Have you ever looked at the stars at night?
Have you ever been far away from city lights, stood somewhere outside, and looked at the bright sky above you?
Have you ever felt the chill of the night, and soon forgotten how cold it was, because you couldn’t stop looking at all these stars?
And have you ever started wondering if there’s more beyond that, more than you can see, and if there’s maybe even life somewhere beyond earth?
What we see in our night skies is just this tiny fraction of our galaxy, and only imagining our own galaxy or the countless galaxies outside of our own is close to impossible for us. We admire the stars we see – and we’re often unaware that there’s so much more beyond them.
This is a talk about nothing.
Nothing – an abstraction, an impossibility. If nothing actually existed, it wouldn’t be nothing.
For centuries, scientists have dedicated themselves to nothing. Nothing, or what we’ve long taken to be nothing, has become a lens through which we can explore the universe around us and what it is to be human. Nothing is the basis of our existence.
Take maths, for example: In the first place, huge parts of maths were based on geometrical or physical realities, and while the first evidence of counting stretches back 5000 years, it took a lot of abstract thinking until the first versions of nothing appeared around 2400 BC. Today, maths now has two versions of nothing:
The first version of it is an empty set. Like a basket: if there’s nothing in it, the basket is analogous to an empty set. “Nothing” describes the basket. The second version of “nothing” in maths is zero, the number. If I have no apples in my basket, then I have zero apples. Zero describes the number of apples or elements that are in the basket or set.
And zero the number is powerful. If not handled with care, it can bring the entire number system crashing down – to do so, just multiply any number by zero, – and it collapses down to zero. And we don’t even want to walk into what happens when you divide a number by zero.
Today, mathematics is unthinkable without nothing and zero – they both have changed entirely what we can calculate, and how far we can go with our numbers.
Physicists like Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein & many more have spent ages trying to figure out a “nothing” as well. Their main question was: is empty space, like outside the earth’s atmosphere, really empty? But it was not before 1998 that astronomers discovered:
empty space is not empty. It’s permeated by “dark energy” – the energy that would be left after removing all galaxies, stars and particles from the universe, and that accounts for more than 70% of the universe’s mass. Dark energy is also responsible for accelerating the expension rate of the universe.
Another “empty” space that physicists looked into is the vacuum: even if there’s vacuum in a box, the box is still not empty – the box, which seems to contain nothing visible for our eyes, still contains an irreducible, hard to measure electric field inside it. A vacuum is never empty – it always contains an infinite amount of energy.
This is an aerial graphics of the world’s largest scientific machine and particle accelerator – the Large Hadron Collider (or LHC), located near Geneva, Switzerland. It’s a 27-kilometre ring of more than 1600 superconducting magnets which are up to 15 metres long.
The prime goal of LHC, of which you can see one tiny part here, is to find evidence for the Higgs field. Quite much like dark energy, the Higgs field is believed to permeate empty space. In fact, at the LHC scientists are trying to find a piece of nothing. In order to find it, the LHC accelerates particles to high speed, and tries to make them collide in an ultrahigh vacuum – a task much like like firing two needles 10 kilometres apart with such precision that they meet halfway.
In 2012, a particle with characteristics quite similar to the Higgs was found, but it’s still not clear yet if it was actually the Higgs, if it wasn’t, or if various forms of this particle exist.
No matter what – this “nothing” is going to touch basics of what we know about the universe.
Let’s take another look at a “nothing” which we use every day.
Computers in general are largely a collection of electronic switches that operate in binary mode, they only know “off” and “on”, – “0” and “1”. The first electronic computers used vacuum tubes as switches, which were super inefficient and made computers huge.
The famous ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) weighed 27 tons, also because it contained more than 17,000 vacuum tubes. And it took up almost 170m2 of space.
But everything changed in 1947, when the first working transistor was unveiled. The principle that the transistor is based on is quite simple: when electrons get kicked into action by light and are under the influence of chemical elements, they change places to fill holes in their electron structure. They start moving because they need to go where there was nothing before.
Transistors now power our computers, smartphones, printers and other digital devices. In a computer chip, the transistors are part of an integrated circuit (or microchip). If you buy a new Laptop these days, you’ll get a microchip with 1.3 billion transistors on a chip the size of a finger nail. And it’s still based on electrons trying to switch into an empty hole. Nothing is what keeps our digital age running.
There is so much more to our realities than we perceive with our senses. What often seems like nothing is the basis of why we are, who we are and what we do. Same goes for the tech industry: Our computers run on 0s and 1s, but our lives as humans are more complex than that.
There is so much more going on in tech that we sometimes realise, and much more to discover beyond our own horizons. These are the “nothings” we want to look at. This talk aims to raise our awareness for them, because they’re amongst the most powerful forces that affect our daily lives, and they will have huge impact on the future of this industry and everyone in it, including you and me.
When we as people in tech today want to understand what’s beyond our own perceptions, there are a few things we can learn and skills in which we can train ourselves to become aware of “nothings”.
We live in a society in which power is unevenly distributed – some groups of people can exist in the
society with ease, gain influence, and are accepted without scrutiny or suspicion – which gives
them advantages relative to other groups.
This means that they have privilege. Privilege comes from various factors, like gender, race, class, educational, socioeconomic background, ability, appearance, physical and mental health and many more. // ->
Take me for example.
– I pass as a cissexual woman, which means that my experience of my own gender matches the sex I was assigned at birth
– I’m white
– I was born into a middle-class family and received education.
– I’m able-bodied and my weight and height are within the boundaries of what is socially considered “acceptable”
And this list is not even exhaustive. This is my privilege, which I recognise and try to act according to – and this means that my privilege also sets limitations for my actions.
Many people in tech are fairly privileged as well – in fact, white, able-bodied, cisheterosexual men have a near monopoly on the power and money that keeps this tech industry machine spinning. Around 80% of engineering staff at major tech firms like Twitter, Google and
Facebook are men, and between 60 and 95% of all their staff are white. The numbers in Open Source are very similar – 90 to 95 percent of all contributors are men. The numbers of women of colour, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersexual people are still incredibly low. Tech is an exclusive space with a high entry barrier for the less privileged ones.
That much privilege makes for many “nothings” in the industry. And I want to be clear about what I mean when I say “nothing” in this talk:
What is “nothing” and “no problem” to many privileged people, leads to a constant struggle for others: there are underrepresented, marginalised people in tech who are fighting on a daily basis for their sheer existence in the industry. – While a vast number of people in tech have
THE PRIVILEGE NOT TO LISTEN
THE PRIVILEGE NOT TO CARE
THE PRIVILEGE TO IGNORE
THE PRIVILEGE TO DO NOTHING
THE PRIVILEGE TO GO ON WITH THEIR LIVES.
This is privilege: the luxury to ignore and not care about the experiences of marginalised people in this industry. A luxury that no member of a minority in tech has.
Recognising and acknowledging our own privilege means understanding that privilege comes with responsibility:
the responsibility to
1. become aware of our own privileges we hold
2. to shut up – and (3.) listen to the experiences of less privileged people
4. educate ourselves – on topics in which we hold privilege
5. use our own privilege for good – speak up when we see or hear e.g. sexism or racism, stand with less privileged people and amplify their voices.
6. hold ourselves accountable, listen when people call us out, and learn from failing.
We can also become allies to less privileged people. Being an ally means being supportive to a marginalised group of people, and it’s a constant, lifelong process. Whatever we do: the responsibility of working through our privilege, listening to others and acting accordingly is on us, the people with privilege.
Every day we make countless decisions without realising it. Each of us faces around 11 million pieces of information at any given moment. Our brains can only process about 40 of those pieces of information and so they create shortcuts and use past knowledge, experiences and cultural norms to make assumptions. This is called “unconscious bias”. We all have these biases, and they cause us to misjudge people or situations. And they’re critical when we’re designing products or building software.
Let me give you a few examples of unconscious biases which show how they influence our actions every day, even when – by definition – we don’t notice them.
- Candidates for a medical school interviewed on rainy days received 10% lower ratings than those interviewed on sunny days.
- Job candidates with names that didn’t sound stereotypically African-American received 50% more callbacks than those with African-American sounding names.
- With the exact same resumé, candidates with the name John received a 20% higher rating for competence, and a USD 4000 higher salary than a candidate with the name Jennifer.
- When YouTube launched their video upload app for iOS, between 5 and 10 percent of videos uploaded were upside-down. But it wasn’t people shooting videos incorrectly – the app’s design was the problem: the app was designed for right-handed users, but phones are usually rotated 180 degrees when held in left hands. The team had unconsciously created an app that worked best for their almost exclusively right-handed developer team.
- Another example is about hardware. Zeynep Tufekci, at this time a scholar of social movements, was in Istanbul at the time of the protests in Gezi Park. She had a smartphone with a camera and tried to document what she saw, including violence like tear gas misuse – but she couldn’t: her hands were too small to lift the phone above her head, hold it steadily *and* take a picture. She could not document violations of human rights, because her hardware didn’t allow her to. // ->
This is why Diversity in experience, body size, ability, gender and more aspects is so important: diversity influences basic questions of equity and accessibility, and are a crucial determinant – they define whether our products are actually usable for people or not. // ->
What helps us in combatting the unconscious biases we all have is
- education – identify and understand our own biases, and help others understand theirs.
- be mindful of subtle cues, because it’s the little things that can make a lot of a difference
- foster awareness in ourselves and others
- hold ourselves and others accountable.
There’s a world that exists in the space between words where nothing is said, and that we can discover by applying a skill we all have: empathy. Empathy is a powerful and useful skill. It helps us feel and understand the emotions, circumstances, thoughts and needs of humans around us and our communication with them.
As designers, content creators and developers working on tools which are used by people, we too often don’t view the design and code of our software as a complete personal experience. But our users are not single data points or test scenarios – they’re humans, and as such, they’re carrying past and present pain, joy, their entire life experiences in when they’re using what we built – and we do just the same. By all we say and don’t say in our software, the wording and interactions we build, we’re making communication choices that affect the way our users feel and the interactions we’ll have with them.
As people working on software, Empathy is our responsibility, and it’s a skill we can practice every day. Empathy allows us to be more supportive of the people we meet, it can help us change our communities and culture into a positive direction, can make us happier – and helps us understand what’s beyond our own horizons.
As seen so far, acknowledging our privilege, combatting unconscious biases, and practicing empathy are keys to uncovering “nothing” in tech and acting according to our responsibilities. Now let’s look at the tech world of today.
Coding and software development both result in computers processing 0s and 1s. But Code is an enormously powerful tool. Language shapes reality, and programming languages can change the realities of people.
Just recently, the Open Source application “Be my eyes” launched. It aims to connect non-sighted people with sighted ones: when a non-sighted person is stuck with a certain task, they can ask for somebody to help them. Although not without problematics, “Be my Eyes” has a great approach to be an empowering tool, and will hopefully be able to help many people.
What we code can empower people and help them solve their problems.
Code can also create limitations. It can harm and exclude people. – Sometimes just very small changes in an interface can have big impact. Let’s take a look at some examples.
Over the past years, there’s been an ongoing discussion about so-called “real names” in social networks, usually meaning “legal names”. “Real name” policies were originally introduced in an attempt to reduce the veil behind which online bullying, harassment and stalking can occur. But these anti-pseudonymity policies have consequences: they’re actively harming marginalised and endangered groups who most heavily rely on pseudonyms, like women, LGBTQ* people, people with disabilities, victims of abuse and harassment, activists, whistleblowers and many, many more.
The cost of these policies to these people can be vast, including harassment, discrimination, actual physical danger, and much more. Instead of protecting people, “real-name” policies harm them. People who either choose to use pseudonyms, want to use a name which is not their “legal name” or make an entirely different choice *always* have to be able to do so. Enforcing “real name” policies in online spaces is an abuse of power.
In some tools, Avatars show men by default. If the default or unset avatar on your site reads as a man, you’re making an implicit statement that your “normal” user is a man and everyone else is just an exception.
Another limitation is created when you just ignore vast parts of your user base – like Apple, that released a Health application, in which you can track anything – aside from menstruation.
Many software rollouts opt users into new features automatically. But they to damage users unevenly: usually the ones who are less technical are most affected, and users from marginalised communities are the most likely to be endangered by violations of their privacy.
Many people outside the industry are aware that their software persistently and pervasively violates their boundaries, but don’t feel they can do anything about it. Also tools for privacy preservation like the TOR browser are still far from being accessible to less technical people.
Still commonly used are Dark UI patterns, – user interface design approaches that trick users and manipulate their consent.
It’s not acceptable when the most privileged and powerful make the rules for these spaces by writing software that actively endangers those marginalised groups. We have written software that enables harassment and stalking, and we’ve reached a point where users have to permanently distrust the tools they’re using, where they cannot rely on anything, and where they’re always at risk of having their personal safety at stake – all of that by what we design and what we code. ->
We have established a state in which users’ consent is routinely violated, and in which these violations are normalised into invisibility.
We need to build accessible products and platforms which value enthusiastic consent, aid
users’ resistance, and we need to build tools which restore their ability to set and enforce their own boundaries.
Documentation is one of the most valuable things we do, it is the backbone of all our applications. Lack of documentation in our projects or outdated, incomplete docs create invisible limitations and raises entry barriers for people. And then there’s of course …
Code Comments. – Undocumented, insufficiently commented projects often speak the language of bad planning, bad management, too much stress or lack of sustainable thinking. And, most of all, they speak of lack of awareness – lack of awareness for the invisible limitations we create. And lack of awareness that not everyone is like us, and that not everyone has the same experience level that we may have. With all we do, we need to give people everything to be independent – we need to enable people to be in charge themselves.
Do you know where the term software “patch” originally comes from?
Like other programming terms, it originated with Mark I computer, which was used in Harvard from early 1944. Small corrections to the programmed sequence could be done by patching over portions of the paper tape and re-punching the holes in that section, – in this picture, you can see the two patches in dark grey on the top. There’s tiny patches in software documentation that can make a big change. Like –
this patch: a very small Pull Request to a library that affected only one word in the entire documentation – it was about removing the male-gendered pronoun “him” and replacing it with the gender-neutral, socially unproblematic “they”. This tiny patch received 227 comments, many of the commenting people claiming they were “not interested in small changes like that”, and that it was an overall “trivial, minor change”. The discussion exploded, ended up with a heated debate, people claiming to leave the community.
And this is not the only example – heated debates about the use of gendered pronouns and wordings have been held across several other projects as well. Male-gendered documentation is still very often the default. It has three clear issues: 1) it assumes that men are the default, which is sexist (and wrong), 2) it enforces domination of men, 3) it excludes all people who are not men.
Tim Chevalier commented this pattern as follows: “No one ever seems to say that men’s desire to protect the status quo is ‘trivial’ or unworthy of attention. – triviality only gets used to characterize challenges to the status quo.”, they wrote.
Open Source is supposed to be fixing what’s broken, “patches welcome”, they say. Now here was a patch, and the patch was too “trivial”. Defenders of the status quo often say this, the amount of time and energy that they *invest* in defending the status quo communicates an entirely different message.
Another ongoing issue in the tech industry the domination of whiteness – and the massive racism problem.
This one is a Pull Request in Django’s docs and tests, and it’s about replacing “master/slave” terminology, terms which carry racially charged meanings.
This one PR got merged quickly, but then the storm arose: it received more than 800 comments – many of them extremely racist and offensive and written by white people, – while people of colour expressed their appreciation for the change.
This industry is still dominated by white men, and they’re widely visible everywhere, while other groups and their opinions are erased on a regular basis. In order to make a change, many things will have to happen. Not all of them will be as “trivial” as the changes of wordings in software documentation, and some of them will be painful.
Everything that is in our code, in the documentation and comments, and everything that is between the lines – all of it speaks its own language. There may be nothing, but it’s widely visible. The way we handle our code comments and documentation speaks loud and clear about our projects and our communities. —
In mid 2014, we met with some members of the Hoodie Open Source Project Community. We’d been working in a distributed team for a long while and now wanted to spend in-person-time together again. After some time we realised that everybody was feeling a lot of pressure in the Open Source project to get something “ready” and released. — We realised that we had unconsciously established a Shipping Culture in the project – a culture that was mainly about getting things released, getting things done, and we had lost awareness of too many too relevant things on our way. We had unconsciously lost track of the humans in our project, and it took this get-together to find out how close many of us were to burning out.
Seth Godin wrote: “Ship often. Ship lousy stuff, but ship. Ship constantly.” Jeff Atwood expressed the same, as well as Matt Mullenweg, and various tech companies.
In tech, we have a shipping culture. We’re release-focussed. Work on stuff, get it out quickly, get users to test it, improve and add new features, release quickly again. Quick iterations can be useful, but the mighty culture we have established around shipping is hurtful. We’ve come to a point where we “ship constantly” for the wrong reasons.
Shipping culture induces enormous pressure on humans.
And the idea of constantly improving ourselves in our personalities, skills, as teams and in the products we build together is extremely capitalist. When we look at the software that has been shipped in the past few years, may it be in Open Source or in proprietary software, we more and more often see how it has not improved through shipping – rather to the contrary. Various tools, e.g. in the database sector, frameworks, runtime environments, have become packed with more and more features, but have become full of flaws and sometimes even unusable.
The way we ship now is far from the original idea of getting user feedback in quickly and iterating with them – in fact, we’re mostly shipping because of our own company-internal interests and deadlines and just because everybody does it and we think it’s the right thing to do. Software Engineering and computer science are still very young fields. We can’t solve problems if we don’t allow ourselves time to think about them. – This is an imperative ignored by our shipping culture, which values doing more than thinking.
Shipping culture also excludes non-coding team members, since non-coding-related tasks like design, marketing, project management, writing, administration or others often don’t lead to things that can be “shipped”. It also keeps people from looking beyond their own horizons. – From looking into one of the numerous pressuring cultural topics which are going on here, because work on cultural topics, as well as work on diversity and being an ally is nothing that people can ship and earn merit for. Its merit-centered approach makes shipping culture even dangerous.
A major point in tackling this Shipping culture in the Hoodie project was that we changed the focus of our weekly team meetings. Instead of presenting what they shipped, everybody was encouraged to talk about themselves – how they were doing and their personal learnings, failures and highlights or lowlights. Fighting shipping culture is an enormous task, but we found out for this project, that little things can already help relief some of the constant pressure we’re all facing.
Pete Warden recently wrote: “When I’m optimizing code, my intuition about which parts are slowest is often wildly wrong, so I’ve learned the hard way that I have to profile the hell out of it before I try to fix anything. It’s a core skill for dealing with computers, our gut feelings often don’t work, so skepticism becomes a habit. What has surprised me is how we leave that habit behind when confronted with evidence about ourselves.”
Every statistic out there says there’s fewer and fewer women getting computer science degrees and working as engineers. 41% of women leave careers in technology after 10 years, that’s more than twice the number of men. The diversity numbers of large tech companies are laughable.
Still, too many of us fail at even acknowledging that there’s a problem. We’re used to optimising all we can out of our code– but when confronted with evidence about our industry, we fail at keeping this attitude.
Recently, the huge Free and Open Source conference FOSDEM 2015 took place in Belgium. Instead of putting a Code of Conduct in place to protect their conference attendees and especially underrepresented groups, they just wrote in their conference brochure: “The #FOSDEM organisers were surprised to hear that harassment is a common problem at open source conferences around the world.” This is tough. And this is bitter, especially given the huge numbers of documented incidents at geek conferences and in communities in the past decades.
Being in this industry and not caring about tech culture is a luxury that’s only affordable to those with enough privilege to ignore it & too little empathy to care. We hold accuracy so dear when it comes to code, and we just don’t care when it comes to making our industry a better place. And improving all our ongoing issues is going to take a lot more than writing code.
Status in tech is still mainly defined by meritocracy, the illusion that people be judged by their merit only, that those with merit should float to the top and that they should be given more opportunities & higher rewards.
Although not more than an illusion, Meritocracy is highly lucrative, an asset in careers and companies: it gets people jobs, raises, venture capital, community support and more. Meritocracy delivers. It delivers for those who are already in power: it delivers for white, cisheterosexual men. – As long as these privileged people get to define what merit is, meritocracy will merely reinforce existing power structures. Meritocracy exacerbates the lack of diversity in tech and re-inscribes a system of oppression. This illusionary idea that Meritocracy is has become a weapon we use to find explanations why tech is still a homogenous space: all underrepresented groups just didn’t earn enough merit to become part in it, it says – it uses victim-blaming towards those who aren’t allowed to succeed in it. And everything which could potentially hurt existing power structures, like diversity work or activism, is deemed as “not merit” and therefore dismissible.
But there’s one more side to meritocracy, which makes it a double-edged sword: with merit comes visibility, and whilst visibility is great for white, cisheterosexual men, it’s enormously dangerous for the rest of us. For us, with visibility comes harassment, stalking, threats, emotional and sometimes physical violence. Doing anything that might bring attention always comes with risk. On top of that, earning merit, like through Open Source contributions, often requires a lot of spare time, which many underrepresented groups in tech don’t have – because pay inequity prevents them from earning as much money as men do, they need to do care work or domestic work and errands, and more. As long as merit earned is still a core value for relevance of people’s voices and one of the main factors we’re looking for in hiring, we won’t be solving any of tech’s ongoing problems. /// ->
Meritocracy even enforces abuse. Just one example is Linus Torvalds, idol and hero of hackers and nerds and inventor of Linux. He’s a brillant engineer – and an unapologetic bad person who abuses people in public and has been causing a lot of harm to many people. He’s been called out for his behaviour for decades. And when recently questioned about the lack of diversity in tech, his response was basically “I don’t care”. –
And this behaviour is widespread and widely accepted. Right now you can be an abusive bad person as much as you want – as long as you contribute technical things. This way, we end up normalising harassment in our communities. In our communities these days, people don’t see an issue with the fact that 95-99 percent of all community members are white cisheterosexual men. In our communities, we don’t help the best ideas win, but the best ideas from people with a high level of tolerance for receiving personal abuse from community leaders. We need to identify and actively stamp out harmful and dangerous, abusive behaviour by individuals or hate groups. This needs to be the responsibility of us all. This is the responsibility we take on as members of a community.
Silencing is a tactic that literally lets people, their work and voices disappear. Silencing aims to maintain the dominant class. It is generally used by a person with privilege, against a person with less power, to dismiss voices of dissent against privileged majority speak. And it’s a quite common pattern to observe in tech. Silencing tactics can be explicit and implicit, amongst them are lawsuits filed, verbal threats to safety or professional livelihood, punishment, tone arguments, and more.
[READ, cartoon captions – source: cardboard-crack]
Woman: “Even though the Magic community has made progress in recent years, there are still problems with sexism and stores that aren’t friendly to women.
But as players we can make a big difference by letting people know what’s not okay and calling out questionable behaviour.”
Man: “Jeez! Can’t I just have fun playing a game without having to deal with these social issues?!”
Woman: “That’s the same thing I’m asking for.”
Tech still is a space where people have to be afraid of consequences when either reporting or speaking up. Harder still, many people dismiss reports of harassment, sexism, discrimination and more as non-productive and outside their job description. They say things like “while you’re complaining, I’ll be over here programming.” It’s a luxury to be able to say that. It’s a privilege to be in a position where you can just not care about all these issues. If marginalised people continue to be the only voices that are calling out bad behaviour and incidents, they’ll continue to be punished for it. They need people to stand up and stand with them.
Systems reinforce the stereotypes and unconscious biases of the people who are designing them. The systems we design always contain parts of ourselves, and they’re a representation of our very own capabilities and limitations. In the worst case, everything we do stays in a very narrow, self-referential mode. Thus, diversity is essential to good design and engineering on a very fundamental level. The privilege and the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley have led to inadequate, insufficient, and very often inexistent tech solutions to womens’, queers’ and trans people’s problems – basically to the problems of any group that is not white, cisheterosexual, able-bodied men. This imbalance is even worse for people who face oppression at more than one level. Design processes of systems are problem-solving processes. When we’re building software, we build it for users. – Thus, building software is an act of representation. And this representation means responsibility.
The tech industry is still dominated by white, cisheterosexual, able-bodied men with a ton of privilege. These are the people who have built our infrastructure. And when push comes to shove, these system protect the people who designed them for their own use; – while everyone else is constantly placed at risk. There’s a huge difference in the online experiences of men and other groups. Online users who appear to be women are 25 times more likely to receive threats and sexually explicit messages than online users that appear to be men. – And it’s even worse for people who face multi-layered harassment experiences, like women of colour.
Sydette, an African-American woman, once used a photo of a white man in her profile photo and the harassing and racist tweets she usually received stopped. She said: “As a white man, that was the most fun I had online in terms of actually getting to talk to people and not be insulted by them. I received fewer slurs and people were a lot more interested in my thought process than when I was anything else.”
Last summer, GamerGate took off – a sustained, coordinated harassment campaign that seeks to drive women out of computing. The harassment these women still face included spreading their private information and home addresses, threats of rape, and death threats, including a threat of a mass shooting at a university speaking event. GamerGate, like all harassment, comes with a cost: it comes with higher levels of stress and emotional disturbance, it drives people out of their homes, keeps them from publicly speaking, and it burns their lives to the ground. Game Developer & Company co-founder Brianna Wu recently wrote about her reality these days: “This circus has sucked every bit of joy from a career I once felt destined for. … My capacity to feel fear has worn out, as if it’s a muscle that can do no more. During the reign of terror of GamerGate, I have had hundreds of conversations with other women. We’re exhausted, we’re terrified we’ll be next, we’re all thinking of quitting. As a friend recently told me, ‘It’s a very dangerous time to be a woman with an opinion.’”
What can be done about all these issues? Jaclyn Friedman, founder and executive director of Women Action Media, said: “If Silicon Valley can invent a driverless car, they can address online harassment on their platforms. … They don’t lack the talent, resources or vision to solve this problem – they lack the motivation.” The ways that Social Media platforms are built even enable harassment and abuse. When money is on the line, like in cases around copyright violations, companies magically find ways to remove content and block repeat offenders.
We need more egalitarian and empathetic systems architectures. We need political changes in this industry, and we need to address our structural issues. And it’s our own communities that are broken, and each and everyone of us, especially the ones amongst us with more privilege and power, need to help fix them.
There are various organisations and individuals who work on improving the culture in this industry. The largest number of them is run and supported by mostly marginalised people again. By now, marginalised people not only have to personally fight a battle for a right to exist in this industry themselves – they also get pressured into doing it for others, while most diversity work still goes underpaid or completely unpaid. And the time they spend on fighting their own battles and those of others is time which they can’t spend honing their skills. Diversity efforts are initiatives to correct systemic inequalities, and they need everyone’s support – especially the one of people in positions of power. As Adria Richards recently put it, “diversity issues cannot be solved in the vacuum of privilege”. Our diversity work needs to include women, as well as queer, transgender, intersexual people and people of other genders, and it needs to be aware of people who face multi-layered oppressions as well. Our diversity work needs to be inclusive.
Software increasingly defines the world around us. It’s rewriting everything about human interaction — and it’s systems built by men for men, – with disastrous, dangerous consequences for all other underrepresented groups which still don’t truly have a seat at the table. System justification theory says that those in power will fight to defend the status quo, no matter what. This is what we’re observing these days. And we also see masses of women, minorities, and LGBTQ* people of all kinds speaking up about no longer being second class citizens in tech and geek culture. – And the question we’re fighting about here is: who gets to be the ones to shape the future?
All we’ve looked at in this talk are powerful mechanisms that affect people’s daily lives, and our entire industry. What we’ve seen is about structural inequality, structural oppression – an entire industry, communities and individuals causing harm to one another. What we’ve seen is about the question who we all want to be, and how we want to move on. If we’re not speaking out, we are complicit to our existing culture where the experiences of minorities are systematically denied, erased and invalidated.
We all play a role in setting the standards for the communities that we’re a part of. Thus, everyone of us needs to examine our own privilege and use it for good. Each of us needs to figure out what we can do to remove some of the burden that minorities in tech have to carry. We need to educate ourselves about the oppressions people face. We need to work on our empathy to become overall better humans and raise our own awareness towards what’s really going on in our industry.
We need to stop silencing peple, fight shipping culture, and stop worshipping meritocracy. We need to recognise the limitations we create for users in our code and fulfil our representation role properly when building software. We need to fund efforts to increase diversity by giving money to individuals and organisations that do this work. We, and especially those of us in positions of influence, need to publicly and actively stand against the nastiness inherent with our culture. We need to acknowledge that all of this is everybody’s work. – And the more privileged we are, the more it is our responsibility to work on it.
What we need now are deep changes, and they’ll mean that our industry won’t be the same anymore. And that’s a very good thing to go for. Together, we can change this industry, and build a better future for it.
Slowly, more women, lesbian, queer, gay, intersexual, transgender, bisexual people and people of colour will be hired in tech. Slowly, the harmful structures of our existing culture will be examined. Slowly, our industry will become more inclusive. Slowly, we’ll move to new professional standards. Slowly, we’ll move towards the future. This future we’re talking is about justice, – about an industry without violence, discrimination, exclusiveness, and abusiveness. This future we’re talking about is bright and great. And if we all join those who already work on it, it will soon be visible for all of us.
Have you ever looked at the stars at night?
Have you ever felt that there might be something beyond them, something we cannot see with our very own eyes?
More than 40 years ago, Freddie Mercury wrote: “Nothing really matters, anyone can see. Nothing really matters, nothing really matters – to me”.
We need to open our minds, broaden our horizons, and widen our communities – to fully understand what really matters. All of us need to work on making this industry a place for everyone – because nothing really matters.