Tag Archives: pigeonholing

On geekitude, hierarchy, and being a snob

Liz Henry’s thoughts on geekitude got me wanting to post my own half-formed thoughts on the topic. (Crossposted from my personal blog at Skud’s suggestion.)

Evidently I have the capacity to continuously raise my standard for what makes a real obsessed fan of, say, Star Trek or Cryptonomicon or whatever. I read the Memory Alpha wiki (Star Trek compendium), but I don’t contribute to it; I only know a word or two of Klingon; I haven’t *memorized* more than, say, ten lines of Cryptonomicon.
So I can always say, “oh, I’m just a regular person who happens to like this thing, there are OTHER PEOPLE who are really obsessed.” But that’s just No True Scotsman in reverse. These goalposts must be made of new space-age alloys, they’re so easy to move!

But when I come across an enthusiasm more ardent than mine, there is a kind of intellectual squick, a cooler and more abstract horror. And there’s relief — at least I’m not like that, at least there’s someone below me on this imagined hierarchy. Which makes little sense; to whom am I proving this alleged cool?

Obsession is a derogatory synonym of mastery.

Mel’s post on how she learns tickled my brain. When I learn, I like to hypothesize internally consistent systems of rules. And then I take pride in the architecture I’ve built, in my mastery of my personal social construction, and bond with new tribe members when we learn that we share intersubjectivities.

New skills are tools and catalogs of tools. If you learn what I know, then you’ll realize certain tasks are far easier than you thought. I can be uneasy with that power; it’s like the disorientation of suddenly driving an SUV, getting used to a bigger, stronger body.

But an expert also confidently says, “No. That’s far harder than you realize.” While the fairy tales usually scorn naysayers — they’re just obstacles in the hero’s way — in our real lives, over coffee and beer, we shake our heads and say, “I told him it wasn’t gonna work.”

I had a dinner with an out-of-towner once, and happened to mention that Roosevelt Island’s tram is a major means of transit for RI’s residents, and that when it gets taken down for construction/maintenance for several months (sometime soon, I believe) it’ll be a big hardship for those residents. It would suck to commute by car (that teensy bridge would get backed up real fast), and the RI stop on the F subway line will get uncomfortably crowded. She started making suggestions. Run more F trains? Well, that would probably throw the rest of the system out of whack. Get a bigger bridge? Probably not worth it for a five-month workaround, and besides, building bigger roads means asking for more traffic. She finally said in bewilderment, “Well, they should just fix it!” And I said, eh, it is complicated, isn’t it? And we moved on.

I felt very superior and sophisticated at this – scorn is shorthand for status. There’s a whole other thread here about urban systems, interdependence, respect for homeostasis. But basically, I’m ashamed of that impulse to snobbishness. Had I time, love, security, and patience enough, I’d be about sharing, not shaming.

I like being enthusiastic. I like sharing myself. My opinions, my judgments, and my ideas sometimes feel like an extension of myself, as much as my adopted culture says I should take criticism of those opinions impersonally.

But sometimes I have a snobbish geekiness, so complacent & happy to bond with one person by slamming another. Either because I have more mastery than her (e.g., re: transit), or less (e.g., re: Star Wars).

So, the Twitter version: Parallax sucks, and I love mastering worlds because I can’t master myself.

Quick hit: the gender binary fractal in geekdom

Unless you’ve been inexplicably failing to click on every link in our linkspams (you didn’t know that would be on the exam?… sorry), you read a fair bit of Sociological Images already. However, they get a Quick Hit because their recent post The Fractal Nature of the Gender Binary: Or Blue vs. Turquoise continues on a theme I discussed in one of my earliest posts here, “Girl stuff†in Free Software.

Lisa Wade writes thus:

The gender binary-that is, the rule that everything (oh animals, jobs, food, kleenex, housework, sound, games, deordorant, love and sex, candy, vitamins, etc) gets split into male and female-is fractal. That means that, for every male or female version of something (say sports versus dance), there is a further gendered split that can be made. If we take sports, we might divide it into the masculine football and the feminine swimming. If we take swimming, we could probably divide it down further. Take education (which is, arguably, feminized): we can split it into physical sciences (masculine) and social sciences (feminine). And we can split the physical sciences into biology (dominated these days by women) and physics (dominated by men). So the gender binary has a fractal character.

This strongly resonates with me. It doesn’t mean that I think this is how things should work, but I think it’s often part of how they do work. Do you find this in your geekdoms of choice? How does it split up your geekdom? Have you seen your area of the fractal shift over time and do you have any theories about why; for example, did the arrival of more women or more men make something more feminine or masculine? How explicit is it? (In Free Software it can be very explicit and essentialist. “Women are good at words and other people, so documentation is more feminine. Women are bad at maths — which is basically the same thing as computer programming right? — and at isolated work, so coding is more masculine. QED.”)

Update: Just a note that the question is not precisely “where do the women cluster in your geekdom?” (although that’s interesting too), but “which parts of your geekdom are considered more suitable for women/more womanly/less manly?”

“Girl stuff” in Free Software

This is an edited repost of a blog entry of mine from February 2009.

In January 2009 I gave a talk at the LinuxChix miniconf held as part of linux.conf.au 2009. It was titled ‘Starting Your Free Software Adventure’ and used women developers and community leaders as examples. The idea was to show people what the first steps look like. I conducted (extremely short) email interviews of several women involved in Free Software or Culture or their communities, including Kristen Carlson Accardi, Brenda Wallace and Terri Oda among others.

One thing stood out and kept coming up all week: Terri mentioning that she had resisted at times working on things perceived as ‘girl stuff’. In Free Software this includes but is not limited to documentation, usability research, community management and (somewhat unusually for wider society) sometimes management in general. The audience immediately hit on it, and it swirled around me all week.

This is a perennial problem for professional women: software development is by no means unique in having developed a hierarchy that goes from high status roles disproportionately occupied by and associated with men to somewhat lower status roles disproportionately occupied by and associated with women. (In the case of software, disproportionately occupied by women still means male dominated of course, at least in the English-speaking world.) It’s difficult to disentangle the extent to which women and/or their mentors and teachers self-select for the lower status roles (and I would hardly argue that the self-selection occurs in a vacuum either) versus the extent to which they are more or less barred from high status roles versus the extent to which the association is actually flipped and professions and jobs within them have become low status because women started doing them. Other well-known examples, are, for example, the concentration of women in biological sciences as opposed to, say, physics, the different specialisation choices of male and female medical doctors and surgeons, and so on. Sometimes, as in the war between sciences, the status of a field is somewhere between a joke and real, to the extent that those can be differentiated, but often it isn’t: there’s a correlation between the male to female ratio of a medical specialty and its pay.

In all of these cases, a woman who is conscious of this problem tends to face a choice. Do the ‘girl stuff’, or not? (Of course, ideally one rejects the dichotomy, but no individual woman is responsible for constructing it.) And some, although I don’t know what proportion, of women feel guilty about their choice, especially if they do choose to do girl stuff. Just go ahead and imagine your own scare quotes from now on, by the way.

It also gets messy in various other ways. There’s the extent to which a woman who doesn’t do girl stuff is invested in maintaining the status of her boy stuff role and also the aforementioned vicious cycle where if women are doing something, it will come to be seen as not particularly hard or noteworthy.

Most concretely, I usually see this tension bubble away underneath outreach programmes promoting computing careers (you know what, I have my own status issues and I still resist calling it IT) to women. There’s the people who want to go for yeah we all know coding is populated by weirdos, and male weirdos at that, luckily you don’t have to be a geek and you don’t have to code, phew! I tend to hear about that one only once my outreach friends have gotten involved and staged a coup, admittedly. There’s the there’s so many opportunities in computing, and yes, coding is one of them and its fulfilling and it’s something you can do, but dammit, coders get all the cred and attention and dammit can we talk about something else? Women who admin/write/test/manage rock! And there’s you know, women coders don’t exactly rule the world yet, and furthermore isn’t all this oh-yes-you-could-code-I-guess-and-that’s-a-fine-thing but look! something for folks with people skills! talk basically a soft version of ew coding that’s for boys, also, last I checked, math is hard?

I observe again that there’s no right answer here in the real world right now. Women doing girl stuff have good reasons to feel dissatisfied that their hard-won skills are underpaid and under-respected, women doing boy stuff (scare quotes! please insert!) want other women to know that there’s fun to be had over here, thank you.

One crucial point in my thoughts about this I stumbled on only after the conversation Brianna Laugher recounts, over Indian food on the Friday night (the location of all major conference breakthroughs worldwide). She said — paraphrased — that she didn’t feel that she should have a problem or be criticised for doing what she is good at, or what’s so desperately needed in her communities, and have to be just another coder in order to be fully respected. And I said that while this was certainly true, women also need to have the opportunity, to give themselves the opportunity, to be selfish: if we want to code, or do something else we are currently either bad at or not notably good at, or for that matter which we are good at but in which we’d have competitors, we should consider doing that, rather than automatically looking for and filling the space that is most obviously empty. However women are justifiably reluctant to enter places where they aren’t obviously welcomed, and what better way to be welcomed than to do work that needs doing and not become just another person doing the coding free-for-all and delaying external validation for potentially quite a long time?

I have no answers. Just the perennial question of distinguishing what other people want, what other people claim they want, the genuine satisfaction of being of service to someone, and the genuine satisfaction of knowing you’ve done a good job of something hard. Where do you like to stand on that?