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Tech Confronts Its Use of the Labels 'Master' and 'Slave'


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The U.S. has issued more than 67,000 patents since 1976 that use the terms master and slave.

The Black Lives Matter movement is prompting renewed scrutiny of diversity and equity in techincluding its vocabulary.

Credit: Sam Whitney

A few years ago, Karla Monterroso was at an airport when she noticed a glitch in a computer monitor that would normally display flight information. Instead, the screen showed the text "Master/Slave," repeated at least 10 times from top to bottom.

"I remember freaking out about it and going to [people working in] the terminal and letting them know that I thought that's really inappropriate," says Monterroso, CEO of Code 2040, a nonprofit dedicated to racial equality and inclusion in tech. "And they're like, 'No, that's just the technology. That's what the technology says.'"

The words master and slave have been widely used for decades in computing and other technical contexts, as a reference to situations where one process or entity controls another. Sometimes the metaphor is less precise: A "master" may simply lead, serve as a primary resource, or be considered first. Since 1976 the US has issued more than 67,000 patents using the terms, from an antenna system to a data-encoding method to a "vehicle ramp assembly."

Now, the Black Lives Matter movement is prompting renewed scrutiny of diversity and equity in tech—including its vocabulary.

 

From Wired
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