If You Want to Talk About Women in Tech, Talk to Women About Technology

In case you were living under a rock or otherwise busy over the past few weeks, designer and technologist Amelia Greenhall wrote an excellent piece outlining the issues with men being continually invited to speak on behalf of women in tech ("women in tech" being in fact an entity that, as Nicole Sanchez writes, is as varied and diverse as the many types of men who work in technology). In the past week I have declined media requests to comment because even the coverage of this problem tends to replicate the problem itself: that a man and his wish to be a primary speaker on “women in technology” is being privileged, rather than any actual discussion or acknowledgement of the work that women in technology do.

In the course of this coverage the particular speaker on women in tech in question, Vivek Wadhwa, has repeatedly failed to acknowledge women and their actual work—to the point of denying on NPR that a San Francisco software engineer named Kelly Ellis, who has her professional position listed on her Twitter bio and can be found via Google Search, is even a real person, let alone a woman who makes technology.

Women are Technologists

Wadhwa's refusal on TLDR to acknowledge that real, live women technologists (you can actually even tweet @ them! on the internet! just like male technologists!) actually exist is bad. However, by giving so much space to a man who repeatedly denies technical women's voices (a spectacular example of this was when Vivek Wadhwa succeeded in having the TLDR episode #45 with Amelia Greenhall taken down in favor of a podcast featuring himself), and then only asking women in tech to speak about a man and his behavior, many media outlets have similarly denied women space to speak about their own work in technology and occupy space as technologists in the discourse about technology.

Talking to Women in Technology about Technology

So: if you are a journalist wanting to cover women in technology, and you want to correct the tendency to center men in discussions about technology (even when said discussion is purportedly about women), here is how to do it: talk to women in technology about technology.

If that’s hard to imagine, imagine how absurd it would be if a journalist contacted a male technologist and asked him exclusively about what it’s like to be a man in tech. He would be like, “You want to talk to me about what?… If you don’t want to talk about my work, why are you even interviewing me?” Exactly.

#scalewave

Super excited about having an essay in the upcoming Data Issue of Dis art magazine... will post a link when it launches.

2014 in Writing

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The main thing that motivates me to write in public is having a question about some cultural phenomenon that I want to produce an answer to. This year there were quite a few questions that I used essays to try to resolve, like: why did coffee shops suddenly turn into wood-shops? Why does media keep using the word 'brogrammer'? Why are brands getting so zany on Twitter? What is the connection between the voyeur-forward architecture of social media and the NSA's surveillance programs? Why do tech leaders keep talking about the magical future while ignoring issues in current startup culture? What's going on with Airbnb's new logo/house-sharing nation? Why are wearables so dorky and how will they need to change to be cool? Below is a list of writing I did in 2014 in response to these questions. I'm excited to see what questions I need to figure out in writing in 2015. 

A big ~~<3~~ to everyone who reads my writing.

The Male Gazed (Model View Culture)

Sex and the Startup (Model View Culture)

Speculum of the Other Brogrammer (Katelosse.tv)

Weird Corporate Twitter (The New Inquiry)

Tech Aesthetics (Aeon Magazine)

Facebook for Space? Airbnb's Weird Corporation Nationhood (Katelosse.tv)

What's in a Free Fjallraven Backpack (Katelosse.tv)

The Myth of Magical Futures (Katelosse.tv)

Silicon Valley Has a Fashion Problem (Style.com)

What Reclaimed Wood Meant (Katelosse.tv)

Finally, this essay I wrote in 2013 had many more readers in 2014, so I will include it here:

The Unbearable Whiteness of Breaking Things (Medium)

The Myth of Magical Futures

Despite its (now frequently mocked) claims to meritocracy, Silicon Valley loves its hierarchies. However, because these hierarchies often look somewhat different than old-time corporate ones, they are often opaque to outsiders looking in. My book The Boy Kings is among other things a diagram of hierarchy as it was architected at Facebook in Facebook’s early years, where the closer one was to a Mark-Zuckerberg-when-he-started-Facebook combination of age, race, and gender qualities the higher one was in the hierarchy (a hierarchy that appears not to have changed much given the industry's recently released diversity data). In the past year tech's particular version of hierarchy has been more widely acknowledged and critiqued, and thus we are now in the situation where people as powerful as Peter Thiel are being asked to comment on tech’s diversity and misogyny problems, as in yesterday’s Reddit Ask Me Anything interview with Thiel.

Peter Thiel’s answer to misogyny in tech was that we need more women founders, and this answer struck me as interesting on a number of levels, and also somewhat opaque to someone looking into this world from outside. Why women founders? On the one hand, the possibility that a woman founder would construct the hierarchy at her company differently than Mark Zuckerberg is compelling. On the other, the idea of women founders as a solution to tech misogyny also makes existing male founders and investors unaccountable for misogyny as it exists today. Thiel is saying that he and his funded companies are not responsible for the misogynist environments they themselves have built, and furthermore, that they can’t fix them-- only a woman founder can.

This is a problem, because the misogynist hierarchies that exist in tech today are not mystical outcomes, but very real products of the values of the people involved at the formation of a company, which are investors and founders. Investors and board members in addition to founders influence everything from how much equity goes to individual employees, to perks and play budgets (which often are not evenly distributed across the company), to the construction of departments, their relative importance, and the resources accordingly allocated to them. And not coincidentally the privileged departments, on this model, tend to be those occupied by people who look most like the founder and investors (at Facebook this was product engineering, which dominated other forms of engineering, which dominated non-engineering departments, which tended to have the largest degree of race and gender diversity).

But when Thiel is arguing for more women founders he isn’t just deflecting responsibility from himself and his fellow investors. He is also doing something else that I want to unpack: he is re-inscribing a form of hierarchical thinking that is part of the reason tech is such a mess regarding diversity. That is, when Thiel points to “more women founders” as a solution, he is asking women to become founders in order to possess a status that would allow Thiel to acknowledge women in tech at all. That is, all of the women who are currently working in tech, up and down the employee stack, many at companies that Thiel may be invested in, do not seem in Thiel’s formulation to really exist to him. They do not have a seat at the table. They are not acknowledged as agents of change, or as subjects of discrimination (for example, in the AMA, Thiel cited the Bay Area “housing crisis” as a worse problem than sexism in tech, not knowing that the housing crisis disproportionately affects women and people of color because of the wage discrimination marginalized people face at work).

That is, according to Thiel’s “women founders” logic, he can only imagine women as agents/subjects if they are the founder of a company. And this, in the end, is exactly why and how tech is such a diversity disaster: because there are so many ways powerful people in the industry have of ignoring that marginalized people are working at their companies and are experiencing multiple forms of discrimination right now. This is why many powerful people in tech can only conceive moves to “change” the industry in terms of magical futures like “more women founders” or “getting young girls to code”. The women working in the industry right now are being written off in favor of these magical futures, and as long as this is the case, the now of tech (whether the now is today or twenty years from today) will be unchanged.

This is why you should be skeptical whenever you see powerful men arguing for magical future outcomes in regard to diversity. Instead, ask what they can do right now to affect discrimination in their companies. For example, what are they doing to rectify across the board pay and equity discrepancies between men and women, or white men and people of color? What do their harassment policies look like? Investors like Peter Thiel directly influence these decisions at startups they fund (even if “influence” means “failing to advise founders to avoid discriminatory practices”, which is a form of influence). So when men like Thiel speak of magical futures, we should always be asking them: what are you doing today?

Memes, Selfies, Money: Why the Ice Challenge Worked

As many have commentedat no point in recent social media memory has the difference between Facebook and Twitter been so apparent: over the past week, Twitter users have used the #Ferguson hashtag over 3.6 million times to raise awareness of protests against the police killing of unarmed Michael Brown in St. Louis, while in the same period Facebook has been dominated by videos of people performing the "Ice Bucket Challenge", where they dump ice water over their heads in exchange for avoiding making a charity donation. I've spent more time on Twitter lately, so upon learning of the ice bucket meme and its popularity, it took a minute for me to untangle the logic of the challenge. 

Since the point of the challenge is to raise money, the meme's creators probably intended the "ice" part of the challenge to be more unpleasant than donating money, and were likely surprised that dousing yourself with ice water is as popular as it is. But rather than paying money to avoid the ice water, participants endure the ice water in order to have a socially-sanctioned reason to take a video selfie (because while photo selfies are much more acceptable than they once were, the video selfie is still less common). And the design of Facebook (as opposed to Twitter) works precisely to make the video-selfie aspect of the challenge its viral draw, causing the challenge to become more of an awareness raiser than a direct way of soliciting the maximum donations (in the end, some still pay something, and the viral spread multiplies those small donations).

That's to say that Facebook is designed to make personal content-- like photos, which have driven site usage since Facebook began-- spread most rapidly. It does so by making the primary nodal interface on the site be between "friends" rather than between, say, news sources and individuals, or other sources of content and individuals. People and their images and updates are the primary content that is being served on Facebook. 

Because Facebook is so tightly defined by the transaction of personal content, it actually creates a content production issue. Unlike Twitter where one can happily share impersonal links to news (though Twitter is developing an algorithm to move closer to Facebook's more opaque, personal model), the Facebook user must be prompted to post personal content, and that content must be broadly socially appealing. This is why weddings and babies are the main types of content on Facebook at present, and why Facebook perpetually experiments with the "status update" question, to find questions that prompt the widest range of people to post a personal update or even better, visual content, which performs best in News Feed.

The Ice Bucket Storm

If the Ice Bucket Challenge had not been invented as a fundraising drive, it would make an excellent social media site engagement driver, because it solves the problem of getting people to post and share personal, visual content. It does so first by providing an excuse to make a video selfie-- because in the age of ubiquitous cameras, the biggest hurdle to content production is self-consciousness, which can be overcome by being commanded by friends or philanthropy. Second, the ice bucket meme's format includes a prompt to friends to create their own video selfies (this is the human equivalent of when Facebook apps used to ask you to invite people to the app before you had used it). The Ice Bucket Challenge is thus a perfect viral storm that, while generating millions of page clicks and new content for Facebook and other sites, happens happily to also generate awareness and donations for a good cause.

As such one could imagine a philanthropically inclined Facebook feeling moved to make its own donation to the cause; or even for its own benefit, building products that contain some incentive to produce and share personal content a la the Ice Bucket Challenge. Slingshot, Facebook's Snapchatty app, does a version of this by forcing people to share content in order to see content.

Direct v. Algorithmic Curation

Meanwhile, on Twitter, the motivating factor for #Ferguson tweets is of a different order: concern with the injustice and overwhelming force shown in Ferguson by police against Mike Brown and unarmed residents. The news is urgent and the desire to share it is equally urgent and direct, along with the IRL responses of people organizing and sending supplies. Fortunately, a selfie isn't necessary to spread the news on Twitter; while on Facebook, due to algorithmic curation, it may be. But just the same, this viral sharing benefits Twitter insofar as it drives content and usage. As such one could imagine Twitter, like one could imagine Facebook for ALS, acknowledging the cause with a financial contribution. Because if paying producers for content is no longer on the table, perhaps the next ethical step will be to pay the meme's original creators (or their causes) for the engagement they drive.

What Tech Offices Say

My new essay on Tech Aesthetics is up at Aeon Magazine.

The tech industry has reimagined the office as a vehicle for conveying workers’ social and professional prestige.
— http://aeon.co/magazine/altered-states/what-tech-offices-tell-us-about-the-future-of-work/