Tag Archives: intersectionality

The Filter Bubble Is a Misguided, Privileged Notion

nina de jesus is a digital projects librarian on Mississauga land. Interests include digital preservation, information ethics, and long walks on the beach. nina conducts experiments on her life as performance art in an attempt to resist, challenge, and inspire discourse on #libtechwomen. This post originally appeared on nina’s blog.

The basic notion of the filter bubble is that personalization on the internet (with google search, facebook, etc) creates this individualized spaces where we only see things we already agree with, stuff that confirms our points of view, rather than stuff that challenges us or makes us uncomfortable.

The first and most glaring problem with this idea is that it wholly makes this into a technological problem when it is a social problem.

On the whole, we actually know this. Idioms like “birds of a feather flock together” suggest that we have a very basic, folk understanding that people tend to stick with other people who are like them. This is something that holds true in pretty much every social arena that you care to pick. From the moment we are born, we already exist in a filter bubble. A bubble that is determined by many factors outside of our control: race, gender, class, geography, etc.

Eli Pariser mentions that he is from Maine. Which is one of the least racially diverse states in the US, with 95% of the people in the 2010 US Census reporting that they are white. The fact that he is able to posit filter bubbles as a predominantly technological problem while growing up in one of the most racially segregated and homogenous states in America is… well. Exactly how my point is proven.

The thing is. Say he successfully solves the technological problem. How will this, in anyway, deal with the fact that his home state’s demographics precludes most of the white inhabitants from ever actually encountering a person of colour in real life? Where, arguably, it is far more critical that we don’t have filter bubbles so that we can experience the humanity of other people, rather than just being exposed to facts/articles/whatever.

This also explains why his solution won’t work. As the recent piece about polarization on Twitter demonstrates… Most people don’t bother seeking out stuff that disagrees with them. This is stark on a site like Twitter, where your timeline is still chronological feed, rather than one decided by relevance. You can follow people you don’t agree with, see what they post, etc. But most of us don’t bother. And this isn’t going to change anytime soon and no amount of tech whatever will change it either.

Second. Only the most privileged of people are truly able to exist within a filter bubble.

The other main part of his notion of the bubble is that it is good for ‘democracy’ and ‘responsible citizenship’ for people to be exposed to contrary view points that make them uncomfortable or challenge them.

The fact that, in his narrative, he has to describe how he used the internet, as a youth, to seek out these contrary viewpoints demonstrates, more than anything, the amount of privilege he has as a (presumably) straight, white, cis d00d.

This is a problem I often find with people who are similarly privileged.

Existing in the world as a marginalized person means that there is never a filter bubble. You don’t get protection like this.

And it doesn’t deal with the biggest culprit of filtering: the public education system. This is something particularly relevant given that it is February, Black History month. The solitary month every year where Black people get to show up in history. And we also know that every single time this month comes around, white people complain and ask why they can’t have all twelve months for white history (re: white mythology).

Then we can talk about the media in Canada. About how most of the books I read in or out of school had white men/boys as protagonists. Or how most TV shows, movies, etc. and so on likewise not only have white men/boys as protagonists, but also very much serve to emphasize this point of view as default, normal, unmarked.

I have literally spent my entire life listening to, learning about, being exposed to ideas, thoughts, worldviews that make me uncomfortable and that I do not agree with.

Instead of having to expend effort to find stuff that disagrees with me, I’m always on an eternal search for information that agrees with me. As soon as I was able to access the internet, visit the library on my own, have any amount of agency and control over the information I consumed, I have been seeking things that let me know that I am a human being. That I (and people like me) actually exist. That we live, breath, have adventures, have a history, that we have fun, that we are sad — just that we are human. That we exist.

Last, what are, precisely, the viewpoints that disagree with me or make me uncomfortable?

On the first pass, I’d say it is probably the points of view of the people who shout things like “ft” “chk” or “t**y” at me when I’m moving around and existing in public space (so happy that these people are excersing their good democratic citizenship by treating me to their challenging viewpoints in public!).

What does this mean for the internet?

Maybe it means reading sensationalized and dehumanizing stories about the death of a trans Latina, Lorena Escalera from notorious liberal/left media news rag, the New York Times.

Maybe it means reading an imperialist post when I’m just trying to learn about Ruby.

Or perhaps seeing something about how because some men are sexual predators, trans women deserve no public protection or acccommodatons.

Does it mean that I should spend my time reading the content at stormwatch or Fox News?

Or maybe it could mean that the internet is one of the very few places I have any real amount of control to filter out these points of view so that I can find people who agree with me. People I can build community with. People I can rant to/with. Find support for things that most of the world refuses to support me for.

Because, at the end of the day, I do, in fact have to live in the real world. The world where (this was me yesterday at Ryerson) I have to spend 15 minutes looking for a gender neutral washroom (and another 10 waiting for it to be unoccupied) because using either gendered washroom makes me uncomfortable and feel very unsafe. The world where if I want to regularly watch TV shows with PoC, I have to watch them in languages I don’t understand. Where I get stared at all the time in public — which does nothing to help my agoraphobia. Basically the world where — almnost my entire life — I’ve felt unsafe in most public spaces.

But, hey, filter bubbles, amirite?

He’s not the linkspam; he’s a very naughty boy (2 Aug 2013)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Structure and Justice

A few months ago, I attended a talk at Mozilla by Ted Nyman (of Github) titled “Scaling Happiness”. The video is freely available.

Nyman argued that companies with minimal formal structure are better for workers (specifically, better at maximizing workers’ happiness) than more traditional companies. Whenever someone asks whether something is “better”, I ask “better for whom?” Whose happiness was Nyman talking about? He didn’t say, but when I think about happiness, I ask what’s best for women, for people in GRSMs (gender, romantic and sexual minorities), for disabled people, and for people of color, since not too many people seem to think about what’s best for people in these groups. (For the record, I’m in the second and third of those groups, though I’m usually not perceived that way in one case, and often not perceived that way in the other.) Happiness for the dominant cadre in the software industry — that of people who have white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, and heterosexual privilege, and who lack visible disabilities — is not the same as happiness for everybody.

I don’t mean to say that happiness is a zero-sum game, that when abled white cis men are happy, that inherently takes away some of the limited pool of happiness from disabled trans women of color. Rather, part of the problem is that people who have privilege perceive happiness as a zero-sum game; part of their happiness comes from seeing themselves as better than others.

I think most people in the tech industry or in open-source or free culture communities know what I’m talking about when I say “structurelessness”. Perhaps you work at a “flat” company that encourages employees to make up wacky job titles to put on their business cards, calls everybody a “team member”, or renders everyone uncertain about who their boss is. Or maybe you’ve only worked at more structured, hierarchal organizations: ones with managers, a complicated organizational chart, ranks, and hierarchy. You probably know the distinction even if you’ve only been on one side of it.

Does structurelessness eliminate competition, abuses of power, and status hierarchies, or does it just drive them underground? To break down the question, let’s look at a few ideas about structurelessness, some of which are from Nyman’s talk and others are just things I keep hearing from people in the free/open-source software and culture world.

  • Authenticity: people are happier when they are able to be who they really are at work.
  • Informality: people are happier when they’re able to be informal at work, such as by wearing T-shirts with holes in them or saying “fuck” a lot.
  • Conduct: formal mechanisms for guiding behavior aren’t that important, since in a healthy organization, people will just be nice to each other.
  • Leadership: people whose job it is to manage aren’t necessary when people can just manage each other.
  • Accountability: formal goals and performance metrics just get in the way of getting a job done.

As a nod to structurelessness, I’ll take on these points in no particular order.

Hierarchies

First, why would a feminist argue in favor of structure when structure so often means hierarchy, and hierarchy is deeply entwined with oppression?

It’s true, I’m not a big fan of hierarchies. Maybe they can be used for good, but I haven’t seen a lot of that in reality. At the same time, though, it’s also a fallacy to think that simply declaring we’re not going to have hierarchies makes hierarchy go away. Jo Freeman wrote about this in the ’70s, in her essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”. Based on her experiences in feminist organizing, she found that groups of people (like feminist consciousness-raising groups) that declared they weren’t going to have a formal structure devolved into unofficial hierarchies, which were much harder to challenge and hold accountable.

Authenticity

Do you trust people to see you for who you are? I mean the question in two senses: (1) Do you believe that it’s even possible for you to communicate who you are to others without a great deal of effort, and (2) Do you trust others, as a general rule, enough to assume they will behave cordially towards you once they know who you are?

In his talk, Nyman talked about how in typical companies, many relationships are inauthentic. That is, people don’t act towards each other in the ways that they would in the absence of a rigid, externally imposed set of relationships. At least stereotypically, people don’t behave towards their bosses, or to their subordinates at work, the way they behave with their friends. He argued that people are happier when they can present themselves authentically and have authentic relationships, and that a less structured organization fosters such relationships.

If you are queer, or trans, or have mental illness, or all of the above, you probably know something about the perils of presenting yourself as you really are. Dan-Savage-style coming-out narratives notwithstanding, many of us who are placed socially in these ways find that we cannot be completely authentic in all aspects of our lives. I definitely want to express myself, but I have to balance that against other needs, like being able to make a living in a capitalist society. If I dressed the way I’d prefer to, if I talked more openly about the times when my depression and anxiety prevent me from getting work done, I might find it harder to fit in, to stay attached to a professional group, to stay employed, than I already do. So instead, I wear T-shirts and cargo pants, and I let people think (at times) that I’m merely disorganized or not that committed to what I do.

In my opinion, it takes a lot of privilege to assume either that greater authenticity leads to greater happiness, or that the only reason you would leave who you are at the door when you step or roll into work is the formal, organizational structure of the place where you work.

Moreover, being your authentic self in front of somebody else requires trust, and outsiders have very good reasons not to trust insiders. For me, part of what I mean when I say I lack a certain amount of privilege is that every day at work, I make calculations about who is safe to interact with and who is unsafe. Of course, there are degrees of safety and it’s not a binary choice. For example, every time someone uses “crazy” as a pejorative — suggesting that what I am is also a label to insult an idea with — that decrements their “safety” score inside my head. Almost everyone uses this word in this way — even I still do, given that I’m not free of internalized ableism — which is why I say it’s not a binary property. If my company became totally flat and got rid of all structures, processes, and goals, I wouldn’t be able to have authentic interactions just because of that. I’d still have this calculus of safety I have to apply all the time.

And what about when who you are makes people uncomfortable? If you’re queer, trans, kinky, poly, disabled, you probably either have spent a lot of time trying to blend in, or you have stories about when people become uncomfortable upon realizing some aspect of who you really are, and having to comfort them. (Or both!)

To take a completely different example, do you really want to encourage people to be “who they really are” when who they really are is a harassing creep? Maybe having to be a bit inauthentic at work serves an equalizing function, like a uniform. If you know what the rules are, it’s more likely that you’ll be able to follow them and less likely that you’ll be cast out for breaking a rule you didn’t know existed.

Informality and isolation

Usually, no one tells little kids on the playground who to play with and who not to play with. But even very little kids start forming hierarchies of exclusion when left to their own devices. Vivian Paley’s work, as documented in her book “You Can’t Say ‘You Can’t Play’” showed both that in groups of kindergarteners, leaders emerged who got to decide which kids got to play and which kids got excluded; and that a teacher could change that by imposing the simple rule that “you can’t say ‘you can’t play’”. And increasing the amount of inclusion in the group made the kids in it feel more accepted, on the whole. An advocate of structureless organizations might argue that Ms. Paley should have just let her pupils be their authentic selves and form their own social alliances. But at least according to Paley’s account, imposing the rules made the kids happier — contrary to Nyman’s claims about structurelessness and happiness.

Now, perhaps kids are just different from adults. I also don’t think it’s necessarily human nature to form hierarchies in the absence of formal rules. Fundamentally, I don’t care whether that’s because of nature or nurture. No matter what combination of nature or nurture it is, as human beings we have the latitude to choose what we will value. Personally, I value inclusion, and while I can’t prove logically to somebody else that this is something they should value too, I think there’s plenty of evidence that inclusion and the overall happiness of people in a group correlate. And, as Paley’s kindergarteners show, inclusion does not necessarily naturally arise from structurelessness.

Mentorship

Isolation is closely related to an insidious way in which people who believe themselves to be good can perpetuate oppression: the withholding of mentorship. In another context, that of law schools, Pamela J. Smith wrote about how even when Black women gain admission as law students, informal social barriers to the development of mentoring relationships with faculty members are a form of discrimination that is difficult to challenge (“Failing to Mentor Sapphire: The Actionability of Blocking Black Women from Initiating Mentoring Relationships”, reprinted in Critical Race Feminism, Adrien Katherine Wing ed.)

Informal mentoring between apparent peers is mediated by social power dynamics as well. In her book Leaving The Ivory Tower, Barbara Lovitts wrote about the importance of tacit knowledge in determining whether Ph.D students succeed or fail. Many graduate programs are quite structureless in a day-to-day way; despite having a clear hierarchy (tenured faculty, tenure-track faculty, non-tenured instructors, postdocs, grad students), new graduate students must navigate a system with very little formal structure in order to learn the unwritten rules of the game. The difference between being a popular person and an unpopular one in grad student social groups can be the difference between academic success and failure. Would fewer grad students drop out because of isolation if there was a more formal process for initiating beginning students?

In my personal experience as someone who, earlier in my life, didn’t resemble most of my colleagues, lack of mentorship is a major structural barrier to success both as an academic computer scientist and as a software engineer. And I think lack of structure translates into lack of mechanisms to encourage formal mentoring relationships — something that has a disparate impact on women, people in gender, romantic, and sexual minorities, people of color, disabled people, and everybody else who may not feel comfortable approaching someone of higher social status to ask for support.

Likewise, people with disabilities that affect how they process tacit social cues — such as people who are on the autism spectrum — may have a much easier time contributing harmoniously when the rules are made clear than when they must access all resources by guessing at a system of unwritten rules. Since ability to write software isn’t contingent on being neurotypical, barriers to entry for neurodiverse people mean excluding a portion of the talent pool for no particular reason.

When a marginalized person joins an organization, in the absence of structure, isolation and lack of mentorship can combine to render them powerless and unable to ask for — or perhaps even express — what it is that they need. In such a situation, it’s easy for that person to then be labeled “unproductive” by the very community that has, without even knowing it, made it impossible for that person to learn and grow. Formal structures are one way to level the playing field and make sure that everyone has the same opportunities, regardless of whether senior folks in the organization find them initially easy to relate to or identity with.

Codes of conduct and diversity expectations

I don’t know how a structureless organization would maintain or enforce a code of conduct. Maybe in such an organization, everyone just likes each other so much that it’s not necessary to have one. But codes of conduct aren’t needed because people aren’t nice or because they don’t like each other; they’re needed because different people have different expectations about what kind of behavior is appropriate in which contexts. It doesn’t seem to me like getting rid of formal structure solves that problem.

Codes of conduct are just one way to help a group become or remain diverse, by ensuring a safe environment for everyone and providing mechanisms to address breaches of that safety. Without formal structures, how does a company make and keep itself diverse? While the practice of affirmative action is often inaccurately derided as “quotas”, a few tech companies do go as far as to institute numerical quotas for hiring women. I would suspect that such a practice, and even more flexible affirmative action concepts, would conflict with informality. But how does a structureless organization avoid devolving simply into hiring friends?

In general, how do you make sure that an organization without structure doesn’t default to recreating the same power hierarchies that exist in its underlying society? I asked this question during the question and answer period at Nyman’s talk, but it got a little lost in translation. Nyman’s answer amounted to “we won’t hire racist or sexist people”. But that’s not good enough. Everyone raised in a white supremacist society has unconscious racism, and everyone raised in a patriarchy has unconscious sexism. It’s obviously inadequate to dismiss the possibility of recreating systematic oppression “because most of us are good ethical people”. Nyman himself admitted that Github is getting less diverse.

Leadership

Unless it literally consists of a collection of people, each working alone — in which case you’d wonder what makes it an organization — in an organization without people formally titled “manager”, people will have to step up to manage each other at least sometimes and to some extent. How do you take initiative and assert power — in the absence of a structure that makes that power legitimate — when you’re already culturally oppressed and disempowered? If nobody is a manager, who will be most successful in, say, asking that their team institute a “run regression tests before committing code” policy: a tall, white, able-bodied, cis man; a short, Latina, disabled, cis woman; or a fat, Black, genderqueer person? When is it possible for people to really treat each other as equals, and when do they infer hierarchies when not given a formal hierarchy to look to?

What about when you’ve been punished in the past for trying to regulate others’ behavior instead of “knowing your place”? If you’re perceived as female, knowing that girls who assert power get called “bossy” and women who assert power get called worse, but also knowing that your leadership skills will eventually be called into question if you don’t assert power, structurelessness starts looking like a double bind.

Accountability

Without goals and performance metrics, how do people get held accountable? I don’t just mean accountability for delivering on the promises one makes as part of doing one’s job. How about, for example, not finding a subtle way to fire somebody for discriminatory reasons and make it look like it was performance-related?

In his talk, Nyman acknowledged that more “formal” processes are necessary for handling harassment: he acknowledged, “you can’t just go to anyone” if you’ve been harassed. But what else, falling short of “harassment” as such, might require a formal process?

Summing up

I’ve been pretty negative about structureless organizations. But there might be positives. Are they more open than more traditional companies to people with less formal education, or whose biographies are otherwise non-traditional? (I don’t know.) Do they make it harder for entrenched managers to retain power by virtue of seniority? (Again, I don’t know.)

To be fair, there isn’t just one set of processes that could arise when an organization sets aside formal structure. The majority could end up ruling most of the time. Or an organization could make decisions based on consensus. Or it could be cloyingly called a “do-ocracy”, in which decisions get made by whoever has enough time and energy to implement the consequences of the decision. I still think there’s the risk of majority rule, though, and the problem with that is that decisions about basic rights, respect and dignity can’t and shouldn’t be made by a majority. Where do basic rights, respect, and dignity come into this discussion? The number of occupations that are at least potentially a route into the middle class, at least theoretically available to anyone who has acquired a certain skill set that is possible for anyone dedicated to acquire, is steadily decreasing. If you’re in a social class such that you need money to live, learning how to program isn’t a bad way to go. But that will only continue to be true if tech company jobs are open to any qualified candidate, without the hidden price tag of humiliation based on one’s race, gender, disabilities, or sexual orientation.

Majority rule is, then, a problem because majorities often opt to keep minorities in their place for the benefit of the majority. And yes, a group made up of entirely people who see themselves as good and ethical can and will deny basic rights, respect and dignity to people based on gender, sexuality, ability, race, class, and other axes of oppression. The world might be different someday, but we can’t get there by pretending we are there.

Your thoughts, readers?

Thanks to Geek Feminism bloggers Sumana, Mary and Jessamyn for their comments.

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.

A rickety-looking treehouse

Open Source, Closed Minds? A reflection on Joseph Reagle’s “‘Free as in sexist?’ Free culture and the gender gap”

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The GNU General Public License (GPL), Version 3

At the beginning of this year, First Monday (a longstanding, online-only academic journal) published Joseph Reagle’s article “‘Free as in sexist?’ Free culture and the gender gap”. The article is the only comprehensive study I’ve seen so far of online discourse drawn from free and open-source software and data communities that focuses on attitudes towards gender and sexism.

In what follows, I examine Reagle’s presentation of two major themes: how dominant definitions of “geek identity” serve to keep communities homogeneous; and how ideologies held by open-source workers sometimes serve to justify mistreating people in the name of freedom of speech. Finally, I suggest another reason for open-source communities’ problems with diversity and equality: an economic one. I’ll use the terms “geek culture”, “open source culture”, and “hacker culture” roughly interchangeably. Not all geeks or hackers work on open-source projects, but open-source communities represent, to me, a highly valued position in the hierarchy of value subscribed to by many people who identify as geeks and/or hackers.

Disenchantment

I had a visceral reaction to the “On being a geek” section of “Free as in sexist?” This section covers ground that is familiar to me: the obsessive, monomaniacal approach to programming that hacker culture valorizes; the relationship between this style of working and a confrontational, aggressive style of argumentation; and the relationship between geek identity and normative whiteness and maleness. (As I don’t have any special authority to speak about race or racism, I won’t discuss those issues in depth here; I recommend Mary Bucholtz’s paper “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness” [PDF link], in which she argues that American nerd culture consitutes an explicit rejection by certain white youths of those aspects of American popular culture that arise from Black Americans.) Even so, the section affected me on more than just an intellectual level. As I read the quotations Reagle chose from sources such as Richard Stallman’s and Joseph Weizenbaum’s writings, as well as interviews with women studying computer science, I felt afraid and disappointed. I felt ready to get out of this field myself as fast as possible. Before I could help myself, my subconscious was already rushing ahead and reviewing the plans I’ve turned over in my head about jobs and careers that I could do that wouldn’t require me to be either a Toxic Open Source Guy, or an enabler for one.

When I was 15, sleeping in a lab and working for 20 or 30 hours at a stretch appealed to me. I wanted to lose myself in code, stop noticing my physical body because I was too engrossed in turning over abstractions in my mind. I think some part of me thought that if I got to be a competent programmer, it wouldn’t matter that I didn’t know how to form connections with other people or that my body was the wrong shape for me. I know now that escaping into work is not a helpful coping mechanism for me. Nowadays, I’ve exercised agency to make my body more comfortable for me; I see a therapist; and I have friends. I want to do my job reasonably well for eight hours a day and go home. I don’t want to run away from life outside the screen by immersing myself in work. I know most of the guys who do the sleep-in-the-lab, work-twenty-hours thing aren’t running away from what I was running away from. (I wonder what they are running away from.)

In Reagle’s article, I read, “Bente Rasmussen and Tove Hâpnes found female CS students who did not want be associated with the dominate [sic] identity of “key-pressers”, i.e., those who were not able to talk about anything beyond computers.” I thought — that’s me, too! I don’t want that either. I don’t think I have to quit being an open-source programmer if I want to have an identity that isn’t just about computers. But sometimes when I’m around people who do seem more like key-pressers than I am, I feel like that’s the way I have to be in order to fit in and be accepted.

Then I try to imagine what it would be like for me if on top of all of this, I felt like I had to conform to a vaguely woman-ish gender role. I didn’t know I wasn’t female until I was 18, and didn’t know I was male until I was 26, but I never felt much pressure to be what girls or women were supposed to be. On the other hand, if I was a cis woman, or even more so, if I was a trans woman (since trans women get expected to conform to gender stereotypes for women even more so than cis women are when their trans status is known), working in the industry I work in, I would have an almost impossible set of constraints to solve. As Reagle shows, success and status in open-source (and even in non-technical “free culture” communities like Wikipedia editing) are correlated with adopting a (superficially) overconfident, aggressive, argumentative persona. Women get to choose between being socially stigmatized for violating gender norms, or being ignored or mocked for violating open-source cultural norms. It’s a double bind.

Reagle quotes a passage from Margolis and Fisher’s Unlocking the Clubhouse: “‘Scary’ and ‘afraid’ are words that recur again and again.” For me, these are emotions that recur again and again when dealing with open-source culture, and when recalling the memories that reading Reagle’s article brought to mind. What strikes me, though, is that I’m almost twice the age of some of the undergrad students who Margolis and Fisher describe. When I was those students’ age, CS culture seemed safe, not scary. It was the rest of the world that was scary to me. Now, something’s changed. I think part of it is that I’ve had too many conversations with colleagues about gender politics that leave me feeling angry, frustrated, and helpless. Those interactions leave me afraid of being dismissed, dehumanized, objectified, or belittled again if I speak up. I’m also afraid of the sinking feeling that, for me, comes from being silent when I witness something I know is wrong. After a while, just walking in the door to the office seems like an entire day’s work.

Another quotation (from a social psychology journal article by Sapna Cheryan and colleagues) that stood out to me was “The profoundness of this alienation is hinted at in a recent study that found even an ‘ambient environment’ of stereotypical geeky items in a room (e.g., science fiction memorabilia and junk food) depressed female undergraduate interest in computer science.” While looking for a new place to live near my workplace in Mountain View, Ca. recently, I was browsing through rentals on AirBnB, and found a post advertising a bunk in a “hacker fortress”. I think the feeling I had when imagining living in such a place might be akin to how the women in that study felt when they saw a roomful of Star Trek figurines and Mountain Dew Code Red bottles. At 15, the summer I was doing an unpaid programming internship and drinking Jolt in the mornings, living in a “hacker fortress” would have seemed like an exciting idea (never mind the potential rape and sexual harassment that someone who looked like I did at 15 would have experienced — I probably would have dismissed that risk at the time). Now, even contemplating having to live in a place with a name like that sends my stomach dropping through the floor.

This section of Reagle’s article is valuable for showing that what I and so many others have experienced is part of a pattern; it’s not a coincidence, nor is it due to some weakness of character that we all happen to share. Women who have been involved, or tried to be involved, in free culture encounter hostility, not as a universal rule but as a recurrent pattern. It’s certainly not that Joseph Reagle is the first person to point out that free culture is systematically hostile to women — women have been saying this for a long time. But the evidence he collects is one more persuasive tool to put in the toolbox for convincing the naïve that yes, geek culture has a sexism problem. In the long term, though, we won’t have made any progress if people in the dominant group only believe women’s experiences when a male academic documents them.

It’s not just women who have been saying it, either. What Reagle doesn’t mention is that queer, trans, and genderqueer people in open-source share many of the same experiences that women do. In my opinion, like most transphobia and homophobia, that’s collateral damage from a fundamental hatred of anyone perceived as departing from a constructed heterosexual, cis male ideal — and that includes cis and trans women, as well as queer men and genderqueer and gender-creative people. (The omission of queer and gender-non-conforming people’s experiences could be due to a lack of written sources documenting it; there are various reasons why people in gender, sexual and romantic minorities might talk about their stories in a forum that lacks a permanent record.)

What makes me sad about all of this is that I still want to be around intellectually curious and playful people who are passionate about learning and making things (though, ideally, ones who don’t limit their inquiry to a single narrow specialty). I still want to have peers who inspire me to be and do more. I still love nerd humor when it isn’t mixed up with brogrammer racism and sexism. But what keeps me out of spaces that attract people like this is that I’m tired of being erased, silenced, and talked over. When I say how uncomfortable I feel when someone is engaging in homophobic hate speech at my workplace, and I’m told that it’s not hate speech or that my reaction to it isn’t real or valid, that’s stressful for me. It makes me want to disengage from the whole community. I’m tired of my female friends and colleagues getting death threats. I’m tired of being told I have a victim complex if I talk back to the abuse that gets directed at me and my friends even if nineteen out of twenty times, I’m silent about it. (It’s actually when I’m acting the least like a victim — when I’m not passively accepting whatever abuse is directed my way — that other software people shame me for “playing the victim”.)

The Mythical Manarchist-Month

While “On being a geek” was an appreciated summary of ground familiar to me, I found the “Openness” section more novel. I was pleased to see that Reagle opened the section by referring to Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, because Freeman’s article resonates with me strongly in light of last year’s troubles at Mozilla.

In my opinion, though, Reagle leaves a few dots unconnected in his discussion of “‘bad apple[s]‘ and ‘poisonous people’”. If it’s really a minority of the community that (quoting our own Terri Oda) “actively hinder women’s participation by trying to derail discussions, make contributions significantly more time-consuming, or send inappropriate or even violent private messages to contributors”, then why are they allowed to effectively dominate the community by putting pressure on women to leave whenever they feel like doing so? I think it would be doing a disservice to everyone to ignore the role of the majority of male contributors in the community, who stand back and watch, who fail to exercise effective moderation in discussion forums, who lack the courage to confront other men who are being actively sexist. It is also a disservice to everyone to ignore microaggressions. The ultimate effect of death threats or a constant stream of little reminders that no one feels obligated to include you (like co-workers addressing a mixed-gender group as “guys”) is to make out-group members feel like they’re just not wanted. “Good” people (people who think of themselves as tolerant, polite, and considerate), not just toxic “bad apples”, can engage in microaggressions. And even “good” people often get unnecessarily defensive when called on behavior they weren’t aware was a problem. There’s a fine line between recognizing the disproportionate power of a small number of belligerent people in the open-source community, and using that an excuse for other people to do nothing in response.

The section titled “Ideology” is perhaps the most challenging one to the cherished beliefs of open-source participants about themselves and their role in the political economy — Reagle tallies up a damning list of open-source idols (Stallman, Raymond, Wales…) and their Randian beliefs that would be amusing if we weren’t talking about men who so many people take seriously. Reagle’s insights on how an anarcho-libertarian ideology lends itself neatly to justifying the rightness of the existing gendered power structure are sorely needed. But again, I think he could have gone a bit further. The thing about freedom, at least the way it manifests today in open-source communities, is that it looks a lot like freedom from accountability, without freedom from the very real constraints that burden the many. It’s free as in freedom, not free as in beer, but I’ve started to hear “free as in free from consequences” when I hear open-source people use “free speech” as a reason to be abusive. It’s customary in both open-source and closed-source programming to use the legal mechanisms of licensing and copyright to absolve oneself of all consequences resulting from bugs in one’s software, as per the quotation from the GPL that I opened with. This is not where I want to debate the merits of that approach to the profession of engineering — I do want to ask what happens, though, when a programmer extends that approach to licensing into his personal life. What happens to a community when many of the individuals in it assert their right to “free speech” and thereby claim entitlement to shift responsibility for the consequences of their actions? Typically, when people feel entitled to make others pay the cost for their choices, the people who end up paying are people who the underlying social power structure places as subordinate. I’m using the pronoun “his” because people who are not socially recognized as men (specifically, white men) simply lack the power to do this.

One example of this freedom from consequences is the refrain that so many of us who speak out have heard, over and over, from our colleagues: “Have I offended you? Then the problem is that you’re so easily offended. Your feelings are your responsibility, and I have no obligation to not offend you. No one has the right to not be offended, and anyway, I’m an equal-opportunity offender, so if other people can take the heat, why can’t you? It must be because there’s something wrong with you. You really ought to lighten up, take a joke, get a sense of humor, not let those words have so much power over you, be less sensitive.” (The routine has become so standardized that Derailing for Dummies, as well as the Geek Feminism Wiki, catalog it.) How can these incantations of emotional blame-shifting be unrelated to the disclaimer of responsibility that appears in the GPL and other software licenses? If what characterizes the professional culture of software engineering is our refusal to own our work, what characterizes the after-hours culture of programmers is a refusal to own our words. It’s a culture of solipsism that makes minority group members into objects, designating people in the out-group as dumping grounds for the majority’s animus and need to mock the less powerful. Demanding that another person “be less sensitive” is rude, yet gets treated as polite. And because already-privileged people who make such demands get rewarded further (beginning with social acceptance), there’s little incentive for them to practice empathy.

The egocentrism I’m talking about isn’t just about dynamics between men and women. For example, Linus Torvalds’ public verbal abuse of Linux kernel contributors is an example of how open source culture also tolerates abuse directed by men at other men. (Sometimes it doesn’t just tolerate it, but even encourages it, as when bystanders comment “well, assholes get things done.”) Social hierarchies and displays of dominance are certainly alive and well in how men interact with each other; and because hackers often define themselves as beings of pure rationality and logic, they rationalize these hierarchies as “necessary” for “getting things done”. (I think we could also “get things done” if we recognized and accepted that as humans, we frequently act for emotional rather than purely “logical” reasons — and maybe even if we accepted that the dichotomy between emotion and reason is a false one.) That, however, does not mean that verbal abuse between men is just as intense for the recipient as verbal abuse directed at women by men. It doesn’t mean that verbal abuse between men gets excused as easily as abuse directed as women. And it doesn’t mean that there as just as many opportunities for a man to exploit another man’s vulnerabilities as for men to put women in their place. It could hardly be otherwise, given the wealth of experiences that women bring to interactions with men, of internalized messages that (even for those women who have worked hard to unlearn them) tell them that they deserve whatever abuse they get, that they really had it coming. It’s not that abuse is ever acceptable when directed at anyone of any gender. Rather, it’s that being punched in the face feels more intense than being tapped on the shoulder.

Ultimately, we have to ask whether the freedom to abuse people is one of the freedoms we value. Richard Stallman himself identified four freedoms when it comes to software: “the freedom to run the software, for any purpose”; “The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish”; “The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor”; “The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes.” (He notes that for the second and fourth freedoms, access to the source code is a prerequisite.) The freedom to be an asshole does not appear on this list. Rather, these values point to inclusivity (the freedom to run the software, as in: to be included in the community of people who get to use it) and altruism (helping your neighbor; helping the community by distributing a better version). (Perhaps the inclusivity part is a bit of a stretch — the freedom to participate does not explicitly appear, which may say something about what Stallman took for granted.)

Decades before, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke about another set of four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. How often do you hear stereotypically privileged open-source guys talk about freedom from fear? As I’ve discussed, much of the dialogue that happens when hacker culture talks about diversity and inclusion is about laughing off the idea that anyone else’s fears might be reasonable. Likewise, techno-libertarianism has very little room for a discussion about freedom from want. There isn’t much time and space in hacker culture for freedom of worship, either — especially when you take a broad view of what “freedom of worship” means and interpret as freedom to believe in things that can’t be proven with logical rules from empirical facts (like the dignity and worth of each human being), without being punished for it through ostracism or in any other way.

In either case, “freedom to treat other people as if they don’t have feelings, or as if their feelings don’t matter” is not on the list. (Thanks to Leigh Honeywell for pointing out Stallman’s and Roosevelt’s four freedoms, and the parallels between them, to me.)

Diversity as Devaluation

I want to ask a question outright that Reagle at best hints at: Is the very nature of open-source, its fundamental ideologies and values, inherently bound up with the insulation of oneself from the collaborative social project of making progress towards equality?

Maybe the whole system by which people produce free and open-source software is designed to provide the same sort of cozy lifestyle that one can find by being a programmer writing proprietary software, but without all those nagging structures of accountability that one finds in the corporate world. Like policies against harassment and discrimination. It’s true that companies adopt those to protect themselves against lawsuits, not to be morally correct, but they do protect people. And open source is a world without that protection. Maybe comparing open-source and corporate proprietary software is the best experiment one can do to determine what measures attract or repel participation by women. We know that open-source projects have an even more lopsided gender balance, as a general rule, than proprietary projects mainly composed of people being paid by a corporation to work on them. Can that really be a coincidence?

In a community with no formal governing structures, it’s far easier for people to take advantage of whatever privilege and power they inherit from the underlying society. One form this power takes on is that of speech acts that dehumanize and objectify people, and appeals to “freedom of speech” to immunize the speaker from the consequences of their speech.

I think that the desire to make boob jokes with impunity is not the only reason why male open-source programmers would want to keep women out, though. After all, the sexist jokes and comments that tend to engage the “free speech” defense the most are rarely funny or interesting. I think sexist jokes and comments are actually a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We know that male-dominated professions tend to be more socially prestigious and more highly paid than female-dominated or even gender-balanced professions. This can’t be an accident; men’s social over-valuation and their disproportionate participation in work that people think of as important form a positive feedback loop. For example, consider doctors and nurses: no doubt, women originally got tracked into nursing since medicine wasn’t considered an appropriate profession for a woman (gotta keep that power out of the hands of women). But even now that women have been allowed to study medicine for quite some time, nursing continues to be a lower-paid and less-praised profession, in large part (as far as I can tell) due to the significant presence of women in it.

The thing about prestige-as-male-domination is that it’s fractal. For example, within medicine, it’s common knowledge that primary care providers are likely to be women, while doctors who work in the most prestigious and highly compensated specialties (e.g. neurosurgery) are more likely to be men. Likewise, within computer science and software engineering, both of which are male-dominated as a rule, it’s harder for women to gain entry into some fields than others. Anecdotally, those fields (within academic CS) are theoretical computer science, programming languages, and operating systems. Among non-academic programmers, open-source programming (especially systems programming) occupies the role that theory, PL, and systems do within academe: looked up to and highly valued. By contrast, self-styled expert programmers tend to disdain jobs in areas like Web development and quality assurance — that’s “women’s work”, to the extent that any software jobs are. Technical writing, as an occupation, is even more looked down on and even more open to women. Perhaps that devaluation is part of a more general distaste among programmers for documentation, which could allow outsiders to glean the in-group’s secrets. Writing documentation is also a form of teaching, which is also a traditionally female-coded profession, and also a profession that’s frequently looked down on. So that’s why it’s so important for men in the high-status subdisciplines to maintain their status by making sure women don’t enter and devalue their field. Keeping women out means keeping salaries high.

(Statistics backing up what I just claimed about medicine — at least for the US — are available from the Association of American Medical Colleges (PDF link): see table 3 on page 13, “Number and Percentage of Active Physicians by Sex and Specialty, 2007″. The only specialty that’s majority-women is pediatrics; cardiovascular disease, neurological surgery, orthopedic surgery, and a few other specialties are over 90% men. I don’t know of any similar reports about gender distribution (and salary distribution) within different areas of the software industry, so I don’t claim to be speaking any more than informally, based on what I’ve heard over the years.)

“It’s amazing the things women did to advance computing before it advanced to the point that we learned women don’t like computing.”
Garann Means

Before computers were machines, computers were women. Most of us know that part of the story. What I know less about, personally, was the specifics of the process by which men drove women out of the profession of computing as it, well, professionalized. I can guess that white middle-class dudes saw an easy desk job that potentially would pay well, and the rest is history. Without evidence (at least not any that I have handy right now), I claim that none of this was an accident. Expelling women from computing was essential to the historical process of the professionalization of software and hardware engineering. (I know that that’s roughly how it went down with the profession of medicine, as documented by Kristin Luker in her book Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood: as “scientific” medicine arose, mostly-male doctors needed a way to push mostly-female midwives off the scene, and one of the ways they did that was by inventing the supposed immorality of abortion as a wedge issue.) For many men, a job just doesn’t have as much value if it’s a job that many women do too. And numbers don’t lie: jobs in male-dominated professions literally do have more financial value than jobs in more equal or female-dominated professions.

So arguably, open source is not just a different way to produce software. It’s also an experiment in building an alternative economy for status and peer review. At the same time as for-profit companies began to look harder at how to diversify themselves, how to create policies that would protect workers from sexual harassment and various forms of discrimination, the open source movement gained more and more momentum as a way to recreate all of the good bits of being a software engineer in industry (high social status, freedom, and money) without those annoying parts like human resources departments, processes, accountability, and rules (mostly rules to protect less-powerful members of the community). I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

There’s one misinterpretation of this section that I’d like to head off before it starts. I’m not suggesting that some nefarious group of patriarchs got together, had a meeting about how to exclude women, and disseminated the memo in a lockstep, hierarchical fashion. That’s not how it works. There is no intelligent designer or invisible hand that makes sexist decisions — rather, sexism is an emergent and self-reinforcing pattern that arises from the choices of many individuals. Just as organisms in nature behave in predictable ways without there being any central evolution planning committee, people who study societies have observed that groups of humans often act out predictable patterns too. Of course, sociology and anthropology have different methods and different standards of evidence than biology and physics do, but the social sciences are the only tool we have for rigorously analyzing how groups of people operate. It would be silly and anti-intellectual to discard these disciplines in favor of nothing just because they aren’t like physics.

Finally, a note if you’re asking “where does the money come from in open source?”: more than a few businesses pay engineers (often quite well) to work on open-source software for either part or all of their working hours. (I work for one of them!) In addition, open-source work is frequently a gateway to lucrative jobs and to the kind of social connections that make it possible to found startups. “Free as in freedom” doesn’t mean people work for free, and seemingly more often than not, they do anything but.

Conclusions

Reagle ends his meticulously researched piece with a conclusion that appeals to me as an intersectional feminist: he says that to achieve the goals of openness of diversity, we can’t just focus on openness and diversity as goals (any more, I might add, than an individual can live a happy life by resolving to strive for happiness); we can’t make things better by focusing on a single axis. Just as severe gender imbalances are a symptom of a broken community, addressing root causes will increase diversity as a side effect. But we can’t ignore gender (or race, class, sexuality, or ability), either. Responding to Kat Walsh’s writing about Wikipedia, he says, “the language of being ‘more open and diverse in general’ is problematic. Seemingly, there is no ‘in general’ yet when it comes to notions such as ‘geekiness’, ‘openness’ and ‘freedom’”. I agree — during last year’s code of conduct discussions at Mozilla, some people protested the idea of what they saw as a bureaucratic document codifying standards of behavior with “Can’t we just all be nice to each other?” But being nice, as many people construe it, includes subtly undermining the value and place in society of women and people experiencing a variety of other intersecting oppressions. Likewise, the concepts of “geekiness”, “openness”, and “freedom” will not magically lose their gendered connotations — we have to actively work at it. We can’t build a world where gender doesn’t matter by pretending we’re already there.

Hacker culture is a personal topic for me, so my own conclusions can only be personal. When I was 16, I saw geek culture as something I had to become a part of because I didn’t know any other way to be the person I needed to be. Now that I’m 32, I’m increasingly afraid that it’s something I have to leave in order to be the person I need to be. I know now what I didn’t know when I was 16: that I can be free from constant misgendering, no matter what job I do. I also know what I didn’t know then: I need to be somebody who is kind, patient, willing to admit he’s wrong, and able to make space for other people to join in. I’m not sure if that’s compatible with being in the open-source community, while also having self-respect, dignity, and a place at the table.

Where this is more than just my personal dilemma, though, is that once, I wanted passionately to write open-source code, and now it’s a struggle for me to keep going; not because the nature of the work has changed (on the contrary, it’s gotten more fun as my understanding of it has deepened and my confidence has grown), but because either the culture has changed or I’ve become more aware of its shortcomings (or both). Wouldn’t you want to know about it if you were driving away potential contributors — or forcing them into impossible trade-offs? I don’t think anyone should have to choose between doing good work they love and feeling valued and respected as a human being.

Thanks to GF contributors Leigh, Skud, Sumana and Shiny; as well as Graydon Hoare, for their comments. Thanks to Debra “Teacake” for linking me to the statistics on gender distribution in medical specialties.

ETA Wed. Feb. 6th: Joseph Reagle posted a response to the responses, which is also worth reading.

A Response to Nice Girl’s “The Dark Side of Geek Feminism”

Guest blogger Christie Koehler is a software engineer, community organizer, yoga nerd, vegan, queer, buddhist, Mozillian, co-founder of the Stumptown Syndicate and co-chair of the Open Source Bridge conference. This post is cross-posted to her blog at subfictional.com.

The recent post The Dark Side of Geek Feminism, authored by the pseudo-anonymous Nice Girl, and the mostly uncritical responses to it concern me for a couple of reasons.

First, it attacks all of geek feminism based on the actions of a few unnamed individuals. I find this problematic because there is no certification for being a geek feminist. Anyone can call themselves such. Certainly, there are those who call themselves feminists and claim to align themselves with our efforts to support women (in tech, geekdom and elsewhere), but then undermine those efforts with their actions. Or support women to the detriment of other oppressed groups. Folks who do this should be called out on their behavior. It’s not an attack or a condemnation to do so, it’s an opportunity for dialog and for social change.

Furthermore, the author discounts the need for accountability, equating it with vigilante justice. She claims that “naming and shaming” means “trying these things in the court of public opinion” and that both are “wrong and dangerous.” I find this conclusion to be flawed. Without question, it is a person’s decision whether or not to name their abuser. There are plenty of good reasons for not doing so. However, it’s clear that the author is withholding such information not to protect herself, but in order to protect potential abusers and derailers: “[Naming people] can completely ruin someone’s life. The internet lynch mob that it inevitably creates can haunt a person for years.”

Another aspect of the post to consider is use of the term “lynch mob” (quoted above) and the author’s response to being called out on its inappropriateness. Rather than reflecting on why it’s inappropriate to use such a phrase, she simply says she was being hyperbolic and accuses the person who called her out of trolling. What this tells me is that the author clearly doesn’t understand intersectionality and how it relates to privilege. For me, this kind of understanding, or at least the willingness to achieve it, is a prerequisite for engaging in feminist dialog in the first place.

Which leads me to wonder, is the author really engaging in a feminist dialog, or is she promoting an anti-feminist agenda?

I ask because Nice Girl’s post feels like an attention-stealing effort and an attack on anti-oppression dialog. Rather than having a productive conversation about specific people’s behavior, we’re discussing unidentified “bad feminists,” whom we have no ability to address because we don’t know who they are or the full content and context of what they said.

Nice Girl says she believes “naming and shaming” to be unfair. However, the approach she took is even more unfair because it attacks everyone associated with geek feminism; any one of us could be the person she’s talking about.

I’d be having a much different response if the author had written factually about her experiences and not given her post the damming title The Dark Side of Geek Feminism.

[Note: Wondering why is it not appropriate to use 'lynch mob' in the way the author uses it? Because it is a powerful term that evokes institutional violence against oppressed groups.]

More reading on intersectionality includes: the Geek Feminism Wiki and The Angry Black Woman.

nina

Re-post: in memory of nina reiser

During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from last year. This post originally appeared on September 3, 2011.

Trigger warning for lethal violence against women

I picked up Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries with trepidation, because it’s at least nominally about the Hans Reiser murder trial, and Nina Reiser’s murder fucked me up. Her kids are the same age as mine. Her career counselor is my next door neighbor and friend. And her husband and mine are both Linux kernel programmers. They worked together at a Palo Alto startup during the boom, where Hans sometimes cornered my husband to rant about the extremely acrimonious Reiser divorce.

When news of Nina’s disappearance broke, I asked my husband:

“Do you think he killed her?”

He thought about it for a minute and said:

“I am not saying no.”

Trust me, this is not a thing you ever want to hear.

Elliott’s book is gorgeously written and as a San Francisco memoir has a great deal to recommend it; and it’s not really about Nina and Hans. The trial is more or less just a backdrop to Elliott’s wandering around the Mission District and Bernal Heights and taking too many drugs. I loved it, and I do not mean to suggest that Elliott should have written a different book, or no book at all – here I am writing about Nina to exorcise my own personal bullshit, after all.

I have two – not even criticisms, let’s say two observations to make about the book. The first is that I am sad, still sad, continually endlessly sad and angry at the way everyone else’s narratives collude to obscure Nina and her life. It’s not that she was a saint or a celebrity – the hagiographies that dwell on her “movie star good looks” set my teeth on edge – but she was an extremely intelligent and tough woman, coping admirably in a horrible situation, and by every account a wonderful, playful, caring and responsible mom.

And because she was murdered she is now, in some sense, public property. Everyone, myself included, projects his or her own personal issues all over her frozen image. Hans’s supporters call her a whore. Stephen Elliott remakes her in the image of his dead mother. Her death has become a set of Meanings that overwhelm her life, which had its own meaning, and which was her own. I mourn the Nina who was alive, and really nice and clever and ordinary. It’s not fair. It’s really shitty that she’s dead, and I hate it.

My second point is a little bit harder to make, but here goes. Elliott, God love him, has the creative professional’s lofty disdain for those of us who work in cubes. A brief stint as a search engine optimization specialist at the end of the boom has qualified him to rule on the working world once for all time, apparently. We are not an interesting set of stories, he concludes. We are too simplistic, and the world we inhabit is too black and white.

I actually find this endearing (I have a whole other rant about how people who don’t work in an office can’t write about working for a living and can’t begin to imagine how intricate and interesting it really is, a multi-dimensional 15-puzzle played with and by chimpanzees), but I think it misses part of what was going on with Hans, and maybe a big part. It misses Namesys.

Joshua Davis’s brilliant article in Wired (part of the inspiration for Elliott’s book) joined the dots between Hans’ code and his character, but a company is also an expression of a person’s soul. His brilliant Russian mail-order bride was a big part of Hans’s self-image as the startup entrepreneur who could afford to date, let’s face it, way out of his league. And much of the savagery of the divorce seemed to stem from Hans’s fears that Nina would imperil or claim for herself some part of his hoped-for payout from Namesys.

Hans felt that his intelligence gave him special privileges. (Did I mention that he and my husband worked together at Rearden Steel? Yes, named for the company in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. You can’t make this shit up.) Armed with his titanium sense of entitlement, Hans insisted on what he saw as his rights. And it seems that when Nina stood up for herself, he choked her to death in the driveway of his mother’s home while their children were playing in the basement.

He probably didn’t intend to kill her. My husband makes the macabre point that if the murder were premeditated, Hans would have been better prepared for it. Having done it, though, Hans thought he ought to get away with it. He thought he could outsmart the police. He thought that his intellect was so great that it was only reasonable that he should get away with murder.

Hard to think of a more graphic illustration of the way Silicon Valley-style technocratic capitalism can reinforce the kyriarchy.

But here I go again, indulging the temptation to make Nina’s death a metaphor, a political point, an argument, instead of what it is, which is a tragedy. Today, on the fifth anniversary of her murder, I remember Nina.

nina

in memory of nina reiser

Trigger warning for lethal violence against women

I picked up Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries with trepidation, because it’s at least nominally about the Hans Reiser murder trial, and Nina Reiser’s murder fucked me up. Her kids are the same age as mine. Her career counselor is my next door neighbor and friend. And her husband and mine are both Linux kernel programmers. They worked together at a Palo Alto startup during the boom, where Hans sometimes cornered my husband to rant about the extremely acrimonious Reiser divorce.

When news of Nina’s disappearance broke, I asked my husband:

“Do you think he killed her?”

He thought about it for a minute and said:

“I am not saying no.”

Trust me, this is not a thing you ever want to hear.

Elliott’s book is gorgeously written and as a San Francisco memoir has a great deal to recommend it; and it’s not really about Nina and Hans. The trial is more or less just a backdrop to Elliott’s wandering around the Mission District and Bernal Heights and taking too many drugs. I loved it, and I do not mean to suggest that Elliott should have written a different book, or no book at all – here I am writing about Nina to exorcise my own personal bullshit, after all.

I have two – not even criticisms, let’s say two observations to make about the book. The first is that I am sad, still sad, continually endlessly sad and angry at the way everyone else’s narratives collude to obscure Nina and her life. It’s not that she was a saint or a celebrity – the hagiographies that dwell on her “movie star good looks” set my teeth on edge – but she was an extremely intelligent and tough woman, coping admirably in a horrible situation, and by every account a wonderful, playful, caring and responsible mom.

And because she was murdered she is now, in some sense, public property. Everyone, myself included, projects his or her own personal issues all over her frozen image. Hans’s supporters call her a whore. Stephen Elliott remakes her in the image of his dead mother. Her death has become a set of Meanings that overwhelm her life, which had its own meaning, and which was her own. I mourn the Nina who was alive, and really nice and clever and ordinary. It’s not fair. It’s really shitty that she’s dead, and I hate it.

My second point is a little bit harder to make, but here goes. Elliott, God love him, has the creative professional’s lofty disdain for those of us who work in cubes. A brief stint as a search engine optimization specialist at the end of the boom has qualified him to rule on the working world once for all time, apparently. We are not an interesting set of stories, he concludes. We are too simplistic, and the world we inhabit is too black and white.

I actually find this endearing (I have a whole other rant about how people who don’t work in an office can’t write about working for a living and can’t begin to imagine how intricate and interesting it really is, a multi-dimensional 15-puzzle played with and by chimpanzees), but I think it misses part of what was going on with Hans, and maybe a big part. It misses Namesys.

Joshua Davis’s brilliant article in Wired (part of the inspiration for Elliott’s book) joined the dots between Hans’ code and his character, but a company is also an expression of a person’s soul. His brilliant Russian mail-order bride was a big part of Hans’s self-image as the startup entrepreneur who could afford to date, let’s face it, way out of his league. And much of the savagery of the divorce seemed to stem from Hans’s fears that Nina would imperil or claim for herself some part of his hoped-for payout from Namesys.

Hans felt that his intelligence gave him special privileges. (Did I mention that he and my husband worked together at Rearden Steel? Yes, named for the company in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. You can’t make this shit up.) Armed with his titanium sense of entitlement, Hans insisted on what he saw as his rights. And it seems that when Nina stood up for herself, he choked her to death in the driveway of his mother’s home while their children were playing in the basement.

He probably didn’t intend to kill her. My husband makes the macabre point that if the murder were premeditated, Hans would have been better prepared for it. Having done it, though, Hans thought he ought to get away with it. He thought he could outsmart the police. He thought that his intellect was so great that it was only reasonable that he should get away with murder.

Hard to think of a more graphic illustration of the way Silicon Valley-style technocratic capitalism can reinforce the kyriarchy.

But here I go again, indulging the temptation to make Nina’s death a metaphor, a political point, an argument, instead of what it is, which is a tragedy. Today, on the fifth anniversary of her murder, I remember Nina.

Magical linkspam sparkles (26th May, 2011)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious, freelish.us or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Where are all the linkspams? (14th March, 2011)

  • Betsy Leondar-Wright and ana australiana write about the impenetrability of middle-class activism to working class people, and about how the sidelining of middle-class subcultures isn’t equivalent to systemic oppression: It’s not “them” — it’s us!, Equivalences.
  • “Very rarely do stories of women and technology vary in tone from the gender gap theme. Where are the women? Well, heck, we’ve been here all along – something we’ve recently pointed out in our Valentine’s Day piece about ENIAC.Writes Amber Bouman in MaximumPC for Women’s History Month.
  • sqbr is interested in user stories about the use of image descriptions on Tumblr. my arguments have all been about hypothetical users and it would be useful to have some evidence against the “but noone who needs descriptions would use a visual medium like tumblr” argument. There’s lots of feedback in comments.
  • s.e. smith: Why I’m Leaving Feminism: So many disabled people, nonwhite people, transgender people, people of colour, poor people, adamantly refuse to identify with feminism in its current incarnation in the United States… The model of feminism we see is one where oppression perpetrated in the name of “activism’ is acceptable, where casual ableism, racism, classism, transphobia run so deep that many of us don’t even bother to point it out anymore.
  • A bit of history: Carl Sagan’s appeal to the Explorers Club to admit women.
  • Gender Differences and Casual Sex: The New Research: Women’s reluctance comparative to men to accept the [offer] wasn’t really a reluctance to have casual sex, but rather a response to a different offer than the men got — the didn’t think the men would be as much fun.
  • Heidi Grant Halvorson on the difficulties of high achieving girls: What makes smart girls more vulnerable and less confident when they should be the most confident kids in the room? At the 5th grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science.
  • Gaming industry finally recognizes the work of a pioneer: It was back in the mid-1970s that [Jerry] Lawson developed the first video game console system, breaking ground in more ways than one. You see, Lawson, 70, is black. And while we often try to pretend that's neither here nor there, the truth is it is here — and it was even more-so there, when Lawson arrived in the valley in 1968.
  • Inoculation Against Stereotype: …choice isn’t as simple as people think. People assume that these choices are free choices, based on talent and interest and motivation, Dasgupta said. …Even talented people may not choose math or science not because they don’t like it or are not good at it, but because they feel that they don’t belong.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the geekfeminism tag on delicious or the #geekfeminism tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.