Author Archives: mizchalmers

Book Club: Coding Freedom, Part II: Codes of Value

In Part II of Coding Freedom, Biella begins the vital work of problematizing the meritocratic ideal.

“Hackers will publicly acknowledge… acts of “genius” and are thus fiercely meritocratic – in ideology and practice. Yet given that so much of hacker production is collective, a fact increasingly acknowledged and even celebrated in the ethical philosophy of F/OSS, a commitment to individualism, meritocracy, and independence is potentially subverted by the reality of as well as the desire to recognize their fundamental interdependence. The belief in the value of individuality coupled with the constant need for the help of other hackers points to a subtle paradox that textures their social world.”

Who among us picked up any technical skills whatsoever without the help of someone more skilled who helped us out just because, in the spirit of paying it forward? Patient friends, lucid documentation, gentle answers on mailing lists: these are the familiar stepping stones from n00b to basic competence. Depending on your point of view, they exist in dynamic tension with, or in stark contrast to, the Romantic hero, powered only by genius and Mountain Dew. You know, this guy:

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

There is for sure a seductive aspect to the idea of meritocracy, an aspect that’s maybe especially potent for adolescent people – or nations – who are trying to separate their identities from their progenitors in order to individuate and develop their potential. It’s understandable, but it shouldn’t survive contact with the real world, which is nothing if not More Complicated Than That.

“The United States is often thought of as a living embodiment of meritocracy: a nation where people are judged on their individual abilities alone. The system supposedly works so well because, as the media myth goes, the United States provides everyone with equal opportunity, usually through public education, to achieve their goals. As such, the hierarchies of difference that arise from one’s ability (usually to achieve wealth) are sanctioned by this moral order as legitimate.”

You’ve got to love the strategic deployment of qualifiers in the above passage, especially if, like me, you have come late in life to the conviction that meritocracy is bullshit. Yeah. I said it. The single biggest flaw in the idea of meritocracy is the proposition that there are people who are without merit. This is, to put it mildly, not the case.

The second biggest flaw in the idea of meritocracy is that it’s just a recursive modern gloss on the Divine Right of Kings. Leaders in the (ostensibly-meritocratic) open source community are entitled to exercise power because of their merit. The proof of their merit? Is their exercise of power. The word “meritocracy” is an ungainsayable defense of the status quo. It’s conservatism in a nutshell. As Alexander Pope once, infuriatingly, put it: “Whatever is, is right.”

This week, in which Linux kernel developer Sarah Sharp advanced the revolutionary notion that programming could be carried on without ad hominem attacks, has added special piquancy to this passage from Biella’s book:

“When Torvalds and Murdock developed their own projects (the Linux kernel and Debian, respectively), they did things differently than the earlier cadre of Unix hackers by fostering a more egalitarian environment of openness and transparency. Participation was encouraged, and recognition was given where it was due. Accepting more contributions was also, of course, seen as a way to improve and encourage technical efficiency.”

Biella acknowledges that Linux and Debian grew up to be very different projects, and goes on to discuss Debian’s Social Contract, Free Software Guidelines and Constitution. She has some sharp observations on the fear within the Debian community that the “meritocracy” will be “corrupted.”

I’d like to propose that the notion of meritocracy is itself corrupt. Ideas may have, or lack, merit. People have worth, and every person is worth more than we can possibly imagine. Inclusive communities are likely to write the best software because in them, ideas can compete on their (yes!) merits; and because software written by the other communities has exclusion coded into its very DNA.

But, y’know, I’m not a kernel coder, so who the hell cares what I think? ;) More to the point, dear readers: what do you think?

Book Club: Coding Freedom, Part I: Histories

(Sorry this is so late! Life kept happening, and then the blog went down :)

Since this is a book that deserves and rewards attention, and since we all seem to be reading it slowly as a result, let’s just discuss it one section at a time. From the introduction:

Free software hackers culturally concretize a number of liberal themes and sensibilities— for example, through their competitive mutual aid, avid free speech principles, and implementation of meritocracy along with their frequent challenge to intellectual property provisions.

(I’ll get to that “meritocracy” bit in good time.) One of the great points Biella makes early on is that hacking, while recognizably part of the liberal tradition, uses liberal techniques to critique liberalism itself. This restless contrarianism showed up earliest around IP, of course:

The expansion of intellectual property law, as noted by some authors, is part and parcel of a broader neoliberal trend to privatize what was once public or under the state’s aegis, such as health provision, water delivery,
and military services. “Neoliberalism is in the “first instance,” writes David Harvey (2005, 2), “a theory of political economic practices that proposes human well- being can be best advanced by liberating entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong property rights, free markets, and free trade.” As such, free software hackers not only reveal a long- standing tension within liberal legal rights but also offer a targeted critique of the neoliberal drive to make property out of almost anything, including software.

Oh, the 1990s. On the one hand you had a set of corporatist states seeking to exercise ever-more-restrictive controls around, for example, the precious, precious image of Mickey Mouse and music of Metallica; on the other hand you had a ragtag crew of approximately-libertarian hackers still simmering over the injustices handed down in the Unix wars. In between you had every other imaginable nuance of position. Shenanigans, naturally, ensued, and both Biella and I were on hand for the fun. I met her at various Bay Area Linux User Group and EFF events while she was conducting fieldwork in San Francisco around the turn of the millennium.

Those were glory days. The brilliance of Richard Stallman’s GPL was just beginning to make itself apparent. The GPL has radically transformed both the culture and the economics of software in ways that will continue to play out for the foreseeable future. Biella justly celebrates the terrific humor of hackers and hacking – I don’t think I really understood software, or my life partner, until I first looked into the Jargon file – and the GPL is one of hacking culture’s best and subtlest and most effective jokes.

Stallman approached the law much like a hacker treats technology: as a system that by virtue of being systemic and logical, is hackable. In other words, he relied on the hacker technical tactic of clever reuse to imaginatively hack the law by creating the GNU GPL, a near inversion of copyright law… By grafting his license on top of an already- existing system, Stallman dramatically increased the chances that the GPL would be legally binding. It is an instance of an ironic response to a system of powerful constraint, and one directed with unmistakable (and creative) intention— and whose irony is emphasized by its common descriptor, copyleft, signaling its relationship to the very artifact, copyright, that it seeks to displace.

What the GPL and the Jargon file share with the code itself is the ways in which they resemble literature – celebrating and codifying a culture – and the ways in which they resemble law – functioning as the constitutions of public spaces of the mind. (I think of the Unixes as a kind of Colossal Caves, only somehow more real.) And this, ultimately, is why we talk about coding freedom, and why the freedom part matters. Software systems are at once frontiers, meeting places and societies.

In the words of one programmer who helped me (a novice user) fix a problem on my Linux machine, “Unix is not a thing, it is an adventure.”

That’s the way I see Debian: alive.

This book is reminding me how much I love it here, but it’s also refreshingly blunt about hacker culture’s failings:

Along with the awkwardness I experienced during the first few weeks of fieldwork, I was usually one of the only females present during hacker gatherings, and as a result felt even more out of place.

That said, the answer is right there staring us in the face. Just as hacker culture uses liberal techniques to reform liberal techniques, geek feminists can and do hack hacker culture.

During cons, participants make crucial decisions that may alter the character and future course of the developer project. For example, at Debconf4, the few women attending, spearheaded by the efforts of Erinn Clark, used the time and energy afforded by an in- person meeting to initiate and organize Debian Women Project, a Web site portal and IRC mailing list to encourage female participation by visibly demonstrating the presence of women in the largely male project. Following the conference, one of the female Debian developers, Amaya Rodrigo, posted a bug report calling for a Debian Women’s mailing list, explaining the rationale in the following way:

From: Amaya Rodrigo Sastre
To: Debian Bug Tracking System
Subject: Please create debian- women mailing list
Date: Tue, 01 Jun 2004 22:12:30 +0200
Package:lists.debian.org
Severity: normal

Out of a Debconf4 workshop the need has arisen for a mailing list oriented to debating and coordinating the different ways to get a larger female userbase. Thanks for your time :- ).

Given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow, right? I’m trying to feel my way towards an evidence-based geek feminism, in which my ideas and practices are continually tested and assessed for usefulness or otherwise. Maybe the trick is to be woman enough to cull my ideas when they are bad?

Book Club: Coding Freedom

You came, you voted and we have a clear winner! I’m delighted to announce that the next Book Club pick will be Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, by the awesome Gabriella Coleman. The book is available for free download.

Go! Read! Let’s meet back here on Thursday, May 9th! I’m pretty sure this one’s going to rock our socks off.

Book Club: What should we read next?

Attention constant readers! It is time to choose our next victim book!

Here are the three candidates left over from our original vote, plus one wild card:

bell hooks, Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice

208 pages

What are the conditions needed for our nation to bridge cultural and racial divides? By “writing beyond race,” noted cultural critic bell hooks models the constructive ways scholars, activists, and readers can challenge and change systems of domination.

Biella Coleman, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

254 pages

Who are computer hackers? What is free software? And what does the emergence of a community dedicated to the production of free and open source software–and to hacking as a technical, aesthetic, and moral project–reveal about the values of contemporary liberalism? Exploring the rise and political significance of the free and open source software (F/OSS) movement in the United States and Europe, Coding Freedom details the ethics behind hackers’ devotion to F/OSS, the social codes that guide its production, and the political struggles through which hackers question the scope and direction of copyright and patent law. In telling the story of the F/OSS movement, the book unfolds a broader narrative involving computing, the politics of access, and intellectual property.

E. Gabriella Coleman tracks the ways in which hackers collaborate and examines passionate manifestos, hacker humor, free software project governance, and festive hacker conferences. Looking at the ways that hackers sustain their productive freedom, Coleman shows that these activists, driven by a commitment to their work, reformulate key ideals including free speech, transparency, and meritocracy, and refuse restrictive intellectual protections. Coleman demonstrates how hacking, so often marginalized or misunderstood, sheds light on the continuing relevance of liberalism in online collaboration.

Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination

179 pages

In this gripping memoir of the AIDS years (1981-1996), Sarah Schulman recalls how much of the rebellious queer culture, cheap rents, and a vibrant downtown arts movement vanished almost overnight to be replaced by gay conservative spokespeople and mainstream consumerism. Schulman takes us back to her Lower East Side and brings it to life, filling these pages with vivid memories of her avant-garde queer friends and dramatically recreating the early years of the AIDS crisis as experienced by a political insider. Interweaving personal reminiscence with cogent analysis, Schulman details her experience as a witness to the loss of a generation’s imagination and the consequences of that loss.

Something else altogether

You tell me!

[poll id="2"]

Book Club: A Geek Feminist bounces off Batgirl Volume 1: The Darkest Reflection

I’ll be the first to admit that my taste in superheroism runs to the ultra-problematized, not to say outright subversive: I prefer Faith to Buffy, Grant Morrison’s Crazy Jane to Alan Moore’s Silk Spectre, Tony Stark to Bruce Wayne. As I see it, superpowers, like sex, are invariably more or less heavy-handed metaphors for something else. In Buffy and X-Men it’s puberty and burgeoning sexuality. In Doom Patrol, which meant the world to me in my twenties, it’s the marked body, simultaneously mortal and strong.

Superpowers repel me when they are used to single some folks out for special merit at the expense of everyone else. In The Incredibles Dash complains that if everyone is special, no one is. That’s exactly right, kiddo. My deepest political conviction is that everyone is extraordinary and superpowered and jewelled in their most secret inner recesses; everyone; no one is uniquely deserving of special treatment. Business Class is swankier, yes, but you must pay.

Hence my issues. In the Batman canon, superpowers are equated with effectively unlimited money and status. Bruce Wayne’s super secrets are his butler, his vast inheritance and his dungeon full of high-tech toys. As a person who has had to sit through a working lunch listening to a CEO brag about his collection of light aircraft, I find it hard to convey the extent to which this fills me with bored loathing. There’s nothing admirable about being a person like that. At least Tony Stark has shrapnel in his heart, and drinks.

At least it costs him. I’m very fond of that line of Tony’s from The Avengers: “This little circle of light. It’s part of me now, not just armor. It’s a… terrible privilege.” I like that he owns his privilege and its horrors. I like that it’s his way of reaching out to Bruce Banner, whose privileges are equally appalling. I have a lot of privilege that I want to use as a ploughshare, not a sword; the rocket that launched Curiosity to Mars, not an ICBM. Tony’s evolution from arms dealer to clean tech mogul is a useful myth in this way. Bruce Wayne’s Gothic manpain… isn’t.

All of which might explain, at least in part, why the Gail Simone Batgirl left me cold. Canonical Barbara Gordon is problematic in what for me are all the wrong ways. She’s the Police Commissioner’s daughter and the rich dude’s protege. She’s literally the tool of the patriarchy. She uses a wheelchair, yes, and then she’s miraculously healed. I appreciate that Simone lampshades this, most explicitly with her villain Mirror, who embodies the rage of the unlucky towards the lucky.

But Mirror is a villain, and Bruce Wayne, property developer, is a hero, whose acknowledgement of Barbara as Batgirl is the affirmation she needs. All her power is channeled into support for the police, and for capitalism. The arc of the narrative reverts towards the status quo. I am with Doctor Horrible in thinking that the status is not quo.

I’m sorry, but if Donald Trump praised me in any way, I would have to take a long hard look at my life and make some radical changes.

To be clear, I blame Simone for none of this. I think these are structural flaws in the Bat-canon, which tends Ayn Rand-wards and is therefore Not For Me.

I liked Barbara’s roommate, Alysia Yeoh. Alysia tapes Barbara’s cracked ribs and tells her:

If someone’s hurting you, I’m not going to sit by and watch it go on. I am not that person, are we clear?

…and then she makes laksa. I’d rather have read a whole book about her.

What am I missing? Help a Geek Feminist out.

Book Club: Three times a Geek Feminist walked away from Omelas (and two times she didn’t)

1. The most straightforward case

I tried out for a teaching gig at a riding school near where I grew up. The place was rundown and their safety standards were not up to mine: I had to insist on the students wearing helmets, and I had to double-check that everyones’ girths were correctly buckled, and there were complaints when I didn’t let the rank beginners gallop their horses around. Despite my best efforts, the horses flared their nostrils and pranced and boasted to one another. It’s what horses do.

All through our lesson, helicopters hovered over the bush nearby; and the trail ride that had gone out failed and failed and failed to come back.

It transpired that they had taken out a woman who had no English and no helmet, and her horse had bolted with her and she had fallen on her head, and the helicopter was her airlift out.

I thanked them and told them that I was no longer interested in the job. I heard, later, that she had lived, albeit with traumatic brain injury.

2. Ambiguity

Straightforward cases are rhinoceroses. They’re not quite unicorns, in that they do exist. They are just very rare.

The Sydney Anglican Church has a generous helping of Omelas. At its summer camps, bright-towered by the sea, the sunlight sparkles in the rigging of boats. Sandstone churches nestle in moss-grown gardens. At least when I was growing up, there was altogether too much shimmering tambourine. Glebe – an inner-city suburb that belongs to the church, an old word meaning the clergyman’s benefice and income – is nothing if not great parks and houses with red roofs and painted walls.

The parish to which I belonged had more Omelas in it than most. There was a room with a locked door, and in that room was a child. It was not defective and it was not dirty, but it was abused.

It would be satisfying to say that I walked away from the church because of the child. Satisfying, but untrue. I walked away – stumbled away, rather – because I was lied to, and it broke me. It wasn’t until a few years later that I found out about the child, and understood what had happened to it as of a piece with the rest of the lies.

What is true is that I can no longer remember my childhood’s sparkling boats or the old people in their robes or the music without thinking, with fury and anguish, of that child in the locked room.

Intermission: A song for Le Guin

You were the tattered paperback on my sister’s bookshelf; you were my endlessly overdue library books; you did a reading at a bookstore in the Haight the week of the September 11 attacks. Do you remember? I was the young woman in the back quietly weeping. Well, I was one of them. You taught me the true name of the shadow, and what dragons are. You taught me how to revisit my old stories and rewrite them. You showed me what I wanted to be: a mind always reaching out, reaching out to be whole. You are my Great Bear and my Master Doorkeeper. I love you.

3. A disorderly retreat

Not surprisingly, then, one of my abortive PhD proposals was on feminist scifi, and perhaps in one of my alternate-universe lives I hold the Ursula K. Le Guin Chair in Postcolonialist Speculative Fiction (is this a real thing? Because it bloody well ought to be.) In this life I have a master’s degree and am a professor of nothing, because even in 1994 when I graduated, no matter how many times I ran the numbers, I could not find a way to stay in the academy and indulge an expensive passion for equestrian sport.

More frighteningly, very few of the scenarios I ran included the ability to keep much of a roof over my own head. When I looked around at my peers and the cohort ahead of me in graduate school, their lives and prospects could best be described with words like “monastic” and “austere.” Twenty years later, when I look at the academic careers of young people with qualifications like mine, I come up with words like “predicament,” “soul-destroying” and “ongoing scandal.”

Once again, I wish I had left the academy because I was taking a principled stand against the exploitation of grad student labour. In fact, I grabbed whatever I could carry and fled.

Epilogue: Living and working in Omelas

Whether you walk, stumble or flee from Omelas, it turns out the worlds beyond the city have something in common: locked rooms in which children are being held prisoner. I live in San Francisco now, and on our good days my friends and I might qualify as mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives are not wretched. (On our bad days all bets are off.) With one voice, the authorities in our lives insist that the price of our happiness includes torture, drones, and the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. I don’t know whether this is true, but I know that I am complicit in these atrocities.

And then there’s White feminism and its history of racism (and its histories of ableism and classism and transphobia and and and.) I’m a feminist to my bone marrow, but I’ll be damned if I’ll obtain my own liberation at the expense of anyone else.

I used to think the answer to the challenge of “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” would be for the walkers to join forces, fly back to the city with helicopter gunships and free the child by any means necessary. Now I think the best we can do is practise vigilance. To watch out for people who might be locking children in rooms. And to refrain from locking children in rooms ourselves.

Have you walked away? What’s it like where you are?

Dear male allies: your sexism looks a bit like my racism

Octavia Butler

Would you indulge me in a little geeking out about intersectionality? Why, thanks. Hi, I’m Yatima and I’m a racist.

I don’t mean to be, I’m working really hard to stop it and God knows it horrifies me every time I hear something racist come out of my mouth. When I wake at 4am for a bout of self-loathing, those are among the top moments I replay, over and over. I guess you could say I am a person who sometimes says racist things but seriously? Let’s not split hairs.

Trouble is, as a white, able-bodied, educated, employed, cis, married, middle-class person, I am very, very privileged. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m a woman, I would probably never have experienced any kind of oppression based on aspects of myself that I can’t change.

But I have experienced gender discrimination, and it has irked the hell out of me, to put it mildly, and so I work for change. Fine. It took me an embarrassingly long time to take the next logical step, which is to understand that if it hurts to be singled out because you’re a woman, it hurts even more to be singled out because (say) you are a woman of color. Or a woman with a disability. Or a working-class woman. And so forth.

It’s relatively easy for me to advocate for feminist change because I can – in Ursula Le Guin’s words – offer up my experience as my wisdom. My testimony is relevant, because I am a woman. It turns out to be much harder for me to advocate for race or ability or class issues, because oftentimes I just don’t know what these issues are. My racism, and my other *isms, are a function of (among other things) my ignorance. Privilege conceals from me the experiences of not-having-privilege.

I was at about this point when Racefail erupted all over the science-fiction-blogosphere: just barely smart enough to notice that some of the white participants in the discussion were unintentionally making things worse, and to try to figure out why. That curiosity led me in turn to the 50 books by People of Color community. It’s a Livejournal comm that challenges participants to read 50 books – any 50 books – that are written by, well, people of color. And then review them. Or not. (It’s pretty mellow.)

While I didn’t finish the 50 books challenge – I think I got to the high thirties before I stopped counting (ooh, it was 45! go me!) – it was one of the best experiences of my intellectual life (says the woman with a Master’s degree and a great job in research.) For the first time, I read Doreen Baingana, Larissa Behrendt, Octavia Butler, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Iris Chang, Samuel R. Delany, Edwige Danticat, Anita Heiss, Mei Ling Hopgood, Nora K. Jemisin, Angela Johnson, Jamaica Kincade, Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, Sanjay Patel, Alex Sanchez and Jane Jeong Trenka. It was…

It was great. It changed the way I read, permanently, for the better. I no longer feel satisfied on a diet of pure Western canon.

I began to see what I was missing. I began to see some of the things the Western canon chronically leaves out and overlooks. I began to see some of the ways in which I, as an educated white middle class person, had been socialized and conditioned to speak up and interpret and analyze and assume that my (uninformed) opinion was really really interesting to other people. I began to see the ways in which my opinion was, perhaps, not.

This, to be honest, remains to this day my best strategy for fighting my own racism, and all the other prejudices that I have unthinkingly imbibed along with my privileges. I am learning to listen. I am learning to seek out other voices – not only in books but in film, music, graphic novels, journalism and blogs. I am learning to feel incomplete without them.

There’s still a time and a place for me to express my opinion on issues around race and ability and class, and it’s this: I get to be the one who says to another white person: “That was a really racist thing to say.” Or to another able-bodied person: “We need to think about improving access for disabled people.”

I don’t get to be the one who tells people of color or disabled people How It Is.

Here’s what I want to tell you, dear male allies. It is such a relief. Listening to other peoples’ voices? Is incredibly moving, and humbling, and endlessly interesting. Shutting the hell up while I do it? God, how I love the sound of not-my-own-voice. Going into battle against racists and so forth? So much easier, now that I have a faint clue what’s actually going on.

And that’s all I have to say. If you would like to know more about how women think, listen to them. Listen to Regina Spektor and Meshell Ngedeocello and Diamanda Galas. Read Madeleine Albright and Barbara Tuchman and Leslie Chang and Katherine Boo and for God’s sake, read Octavia Butler, she is seriously so completely amazing.

Come and join the Geek Feminism Book Club. We’re going to have fun.