Viterbi must end its partnership with diversity spell check

In October, Academy Award winner Geena Davis announced her partnership with Walt Disney Studios to implement the “GD-IQ: Spellcheck for Bias” software that her Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media created along with the Viterbi School of Engineering. Davis marketed the software as a way to ensure that scripts for TV and film had a complete representation of diverse characters with an emphasis on searching for gender bias. An article from The Hollywood Reporter on the issue says that the software can not only determine the number of diverse characters, but also how many lines the characters have, and even the “relative social status or positions of power assigned to the characters.” 

While this software may seem intriguing, it appears to provide producers and executives with an excuse to bypass hiring diverse writers and instead has them relying on software to be “woke” for them. USC and the Viterbi school should not allow their technology to be used to this end, as it appears to be more of a way to create token diversity as opposed to writers naturally telling diverse stories with diverse characters.

Coding is fallible, and programmers often code bias into their programs. Past Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism visiting faculty member Safiya Noble writes about this same topic in her book “Algorithms of Oppression.” Noble points to numerous instances of “human and machine errors … that demonstrate how racism and sexism are part of the architecture and language of technology.” 

Under Noble’s logic, it may be virtually impossible to make a perfectly objective software and therefore it would be ill-advised to trust it with  accurately identifying minority groups and determining which characters are “diverse” without bias. This also means that the system will inherently make bigoted assumptions based on a character’s race, gender or sexuality.

At her summit, Davis extolled the software as a solution for some of the diversity problems plaguing Hollywood today. However, the foundation on which the software is built appears to already be flawed. Davis’ comments that the system can single out minority groups would rely on reducing these minority groups to a set of characteristics for which the code could check. 

This process is essentialist in nature, as it relies on a set of checkboxes to determine if a character fits into a certain identity group. This program also sets up a large checklist, simply saying that having minority characters in your story without making a full allowance for their identity in the story. 

GD-IQ: Spellcheck for Bias also sets a dangerous precedent for screenwriting at large, as this software encourages the writing of minority characters just to make sure the program deems your script diverse enough. Simply slapping an identity on a character isn’t enough: The identity needs to be part of the character and integral to their positionality in the story. Culture is starting to move past simply showing minority characters on screen without making an effort to tell their unique stories, and this software’s use is a regression back to this time.

The software also discourages studios from reading and purchasing scripts written by writers from underrepresented communities. If the software works as advertised — by simply finding places for minority characters — studios should just hire minority writers for a “cultural punch-up.”  

Adele Lim, co-screenwriter for “Crazy Rich Asians,” left the movie’s sequel due to her white male co-writer receiving a much larger payment for writing the sequel. In an article from The Hollywood Reporter about the incident, Lim commented that people of color were often “hired to sprinkle culturally specific details on a screenplay, rather than credited with the substantive work of crafting the story.” Software like this will just make it easier for Hollywood to keep up this practice instead of valuing the work of writers of color equal to that of white writers. 

USC should not feel comfortable putting their name on something that represents both a regressive view of diversity and could allow for the continued marginalization of writers of color in Hollywood. The University should not let their technology be used in this manner, as it represents a step backward and not a step forward for representation in Hollywood. With President Carol Folt promising a new era of progress, USC and the Viterbi school should not be promoting software that fails to encourage progress in regards to minority representation.