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Open Systems and Glass Ceilings

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Posted on Apr 11, 2014

Image by ssoosay (CC BY 2.0)

By Astra Taylor, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

Those women who do fight their way into the industry often end up leaving—their attrition rate is 56%, or double that of men—and sexism is a big part of what pushes them out. “I no longer touch code because I couldn’t deal with the constant dismissing and undermining of even my most basic work by the ‘brogramming’ gulag I worked for,” wrote one woman in a roundup of answers to the question: Why there are so few female engineers?

In Silicon Valley, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer excepted, the notion of the boy genius prevails.  More than 85% of venture capitalists are men generally looking to invest in other men, and women make 49 cents for every dollar their male counterparts rake in—enough to make a woman long for the wage inequities of the non-digital world, where on average they take home a whopping 77 cents on the male dollar. Though 40% of private businesses are women-owned nationwide, only 8% of the venture-backed tech start-ups are.

Established companies are equally segregated. The National Center for Women and Information Technology reports that in the top 100 tech companies, only 6% of chief executives are women. The numbers of Asians who get to the top are comparable, despite the fact that they make up one-third of all Silicon Valley software engineers. In 2010, not even 1% of the founders of Silicon Valley companies were black.

Making Your Way in a Misogynist Culture

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What about the online communities that are routinely held up as exemplars of a new, networked, open culture? One might assume from all the “revolutionary” and “disruptive” rhetoric that they, at least, are better than the tech goliaths. Sadly, the data doesn’t reflect the hype. Consider Wikipedia. A survey revealed that women make up less than 15% of the contributors to the site, despite the fact that they use the resource in equal numbers to men.

In a similar vein, collaborative filtering sites like Reddit and Slashdot, heralded by the digerati as the cultural curating mechanisms of the future, cater to users who are up to 87% male and overwhelmingly young, wealthy, and white. Reddit, in particular, has achieved notoriety for its misogynist culture, with threads where rapists have recounted their exploits and photos of underage girls got posted under headings like “Chokeabitch,” “Niggerjailbait,” and “Creepshots.”

Despite being held up as a paragon of political virtue, evidence suggests that as few as 1.5% of open source programmers are women, a number far lower than the computing profession as a whole. In response, analysts have blamed everything from chauvinism, assumptions of inferiority, and outrageous examples of impropriety (including sexual harassment at conferences where programmers gather) to a lack of women mentors and role models. Yet the advocates of open-source production continue to insist that their culture exemplifies a new and ethical social order ruled by principles of equality, inclusivity, freedom, and democracy.

Unfortunately, it turns out that openness, when taken as an absolute, actually aggravates the gender gap. The peculiar brand of libertarianism in vogue within technology circles means a minority of members—a couple of outspoken misogynists, for example—can disproportionately affect the behavior and mood of the group under the cover of free speech. As Joseph Reagle, author of Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia, points out, women are not supposed to complain about their treatment, but if they leave—that is, essentially are driven from—the community, that’s a decision they alone are responsible for.

“Urban” Planning in a Digital Age

The digital is not some realm distinct from “real” life, which means that the marginalization of women and minorities online cannot be separated from the obstacles they confront offline. Comparatively low rates of digital participation and the discrimination faced by women and minorities within the tech industry matter—and not just because they give the lie to the egalitarian claims of techno-utopians. Such facts and figures underscore the relatively limited experiences and assumptions of the people who design the systems we depend on to use the Internet—a medium that has, after all, become central to nearly every facet of our lives.

In a powerful sense, programmers and the corporate officers who employ them are the new urban planners, shaping the virtual frontier into the spaces we occupy, building the boxes into which we fit our lives, and carving out the routes we travel. The choices they make can segregate us further or create new connections; the algorithms they devise can exclude voices or bring more people into the fold; the interfaces they invent can expand our sense of human possibility or limit it to the already familiar.

What vision of a vibrant, thriving city informs their view? Is it a place that fosters chance encounters or does it favor the predictable? Are the communities they create mixed or gated? Are they full of privately owned shopping malls and sponsored billboards or are there truly public squares? Is privacy respected? Is civic engagement encouraged? What kinds of people live in these places and how are they invited to express themselves? (For example, is trolling encouraged, tolerated, or actively discouraged or blocked?)

No doubt, some will find the idea of engineering online platforms to promote diversity unsettling and—a word with some irony embedded in it—paternalistic, but such criticism ignores the ways online spaces are already contrived with specific outcomes in mind.  They are, as a start, designed to serve Silicon Valley venture capitalists, who want a return on investment, as well as advertisers, who want to sell us things. The term “platform,” which implies a smooth surface, misleads us, obscuring the ways technology companies shape our online lives, prioritizing certain purposes over others, certain creators over others, and certain audiences over others.

If equity is something we value, we have to build it into the system, developing structures that encourage fairness, serendipity, deliberation, and diversity through a process of trial and error. The question of how we encourage, or even enforce, diversity in so-called open networks is not easy to answer, and there is no obvious and uncomplicated solution to the problem of online harassment. As a philosophy, openness can easily rationalize its own failure, chalking people’s inability to participate up to choice, and keeping with the myth of the meritocracy, blaming any disparities in audience on a lack of talent or will.

That’s what the techno-optimists would have us believe, dismissing potential solutions as threats to Internet freedom and as forceful interference in a “natural” distribution pattern. The word “natural” is, of course, a mystification, given that technological and social systems are not found growing in a field, nurtured by dirt and sun. They are made by human beings and so can always be changed and improved.

Astra Taylor is a writer, documentary filmmaker (including Zizek! and Examined Life), and activist. Her new book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (Metropolitan Books), has just been published. This essay is adapted from it. She also helped launch the Occupy offshoot Strike Debt and its Rolling Jubilee campaign.

Excerpted and adapted from The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Copyright 2014 Astra Taylor


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