained prominence, men displaced women who were experts and as Marie Hicks states in her book, Programmed Inequality, the space was altered from a “feminized field of endeavour” to a “distinctly masculine image”. (Hicks 2018)

As per the data provided by Planet Money: NPR, women’s presence in various fields clearly shows that, while  medicine, law, and physical sciences saw a significant rise in the number of female students enrolling after 1984, science and technology have seen a sharp decline in the number of female students. There was a perceptible increase between 1975 and 1984, but the trend did not last long as women were ejected from cyberspace.

Women had to learn how to utilise the room-sized supercomputers that the US employed to decipher codes during World War II. A person who programmed the first general-purpose electronic computer during the Second World War was known as a “computer.” Women were portrayed as confident, attractive, and ready to do their part to win the war. They were encouraged to join the workforce by glorifying and glamorizing the role of the working women.

Women made up a significant portion of the tech workforce throughout the World War Two and up until the 1960s. They made important contributions to science and technology. 

 STEM education’s impact

Women make up approximately 43% of all STEM (Science, technology, engineering, mathematics) graduates in India, one of the highest percentages in the world, but just 14% of scientists, engineers, and technicians in universities and research-development organisations. (Economic Times 2022) The underrepresentation of women in STEM fields is a problem around the world but India’s case is a curious one, despite an increase in the number of female STEM students each year, these higher education levels have not led to greater employment opportunities.

Lack of job opportunities has prompted them to turn to other avenues. Clinical psychologist Joy Harris describes such a phenomenon as “learned technological helplessness”. (Harris 2008)

Studies have shown that young girls would decide if they were good at math or science by the age of 8 – 10 years of age. It is critical to provide them the right opportunities at that young age.

The data further shows that disparity becomes acute at the undergraduate level. They prefer psychology, biological and social sciences over engineering (22%), computer science (20%), and physics (21%). Similarly in the STEM workforce, women show not much interest as compared to men. They have a very low share in the computer and mathematical sciences (26%), and engineering (16%).

 Post- COVID era

Even in normal times, women bear what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls “the double burden.” While they work for a living, they do significant amount of unpaid household work. According to a survey made in 2022, as many as 58% of Indian women lost their employment mostly due to the Covid-19  pandemic. Women were driven away from the corporate sector thanks to the rise in home duties. (Sethi 2022) This was also the time where people showed a greater dependence on technology than ever. Most jobs demanded workers to be tech-savvy. The gender gap in the economy also worsened because of the pandemic.

Rising domestic violence further accentuated the disparity. According to one source, 1 in 3 women worldwide experienced physical or sexual abuse at the hands of an intimate relationship. As a result, women were experiencing assault and looking for employment options. (UN Women: Gender equality matters in COVID -19 response)

During the worst phase of Covid and after, some people began to use social media to share their daily emotions, which allowed them to connect with others who share their perspectives. According to Statista portal, as of January 2022, Snapchat had more female users, while platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter had more male users than female. According to another source, men use LinkedIn more often as compared to women which are 54% and 44% respectively.

 The active presence of women on the social media platforms have made them vulnerable to abuses and threats of various kinds.

Online gender-based violence (OGBV) is perpetrated by using technology or a digital interface -specifically the internet or smart devices. Cyber stalking, zoom bombing, identity theft, online threats, blackmailing and cyber flashing are familiar forms of online gender-based violence. According to the toolkit, 85% of women globally face online gender – based violence. 88% of women in Asia and the Pacific have experienced OGBV. (Toolkit: 30 for 2030 UN Women 2022)

A survey on online violence against women by the Amnesty International suggests that 70% of the women who experienced some forms of online harassment have altered how they use social media, and a third of them claim they no longer express their thoughts on certain topics.

 Nordic exceptionalism?

Nordic countries score higher than others on gender equality parameters. While Sweden gets top score in perceptions of gender equality, Norway tops all other nations in terms of income equality. This has been possible as the Nordic nations  have established a higher degree of political consensus around issues like social equality and social solidarity. They pay women in technology more than others. As the 2018 OECD report, “Is the last mile the longest? Economic gains from gender equality in Nordic countries” notes, it is this region’s past improvements in gender equality in employment that have “contributed to economic growth.” The Nordic nations’ global reputation notwithstanding, they continue to have gender gaps in technology. Anneli Häyren, a researcher at the Centre for Gender Research at Uppsala University, Sweden, points out that there exists an idea of being gender equal, but “we have a long way to go before we are gender equal.”

The Nordic Gender Effect at Work, a report from the Nordic Council of Ministers, an advisory group, further notes that there has been “a disturbing pattern” in businesses: “the higher up the hierarchy you look, the more men you notice.” This report raises serious concerns about the gender gap. It is thus apparent that even in societies where gender equality is the norm, women and other different gender groupings may not necessarily be equally represented in all sectors, specially  technology.

Some academics contend that women are less likely to pursue degrees in STEM even in countries where there is already a culture of gender equality. This behavioural pattern involves teaching topics to girls when they are still very young. It has come to surprise many like University of Essex professor Gijsbert Stoet who says, “It is a paradox…. nobody would have expected this to be the reality of our time”.

 Maddy Savage’s write-up for the BBCwebsite, “the paradox of working for the world’s most equal countries,” appears puzzling. Even in Denmark, the most inclusive country in the world, “mainly white males sit at the top of many of the best-known corporations.” One explanation is that women prefer to work in public sector which limits the pool available for top private sector roles.

Engineers and IT specialists are already in short supply in the Nordic labour market. According to a study, it will soon be necessary to solve the problem because new technology will be created practically entirely by men. In the Nordic labour market, women have established themselves in the service industry. According to a survey, women have benefited most from the region’s service industry, which accounts for 80% of all employment.

Conclusion

Women in the tech sector continue to face toxic and gendered environment. The so-called male technical prowess as an organising principle marks the work culture. As the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific points out, the existing under-representation of women in the technology industry is reinforcing social inequalities. “It is meaningless to talk about technological advancements if half of the population is being left behind.”

It is ironic that such gender inequalities should exist while the world embarks on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Another worrying trend is that the Covid -19 pandemic impacted men and women differently “exacerbating current asymmetries and risking a reversal of progress made towards closing the gender gap.” Gender stereotypes have led to a gendered division of labour in the tech industry.

In 2021, the percentage of women in CEO positions globally was a mere 5.5 % and in STEM fields, it was only around 3 %. A way forward would be women’s larger presence in the STEM careers. That will not only lower the untenable existing disparities, it will embolden other women to follow suit.

Nalini Malani, a contemporary Indian artist whose creative works reflect pressing feminist issues, says that though science and technology have given us so much allowing us to talk to each other over oceans, “the human psyche hasn’t kept abreast.” However, Malani is confident that “the future is female’ and the world needs the instinctual knowledge of the female side of our brains, “otherwise we are doomed.”

 Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has announced that from February 2023 teenagers will only receive ads based on their age and location. It has also announced that it will be “removing gender as a targeting option.” It is perhaps too late, too little but it is a welcome move. If the big tech companies don’t mend their ways, they will be blamed for what Churchill chastised the Balkans: “they produce more history than they can consume.” They will be judged by the new generation for showing their own shame.

*Jisha Jacob has done Masters in Political Science from University of Delhi

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