Monday, May 24, 2021

Discriminatory code: R, the academic formerly known as Ray

Issues of digital identity are always complex.

Recently my long-time employer, the Open University, implemented a blanket email format change, incorporating first names in the email addresses of all staff, except for a handful of us who became aware of an option and took steps to opt out. This was done in spite of several prior warnings about the discriminatory effects of such real names policies.

I am deeply disappointed that my university has gone ahead with this policy which I consider is institutionally sexist, racist, anti-LGBTQ, discriminatory against other marginalised groups and wholly at odds with our values.

There is a long history of real/proper/full names policies creating disproportionately adverse consequences for different ethnic groups, women, neurodiverse and LGBTQ people. There are a multitude of reasons why people would choose not to include their first name in an email address and it is incumbent upon the Open University to respect those wishes.

The opt out, incidentally, consisted of those who were concerned, in advance and sufficiently alert to the potential fallout from the imposition of the format change, that, currently, most have neither the time nor energy to expend exhausted cognitive resources upon, engaging, on an individual basis, in DIY human resources system administration to change their preferred first name to an initial, in the requisite field/s.

In essence, I am now known officially, in OU systems, as R, not Ray.

Anecdotally, in two separate Open University Adobe Connect meetings last week, I was explicitly called out by the host/s as someone with a name they could not identify.

"I see there is an R.Corrigan who I don't know..."

"R.Corrigan, I'm not sure who you are..."

Proceedings were more or less paused to invite me to say who I was.

I declined and, on the second occasion, simply left the meeting.

Consider a member of a marginalised community placed in the same predicament.

We know about the discriminatory effects of architecture and built environments.

Communications infrastructure discriminatory effects are also very real and very serious.

The Open University should not be engaging in or perpetuating them. 

There was no intention, on the part of the people at the OU who conceived and implemented this policy or on the part of the University's executives who approved it, to discriminate. However, they were very clearly and repeatedly warned of the issues in advance of the policy implementation. They pressed ahead anyway. Additionally, once such infrastructure is in place, it is wholly irrelevant whether the architects intended to discriminate or not - the discriminatory effects are built in and there is no simple flick of a switch available to negate or reverse them. That is the nature of computer code.

The Open University is a unique and invaluable public service.

I expect much better of this venerable institution.

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