Tag Archives: geek culture

Can geekiness be decoupled from whiteness?

As a fledgling nerd in my teens and early twenties, grammar pedantry was an important part of geek identity for me. At the time, I thought that being a geek had a lot to do with knowing facts and rules, and with making sure that other people knew you knew those facts and rules. I thought that people wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other clearly without rigid adherence to grammatical rules, a thought that may have been influenced by the predominance of text-based, online communication in my social life at the time.

The text: Let's eat grandma! Let's eat, Grandma! Punctuation saves lives, juxtaposed with an image of an older woman
The image shames people for where they place commas and suggests sarcastically that a punctuation error could result in misunderstanding of a suggestion to have a meal as a suggestion to practice cannibalism.

If Facebook had existed at the time, I would have been sharing this image, and others like it, with the best of them. I was sure that correct use of punctuation and adherence to the grammatical rules of standard American English was an essential step along the way to achieving truth, justice, and the American Way. Though I wasn’t sure exactly how. It definitely seemed a lot easier to teach people how to use commas correctly than to teach them how to take another’s point of view (something I wasn’t very good at myself at the time), and like the drunk looking for their keys underneath the lamppost because that’s where it’s easier to see, I ran with it.

Nerds, Rules, and Race

A few years ago, Graydon Hoare mentioned Mary Bucholtz’s article “The Whiteness of Nerds” (PDF link) to me. As a recovering grad student, I don’t read a lot of scholarly articles anymore, but this one has stayed with me. Perhaps that’s because the first time I read it, felt embarrassed. I felt that I had been read. By this point, I suppose I had let go of some of my attachment to grammar pedantry, but I still felt that it was just a bit of harmless fun. I realized that without being consciously aware of it, I had been using devotion to formal rules as a way to perform my whiteness — something that I would certainly have denied I was doing had someone accused me of such.

Bucholtz argues, in short, that geek culture (among American youths) is a subculture defined, essentially, by being whiter than white:

“This identity, the nerd, is racially marked precisely because individuals refuse to engage in cultural practices that originate across racialized lines and instead construct their identities by cleaving closely to the symbolic resources of an extreme whiteness, especially the resources of language.”

Bucholtz is not saying that there are no nerds of color — just that nerd culture, among the teenagers she studied, was defined by hyper-devotion to a certain set of white cultural norms (which some youths of color are perfectly happy to adopt, just as some white youths perform an identification with hip-hop culture).

If we accept her analysis of nerd culture, though, it’s clear that it excludes some people more than others. Adopting hyper-whiteness is an easier sell for people who are already white than for people who are potentially shrugging off their family of origin’s culture in order to do so. If it’s assumed that a young person has to perform the cultural markers of nerd culture in order to be accepted as someone who belongs in a science class or in a hackerspace, then it’s harder for youths of color to feel that they belong in those spaces than it is for white youths. That’s true even though obsessing about grammar has little to do with, say, building robots.

In my own youth, I would have said that I liked nitpicking about grammar because it was fun, probably, and because I wanted to communicate “correctly” (perhaps the word I would have used then) so that I could be understood. But was I harping over it for the intrinsic pleasure of it, or because it was a way for me to feel better than other people?

I think people who have been bullied and abused tend to use rules in the hopes that rules will save them. It’s true that many kids who are academically gifted and/or interested in science, math and engineering experience bullying and even abuse, even those who are otherwise (racially, gender-wise, and economically) privileged. It’s also true that some of the same people grow up to abuse their power over others in major ways, as most of the previous posts on this blog show. As a child, I thought that someday, someone was going to show up and stop my mother from abusing me and that that would be made possible by the fact that it was against the rules to hit children. I think that’s part of how I got so interested in formal systems of rules like grammar — eventually leading me to pursue programming language theory as a field of study, which is about using formal systems of rules to make computers do things. I suspect many nerds had a similar experience to mine.

But it’s easier to like formal systems of rules when those rules usually protect you. If you live in a country where the laws were made by people like you, and are usually enforced in ways that protect you, it’s easier to be enamored of technical adherence to the law. And, by analogy, to prescriptive sets of rules like “standard English” grammar. It’s also easier to feel affection for systems of rules when people like yourself usually get a say in constructing them.

Not all nerds are abuse survivors, so perhaps other nerds (as adults) value rule-following because they believe that their aptitude for compliance to formal systems of rules is the key to their economic success. From there, it’s easy to jump to victim-blaming: the line of thought that goes, “If other people would just learn and follow the rules, they would be successful too.”

“Mrs. Smith is a wonderful linguist. Give her a few hours with a grammar and she’ll know everything except the pronunciation.” — Graham Greene, The Comedians

In Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians, set in Haiti in the 1950s, Mrs. Smith — an American who is in the country to proselytize for vegetarianism (not realizing that in the country she’s visiting, nobody can afford to eat meat) — believes that all she needs to do to speak the language of the natives, wherever she’s going, is to memorize the language’s grammatical rules. Not only does she not (apparently) realize the difference between Haitian Creole and Parisian French, she doesn’t seem to know (or doesn’t care) about idioms, slang, or culture. If she really is a wonderful linguist, perhaps she has a native ability to pick up on connotations, which she’s discounting due to her belief that adherence to rules is what makes her successful.

In general, it’s possible that some grammar pedantry is motivated by a sincere belief that if others just learned how to speak and write standard English, they’d be able to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps. But success doesn’t automatically grant insight into the reasons for your success. Maybe understanding rules is secondary to a more holistic sort of talent. Maybe you’re ignoring white privilege, class privilege, and other unearned advantages as reasons for your success, and others won’t enjoy the same outcome just by learning to be good at grammar.

Maybe it’s especially tempting for programmers to play the prescriptivist-grammar game. By nature, programming languages are prescriptive: for programs to make sense at all, a language has to have a formal grammar, a formal mathematical description of what strings of characters are acceptable programs. If there was a formal grammar for English, it would say, for example, that “The cat sat on the mat.” is a valid sentence, and “Mat cat on the sat.” is not. But there isn’t one; English is defined by what its speakers find acceptable, just as every other human language is. Different speakers may disagree on what sentences are acceptable, so linguists can outline many different dialects of English — all of which are mutually understandable, but which have different grammatical rules. There is no correct dialect of English, any more than any given breed of dog is the correct dog.

Programming consists largely of making details explicit — because you’re talking to a not-very-bright computer — that most other humans would be able to fill in from context. Context is why most of the grammar memes that people share are very shallow: no English speaker would actually sincerely confuse “Let’s eat Grandma!” with “Let’s eat, Grandma”, because of contextual knowledge: mostly the contextual knowledge that humans don’t treat each other as food and so the first sentence is very unlikely to be intended, but also the contextual knowledge that we’re talking to Grandma and have been talking about preparing dinner (or, I suppose, the knowledge that we have survived a plane crash and are stranded with no other food sources). If punctuation really was a life-and-death matter any appreciable portion of the time, the human race would be in deep trouble — on the whole, we’re much better at spoken language, and written language is a relatively recent and rare development.

But I think programmers have a good reason to value breaking rules, because that’s what programmers do whenever they are being truly creative or innovative (sometimes known as “disruption”). Hacking — both the kind sometimes known as “cracking” and the legal kind — are about breaking rules. In spoken language, grammatical rules are often (if not always) developed ex-post-facto. It’s probably more fun to study how people actually use language and discover how it always has internal structure than it is to harp on compliance with one particular set of rules for one particular dialect.

Bucholtz argues that nerds are considered “uncool” by virtue of being too white, surprisingly, since white people are the dominant cultural group in the region she was studying. She made that observation in 2001, though. Now, in 2014, “nerd” has come to mean “rich and high status” (at least if you’re male), much more than it means “unpopular and ignored”. We hear people talk about the revenge of the nerds, but are we really talking about the revenge of the hyper-white? Nerds often see themselves as rebelling against an oppressive mainstream culture; is it contradictory to resist oppression by defining oneself as “other” to the oppressor culture… by outdoing the oppressor at their own game?

Bucholtz addresses this question by arguing that while “cool” white youths walk a delicate balance between actng “too black” and “too white”, “nerdy” white youths resolve this tension by squarely aiming for “too white”. I don’t think she would say that the “cool” white kids are anti-racist, just that in defining themselves in opposition to the cool kids’ appropriation of Black American culture, nerds run the risk of behaving so as to devalue and stigmatize the culture being appropriated, intentionally or not.

Moreover, we know that cultural appropriation isn’t a respectful act; are the “hyper-white nerds” actually the anti-racist ones because they refrain from appropriating African-American culture? And does it matter whether we’re talking about youth culture (in which intellectualism can often go unappreciated) or adult culture (where intellectualism pays well)? I’d welcome any thoughts on these questions.

Unbundling Geekiness

What am I really doing if I click “Share” on that “Let’s eat Grandma!” image? I’m marking myself as discerning and educated, and I don’t even have to spell out to anyone that by doing those things, I’m shoring up my whiteness — the culture already did the work for me of convincing everyone that if you’re formally educated, you must be white; that if you aren’t, you must be poor; and then if you’re a person of color and formally educated, you must want to be white. I’m also marking myself as someone who has enough spare time and emotional resources to care a lot about something that has no bearing on my survival.

Incidentally, I’m also marking myself as someone whose neurology does not make it unusually difficult to process written language. There are similar memes I can share that would also mark me as someone who is not visually impaired and thus does not use a screen reader that would make it impossible for me to spell-check text for correct use of homophones. An example of the latter would be a meme that makes fun of someone who writes “fare” instead of “fair”, when the only way to avoid making such a typographical error is to have the ability to see the screen. In “Why Grammar Snobbery Has No Place in the Movement”, Melissa A. Fabello explores these points and more as she argues that social justice advocates should reject grammar snobbery. I agree, and also think that geeks — regardless of whether they also identify as being in “the movement” — should do the same, as it’s ultimately counterproductive for us too.

Geek identity doesn’t have to mean pedantry, about grammar or even about more substantive matters. The Hacker School Rules call out a more general phenomenon: the “well-actually”. The rules define a “well-actually” as a correction motivated by “grandstanding, not truth-seeking”. Grammar pedantry is almost always in the former category: it would be truth-seeking if it was about asking what unclear language means, but it’s usually targeted at language whose meaning is quite clear. I think that what the Hacker School document calls “grandstanding” is often about power dynamics and about who is favored and disfavored under systems of rigid rules. But rules are to serve values, not the other way around; I think geekiness has the potential to be anti-racist if we use our systems of rules in the service of values like love and justice, rather than letting ourselves be used by those systems.

Thanks to Chung-Chieh Shan and Naomi Ceder, as well as Geek Feminism bloggers Mary and Shiny for their comments on drafts.

Quick hit: when non-macho guys are on top of the heap

There’s a discussion around the journalism startups that well-known journalists are involved in, and the extent to which they are yet another set of startups full of white men. (Basically, yes.) Emily Bell wrote Journalism startups aren’t a revolution if they’re filled with all these white men.

I thought readers here would especially enjoy Zeynep Tufekci’s contribution, No, Nate, brogrammers may not be macho, but that’s not all there is to it. An excerpt:

Many tech guys, many young and recently ascendant, think something along these lines: “Wait, we’re not the jocks. We aren’t the people who were jerks. We never pushed anyone into a locker and smashed their face. We’re the people who got teased for being brainy, for not being macho, the ones who never got a look from the popular girls (or boys), the ones who were bullied for our interests in science and math, and… what’s wrong with Dungeons & Dragons, anyway?”

In other words, as Silver puts it, “We’re outsiders, basically.”[…]

[L]ife’s not just high school, and there is not one kind of hierarchy. What happens when formerly excluded groups gain more power, like techies? They don’t just let go of their old forms of cultural capital. Yet they may be blind to how their old ways of identifying and accepting each other are exclusionary to others. They still interpret the world through their sense of status when they were “basically, outsiders.”

Most tech people don’t think of it this way, but the fact that most of them wear jeans all the time is just another example of cultural capital, an arbitrary marker that’s valued in their habitus, both to delineate it and to preserve it. Jeans are arbitrary, as arbitrary as ties[…]

How does that relate to the Silver’s charged defense that his team could not be “bro-y” people? Simple: among the mostly male, smart, geeky groups that most programmers and technical people come from, there is a way of existing that is, yes, often fairly exclusionary to women but not in ways that Silver and his friends recognize as male privilege.

Tufekci’s whole piece is at Medium, come for the Bourdieu, stay for the Dr Seuss!

If you were hacking since age 8, it means you were privileged.

This post was originally published at Restructure!

Often, computer geeks who started programming at a young age brag about it, as it is a source of geeky prestige. However, most computer geeks are oblivious to the fact that your parents being able to afford a computer back in the 1980s is a product of class privilege, not your innate geekiness. Additionally, the child’s gender affects how much the parents are willing to financially invest in the child’s computer education. If parents in the 1980s think that it is unlikely their eight-year-old daughter will have a career in technology, then purchasing a computer may seem like a frivolous expense.

Because of systemic racism, class differences correlate with racial demographics. In the Racialicious post Gaming Masculinity, Latoya quotes a researcher’s exchange with an African American male computer science (CS) undergraduate:

“Me and some of my black friends were talking about the other guys in CS. Some of them have been programming since they were eight. We can’t compete with that. Now, the only thing that I have been doing since I was eight is playing basketball. I would own them on the court. I mean it wouldn’t be fair, they would just stand there and I would dominate. It is sort of like that in CS.”
— Undergraduate CS Major

Those “other guys” in CS are those white, male geeks who brag in CS newsgroups about hacking away at their Commodore 64s as young children, where successive posters reveal younger and younger ages in order to trump the previous poster. This disgusting flaunting of privilege completely demoralizes those of us who gained computer access only recently. However, CS departments—which tend to be dominated by even more privileged computer geeks of an earlier era when computers were even rarer—also assume that early computer adoption is a meritocratic measure of innate interest and ability.

Continue reading

Geeky. Black. Female. Android.

This is cross-posted at Restructure!

In the futuristic city of Metropolis, Cindi Mayweather, a.k.a. Android # 57821, falls in love with a human named Anthony Greendown. As a result, the Star Commission schedules for her immediate disassembly. Cindi Mayweather hides in the Neon Valley Street District, while card-carrying android bounty hunters are urged to capture her for a reward. The Droid Control Marshalls forbid the bounty hunters from using phasers that day; they can only use chainsaws and electro-daggers.

Janelle Monáe, Metropolis. Suite I, The Chase. XOOO The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monae. Suites II and III. XXXO

Cindi Mayweather is actually the alter-ego of Janelle Monáe, an underrated, multi-talented American recording artist, and apparent science fiction geek. Jason Heller of sci-fl/fantasy site Tor writes of Monáe:

Monáe herself has said how indebted to the SF canon she is: In interviews she’s gushed about Philip K. Dick, The Matrix, Metropolis (a film she pays visual tribute to on the cover of The ArchAndroid), and most often Octavia E. Butler, a visionary writer whose ethnocentric SF clearly marks her as Monáe’s aesthetic godmother. [...] Monáe isn’t dabbling in SF. She takes the stuff passionately and seriously.

In her lyrics, Monáe alludes to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, kryptonite, and thinks of herself as “something like a Terminator“. (On the other hand, her lyrics also include some ableist (and nonsensical) phrases like, “shake it like schizo”.)

From her first album, Metropolis, the music video for “Many Moons” is about an Annual Android Auction featuring a performance by Cindi Mayweather, in which Monáe dances erratically and does the moonwalk:

If you liked that video and want more highly-polished videos by Monáe, check out “Tightrope”, which is not sci-fi-themed but has fantasy elements and gender-liberating dancing, as well as the trailer for The ArchAndroid, in which the camera pans around a futuristic city-scape that turns out to be Monáe’s hat.


Related links (thanks, yatima):

Playing with women’s boundaries

Trigger warning: contains mentions of implied sexual assault.

Between around 2000 and 2005, mostly during my second and third attempts at tertiary study, I racked up substantially more than one year’s worth of time in a text-based RPG. The particular one I played was a very heavily customised CircleMUD and had been going for quite a number of years at that stage.

Back then, I was an environment geek, or so I thought. It was during the second tertiary course that I learned the uber-basics of how The Internets worked, mostly from trying and (given my inexperience) largely succeeding in creating a website for a class project. The site was to document the species found in an ecological restoration site.

I learned HTML in the space of a weekend, and continued on to create the entire umpteen bazillion HTML files over the following few weeks. By hand. In static HTML. And frustrating the hell out of the teacher who could not get over my use of Notepad as my preferred way to edit HTML files. You really do not want to know what she wanted me to use.

All the while I was doing this, I was spending my spare time smiting the living daylights out of textually represented orcs, goblins, trolls and so forth, doing quest tasks, and generally having a fun time. So much fun that I started contributing to the game by making zones — new lands full of things to smite to shit, and be smited by.

I was prolific in my zone building. I tidied several orphaned zones up to start with, then I earned the privilege of being able to add completely new zones and expand one of the adopted zones to be a whole new area which was richly scripted. I moderated the communications channels, and helped form policies. I had a penchant for running weekly quests and all this meant that by the time I left, I ranked moderately in the deity hierarchy and knew how to code.

There was a small group of regulars who were women. That is, women in Real Life. To say we were “sought after” would be an understatement. To say that some of the dudes didn’t know boundaries is probably a larger one. At least once I had someone attempt to enact a caveman mating ritual. For real. Using a knock-out spell and the “R” word and everything. It was awful, but thankfully my protests were heard and the asshole was banned for a significant period of time and learned from his mistake.

Unfortunately, there was not always this level of understanding.

Years later, towards the end of my playing days, there was an individual who developed an obsession with myself and one of the other deity women. He abused the messaging services within the game, and when he realised that we had set him to ignore on all fronts, he proceeded to abuse scripted things within the game such as the florists, and out-of-game contact methods like email, to send us things. Awful things. Like links to pictures of hysteria machines saying how fun they would be for us. The higher deities were aware, and some of them did their best to spare us from the harassment, banning him when things got bad. At one point, the individual even posted a hate website to try slut-shame our characters.

Then, one day, the asshole appeared online as a deity himself. We could no longer avoid him, as he too was now a deity and impervious to ignore filters. What the hell was happening?!

It turns out that this little freak had befriended the administrator’s fiancée, and then the admin. They had decided that since we’d never taken our complaints to the admin himself until the promotion — just the deities above our own rank — that they didn’t have to care. We were told that we were just making stuff up for the sake of spite, then we were reprimanded rather fiercely by the fiancée for getting angry at her for defending the asshole.

I tried to hang around for a while, and even tried to continue playing under the guise of an alternate character. Alas, the fun was no longer there.

Our degenerate modern linkspamming society (18th December, 2009)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism†to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Geek culture stereotypes and women’s responses

Links to Lisa Grossman’s Of Geeks and Girls have been turning up everywhere. She’s recounting work by Sapna Cheryan asking women about their interest in computing, in their case rooms that are decorated such that “Star Wars posters adorned the walls, discarded computer parts and cans of Coke clustered on a table” and showing that they are much less likely to agree that they have any interest in computer science. (Grossman does not report how men responded: surely Cheryan’s work used male subjects as well?)

The article goes on to caution though that while geek culture stereotypes seem to alienate women to some degree, dismantling the whole culture is not the solution:

But what about the women who do think like computer scientists? What of the girl geeks?

Cheryan has given talks where the audience doubted the existence of girl geeks. She’s also given talks to girl geeks. There, she has received responses such as, “I’m a female engineer, and I like Star Trek! What are you trying to say?†She explains that her studies aren’t supposed to give a picture of what computer scientists are actually like. The geek room is a caricature. “We couldn’t have found a room in the CS building that really looked like that,†she says. But the perception it captures is real.

It’s a fairly frequent response to geek feminism to argue that it’s an attempt to destroy geek culture, or at best that it’s a zero sum game: the number of women who would join a more feminist geek culture would be equalled by the number of men who would leave; occasionally this argument essentially boils down to “I’m here to get the hell away from women” but more commonly it’s along the lines of “I’m here to get the hell away from mainstream social norms, I like the social norms in geekdom, you’re trying to turn them into mainstream social norms, ew.” This reminds me of that response, but from women. We’re here for the geekdom. We talk about what we want to change; we should also talk about what we want to keep.

You’re welcome to discuss Cheryan’s work and Grossman’s take on it in general in comments here (worth remembering though that we generally don’t have perfect insight into our prejudices, so you may or may not be more turned off by discarded computer parts than you think), but I specifically wanted to ask women who see themselves as part of geek culture, or a geek culture, what are the parts of it that you enjoy and that you’re hoping to open up to more women?