There’s an argument that comes up a lot in (geek) feminism discussions:
This isn’t a problem with $community, it’s a problem with society
This is used to explain everything from distasteful jokes to someone’s inability to spell, but especially it’s used to “explain” why there aren’t more women in the community or why they have crummy experiences when they do participate. And it raises the question:
Why can’t geek communities be better than society as a whole?
If you reported a software bug and the developers said, “we don’t believe you. Or the other 50 people who reported this bug,” you’d be annoyed, along with 50 other people. If they said “it’s someone else’s problem, XYZ software/hardware sucks” you’d be pretty unsatisfied, even if it was true.
What you want to hear is “thanks for reporting that! I’ll get it fixed right away.” And you still feel like they care if they say “well, that’s because XYZ software/hardware sucks, but we can do this workaround…”
Geek communities are full of smart, inventive people who produce everything from free software to fan fiction. I think we can probably do better than putting an SEP field around issues.
In academia, Hard Problems are the ones that are worthy of further study, research, and discussion. In geekdom, we like to eat impossible for lunch. So stop shuffling your feet and waiting for the “there aren’t many women participating” bug to be fixed upstream. We might need some clever social hackers to find us good workarounds, but know what? We’ve got just the sort of talent in our communities that might manage it. If people could only admit to themselves that it’s not someone else’s problem.
I saw the political satire In The Loop a few days back. Â It passes the Bechdel test — how novel — and it struck me as a fairly geek-oriented film.
We geeks like our entertainment as plot/banter firehose with subtle, unspoken worldbuilding. That’s what In The Loop (and its predecessor TV show, The Thick of It) deliver — that and social engineering. Â You get to watch people scheme, performing ad hoc systems analysis to solve the puzzle of their immediate predicament. Â It’s like Leverage without the wish-fulfillment or Hardison, Elliot or Parker. Â (In the geeky-banter category, In The Loop has characters mock Toby (Chris Addison) by calling him “Frodo,” “Ron Weasley,” and “baby from Eraserhead.”)
One of my geekeries is politics, specifically organizational behavior and the power of institutions. In The Loop argues that the media/governing apparatus functions as one homeostatic institution, where any demonstration of the pettier human weaknesses (e.g., status-seeking, frustration, lust, loathing) leads to an instant barrage of bad press and gives your enemies leverage. It’s a marvelous system, really, and ultra-efficient: if you think you’ve found some room to maneuver, some opportunity for arbitrage, you’re wrong and your audacity will be punished. It’s a power structure that guards itself against change, and will only ever pay lip service to feminism and anti-racism. A dark vision, but the film left me laughing.
I love pair programming and working on code with other people and talking things through. In short, editing code as a social activity. If you noticed Google’s Mobwrite, it was a large scale collaborative editor, fun to play with, basically a real time wiki. Bespin provides a structure within a browser window to check code out from an svn repository, and edit it at the same time as other people, who appear in a sidebar. You can start projects and give people you “friend” varying levels of access to the code.
I’ve experimented with collaborative coding using screen for pair programming, and during meetings to discuss code. It’s best done in person or with voice and chat at the same time. Bespin looks like an incredibly useful extension of that concept. I hope that there will be effort to make it as universally accessible as possible.
I see Bespin as something that might be especially useful to women coding together, and I’ll see how Dreamwidth project members feel about trying it out. I could also see it being quite useful for people I know at BlogHer to debug WordPress templates. I think that women might more often than men buy into the myth of the lone and lonely programmer, the hermit-like coder genius, where code springs out full grown like Athena from Zeus’s head. But in my experience guys hack together and thus they learn together, while women are not only more often isolated, but are under more pressure to display perfect solutions or not to expose work in progress — a systematic pattern of that kicks in very hard when we’re teenagers.
The soul of open source is collaborating and improving on previous work. I think that collaborating in real time as a friendly social activity, with conversation, will feel more comfortable to some women than checking in code and waiting for feedback. So, I predict that Bespin and tools like it will be a powerful factor bringing women into coding and into open source communities, as a social activity to be done with friends.