Bias

Bias is everywhere. We deal with it constantly in our lives, every day. It’s so ever-present that we no longer realize it is happening in front of our eyes and so it is easily institutionalized, accepted as universal reality. A quick Google search reveals what we mean when we think of bias:

bi·as [bīəs]
noun
  1. prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.

As a Spaniard residing in the US for the past 8 years now, I have encountered bias on a regular basis, both internal and external. When I say internal bias I’m referring to my own assumptions and suppositions coming from one culture (mediterranean Spain) and being transplanted to a very different North American culture. Social values, gender norms, political stances, everything, and I do mean everything is very different. My first year in the US was such a big sychological clash that I didn’t know how to react, communicate, think for a good 2/3 months. I was expected to live in a culture that made little sense to me, communicate with people who I didn’t understand much of the time – and I’m not talking about my competence in the English language here; I’m referring to the ways in which people move, gesture non-verbally, manipulate vocal intonation, react to the use of precise expressions or linguistic constructions regardless of whether they are more or less formal… In short, this means I didn’t fit.

After the better part of half a year, I learned to emulate those structures that were universally accepted in the US, those behaviors that were expected of me by the regular Joes and Janes, and I started to be a logical subject in the North American cultural context. That didn’t mean I had no internal bias about much, much of what I saw and experimented. I used to think that the American lifestyle was way too capitalistic, way too consumerist and quite desensitized to much of the violence, inequality, extreme poverty and other problems that exist in western society. Eventually my Mediterranean bias, which honestly made me feel smarter and superior to some people, eroded as I better understood the American culture and how people just did many things differently than in Europe. I still hold some strong opinions – read: not bias – about how consumerist this society is, but I deem it no different than the consumerism in most of Europe at this point in history.

So, my internal bias declined over the years, especially after I met who ended up becoming my husband: my admiration for this person essentially forced a clash between bias and appreciation. How could I appreciate conduct in him that I deemed, well, illogical? This contradiction is very powerful and taught me to not just consider his background, his logic, his thought process before he behaved in X or Y way; but to identify much of the way a “regular” American thinks and reacts so I could foresee reactions to my own actions. This deeper understanding disintegrated my bias. I realized that much of what I thought normal, or correct, or expected, just didn’t work that way in his brain. Suddenly, I could see his perspective much more clearly and my bias was gone: I could see both my and his way of framing thoughts and immediately became much more open-minded (than I’d like to think I already, hopefully, was). What I thought of as bias now became a very obvious truth: it’s simply different.

When talking about external bias, the situation was very much different. This no longer implies my assuming how other cultures behave, but how others pre-suppose I act, think, behave or react. Specifically, in my case this means how Americans think this Spaniard fits in what they assume is his foreign cultural framework. I certainly do check some of the boxes that are expected: I talk really fast most of the time, I get really passionate about lots of topics in any debate, I’m certainly a bit loud and yes, I have lots of dark hair – which is annoying come shaving time. The problem, however, is in assuming that I fit in this foreign cultural framework. Clearly in 2007, freshly arrived in the US, my cultural values were predominantly Mediterranean; but after 8 years, I don’t feel Spanish anymore. That is not to say that I feel American either; what I feel is like a weird hybrid that has no clear place to call home as both Spain and the US represent that home. Both countries have become part of me, both cultures now conform my perspectives on life; so one could say that I’m, quite literally, culturally Spanish-American without being Hispanic as I’m ethnologically Caucasian.

Seeing this, it’s easy to understand how any biases I had in prior years have been pretty much disintegrated. That’s not to say that I’m not a biased person, but I do believe – maybe innocently – that if I have any prejudice it’s subconscious, as my growing as a person as part of two cultures over most of the past decade has made it impossible to not see bias when it happens. Elements that seemed logical in Spain now seem illogical to me, conducts that seemed strange in the US now look normal, and I’m able to see both the brilliance and stupidity of both cultures. In a word, I’ve trained myself – by necessity of pure survival and adaptation due to the life path I’ve chosen – to be alert to bias of any kind, to identify it, to analyze it, to understand it and, where applicable, to try to correct or right its path when it deviates from correctness – while acknowledging that swimming against the tide is sometimes pointless and one must learn to pick battles. In fact, this predisposition is most likely what drove me to do a PhD in literature and gender theory – plenty of gender bias in that combination.

This highly reflective passage brings me to the point I originally wanted to make, but felt would benefit from the exhaustive ~1000 word context I just provided. My main point, is journalistic bias. Of course, this is ever-present in many publications with different goals, but considering the topics this site tackles, I’m focusing on tech journalism bias. I have long complained about the clear, obvious, blatant Apple bias that occurs in the tech blogosphere and how most critics just shrug it off saying that it’s not bias, Apple products are just better. My criticism has long earned me an anti-Apple badge which I resent, as it is an absolutely untrue fact: while I do prefer Microsoft’s operating system, Apple products are perfectly respectable on their own. In fact, I’m typing this on a Macbook Air from 2011 that has Windows 10 installed onto it: that’s the most perfect representation of my preferences; great hardware with great software, at least in my opinion. There is nothing wrong with Apple products per se, but there’s something very wrong when the media is dominated with bias and refuses to recognize this reality other than jokingly referring to the Apple Distortion Field.

Let’s take a reputable site like Anandtech, for instance. This excellent site, which I regularly read and greatly respect, has reviewed both the Macbook Air and the Asus UX305. The reason why I mention this laptop is because a) it is a quite shameless rip-off the MBA design and b) I just bought it in order to phase out this old MBA I’m currently typing on. As I was reading reviews, I compared MBA reviews as the Asus is pretty much a Windows based Clone – hence why I like it. There are many differences, granted, but I want to focus on that institutionalized bias mentioned earlier that goes completely unnoticed to much of the population. First, let’s look at the MBA keyboard:

MBA

Now, let’s look at the UX305 keyboard:

UX

Forget about the green keys in the Asus, it’s an addition for a specific country/language, those wouldn’t show in an English keyboard, but it’s the best picture I was able to find. Both keyboards are pretty much the same, correct? This is expected, as the Asus copies practically all aesthetic decision of the MBA. Now, let’s see what Anandtech reviewers had to say about each respective keyboard:

MBA: “The clickpad and backlit keyboard never give me any troubles either.”

UX305: “The keyboard layout is very standard, and the only thing that I dislike about the keyboard is that the power button is located on the top right corner above the backspace, and beside delete. Accidentally hitting it will power the device off of course, so it is not ideal… I think ASUS should move it, but they seem to like it there.”

OK. Let’s look at those keyboards again, now allow me to make the comparison a bit more salient:

Comparison

Both keys have the exact same placement, yet somehow, this design decision is absolutely OK on the MBA review while the reviewer considers it highly problematic in the UX305, going as far as to wonder why Asus would insist on keeping that darn button in such an “illogical” bias. Well, the explanation is easy: Asus is keeping it there because Apple is keeping it there, because they’re literally copying the whole aesthetic. Somewhat inexplicably, what isn’t a problem in the MBA becomes a sore point in the UX305. Actually, there is an explanation: bias. Bias that is blatantly obvious to somebody like me, who has been forced by life circumstances and choices to see it, try to understand it and redirect it to a healthier perspective – or plainly a more practical one – where possible. This highly reputable online publication is clearly oblivious to the pretty extreme bias they’re showing and this is because their prejudice is not voluntary or by design. Anandtech doesn’t want to rain on Asus’ parade and elevate Apple products, there are plenty of sources to do that around. Anandtech is reputable for being objective, but here we can clearly see that they fail, and they fail in this instance because they’re being swept up by the aforementioned institutionalized bias. They’re fundamentally victims of a system of prejudice that has permeated most of our society and biased to assume negative values of any PC while attaching positive ones to Apple products. Hence why the exact same button on the exact same position is inconsequential on the Apple machine but a clear, obvious big problem in the Asus machine that seems a baffling design oversight to the reviewer.

Now, some will criticize these reviews were written by two different authors. I’d argue that is a moot point, as the website is viewed as one single publication and thus represents the view of them as a journalistic entity. In fact, it’s not a phenomenon only appreciable in the writing, it’s in the whole presentation of the product. This is how the MBA review shows the laptop’s keyboard (since they don’t talk about it because it’s fine, we can only see it in product pictures):

MBA key

Great, right? A regular, simple, professional product picture taken in a well lit environment. Now check how the UX305 keyboard is showcased in its review:

UX key

Huh. Well, I guess Asus wasn’t worthy of a) good lighting, b) a decent full frame or at least APSC camera like the MBA was. This is neither a professional or an acceptable picture for a product review in a site such as Anandtech. The picture is so bad, in fact, that whoever took it didn’t even bother to align the shot to not show a weirdly diagonal view of the keyboard, nor did they correct the very obvious lens distortion that makes the keyboard look bent/curved. Maybe they thought that cheap texture on the bottom made it look better…? But then again, who cares, right? It’s just a PC, it’s not worthy of the time and respect given to the greatness of the MBA.

This bias is so strong that the simple visual representation of the product reviewed is showing the authors’ conception of the device. The MBA is wonderful, the Asus is cheap. Read the reviews, and you’ll see that both reviews conclude that these are both, in fact, great products that you should consider buying. The institutionalized, subconscious bias that permeates both reviews, though, tells a different story: buy the slick MBA, consider the Asus, I guess, if you don’t mind cheap bent horrible laptops with power buttons that are great on Apple products but transform into the root of all evil in PCs.

There will be no judgment from me on this issue, as there is little point on evaluating the bias. The only thing I can do is point it out, make it obvious to others. I do this not just with tech – although it’s become an easy process in the past few years – I do this at work, with students, in real life, about politics, gender, you name it. As I said before, bias is everywhere. If you don’t realize it, you play into and perpetuate it. If you recognize it and don’t fight back, you play into and perpetuate it, but have and added responsibility towards equality that you have failed at. If you see, identify, understand, publicize and deconstruct it by showing others its flawed logic, then we’re on the right path to a better society. My specific example might be about a laptop, and I myself wouldn’t have noticed it had I not been in the very specific situation I was, but it applies to so much more in life, and we should strive to change such bias to a more open, objective and fair view of life.

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