Saturday, February 15, 2014

Yes, Things Can Get Worse: The Gender Politics Crisis In FOSS, Geek and Hacker Culture Reconsidered

Note: If you just want the main flow of this essay you don't need to read the footnotes or to check out the links.  If you want a more colorful reading experience read all the footnotes and follow at least some of my links.  Most importantly, read

It's a historical fact that blues, R&B, folk, rock, rap, country and gospel music share a complex and intermixed history.  I could add more styles and traditions to the list to make it even more true, or take a few out.  It would still stand up.

The communities that form around technologies also overlap and intermix as they grow and change.  As with all social change sometimes its messy.  Sometimes people get hurt.

You only need to look as far as punk rock and heavy metal fans to see how cultures can clash around musics that are very closely related[1] but attract fans from different social circumstances.  From day one to today fans of these two hard, guitar driven genres of rock and roll have had very tense relations.  Birthed within a decade of each other[1.5] and liberally swapping musical ideas back and forth ever since, punk and metal musicians, so far as I can tell, don't generally have problems with each other.  Some fans, however, go as far as defining themselves against the other style.  I have had a couple teen heavy metal fans (from two different states, in two different decades) say that they risked serious conflict and possible violence if they went to punk shows.  Certain local punks were that hostile[2].

Country music has come a long way since the Bakersfield sound inadvertently paved the way for the country-pop-rock blends that exploded in the 1960's and again, much, much bigger, in the 1990's.  Modern country music is so popular that it can't be tied to any one subculture or value set.  Some of the resulting conflicts have been quite public.  I'm not aware of any racial angle for the nationalists who sent death threats to Natalie Maines[3] but I bet they weren't wearing Tragedy Khadafi t-shirts when they did it.  Even if they are a minority of the country audience such actions send a strong cultural message.  Who could blame an artist of color who looked for work in another market?  

There is a great scene in the Ray biopic where Ray Charles does choose that fight.  He convinces a country band to hire him in spite of being black.  In short, he demonstrates that he knows his shit and they hire him on his merits.  What makes the scene great is the way he plows ahead in spite of them not wanting give him a hearing.  What appears to win them over is not just that he can play solid country piano but that he fundamentally understands country music's tradition of storytelling and how it connects to people at the heart level[3.5].  Remember this when I start talking about black country star Charley Pride later on.

I bring up these illustrations not just as background but also to make a very general point about how people are culturally divided within a larger culture.  Sometimes we are divided in small ways that we make big.  Sometimes we are divided by substantial misunderstandings or identity issues that we make very, very big.  And, like I said before, sometimes people get hurt.

I just read the Feb. 4, 2014 piece by Susan Sons at about her experiences as a hacker/coder/geek.  Her experiences paint a very different picture of what's wrong with modern technology communities, hacker and geek culture regarding gender and diversity issues than one gets from or Shanley Kane.  The single point of agreement would be that there is something wrong; women are being sidelined.  Sons blames the gender imbalance in technology on two categories of problems.  First, she points to forces in the broader culture that steer girls toward cultivating popularity and their appearance at the expense of making, fixing and doing.  The other culprit, according to Sons, is a misguided feminist project to correct the technology world's diversity problems.  She calls out the Ada Initiative by name in this line of criticism.

Here are two short passages from Sons' piece that really struck me.

I've never had a problem with old-school hackers. These guys treat me like one of them, rather than "the woman in the group", and many are old enough to remember when they worked on teams that were about one third women, and no one thought that strange. Of course, the key word here is "old" (sorry guys). Most of the programmers I like are closer to my father's age than mine.
The new breed of open-source programmer isn't like the old. They've changed the rules in ways that have put a spotlight on my sex for the first time in my 18 years in this community.


I've also come to realize that I have an advantage that female newcomers don't: I was here before the sexism moral panic started. When a dozen guys decide to drink and hack in someone's hotel room, I get invited. They've known me for years, so I'm safe. New women, regardless of competence, don't get invited unless I'm along. That's a sexual harassment accusation waiting to happen, and no one will risk having 12 men alone with a single woman and booze. So the new ladies get left out.

Aside from the inherent weirdness of reading someone younger than me writing about the good-old-days[4], my first reaction was a bit of disbelief.  How could older male hackers possibly be less sexist than younger ones?  Isn't social change going in the other direction?  Sure, those of us who take a more critical and systematic view of these social problems certainly think things are still broken, but nobody believes we're moving backwards, right?  On the surface, her experience seems to fly in the face of how many of us believe oppression works and how things are changing.  In fact, that's part of the point of her essay.  She is not only saying the critical feminist theory crowd is wrong.  She is saying we are a substantial part of the problem.

My doubt about Sons' veracity quickly passed.  Aside from the fact that I am in no position to judge, she has no reason to misrepresent her own experience.  The fact that she is discussing this issue at all means she's volunteering for criticism; these issues are highly charged and it seems like everybody is ready to argue about them, myself included.  Siding with an older generation of hackers is not going to guard her from criticism, or yield her any other benefits[5].  We should take her at her word not only on the details of her experience but on her observation that something has radically changed in hacker culture.

Mind you, I fundamentally disagree with Sons on the nature of the problem, but that isn't what's most important.  I think her experiences in hacker culture are very instructive.  We would all do well to understand just what it means that her life in hackerdom has been this way.  It says some very good things about her and the people she has worked with.  What went right for her?

One of the first parallels that came to mind as I read Sons' essay was an interview with Charley Pride from a number of years ago[5.5].  In the interview he said he had experienced no racism from other country music artists or country music fans.  Remembering the same feeling of disbelief I went looking for the Pride interview.  I couldn't find it on-line but I found a newer one where he says the same thing.

Upon digesting the original Pride interview I concluded he was disingenuous.  "He had to say this," I thought.  Conservatives soundly lost the battle for overt, legally codified racism decades ago.  Acknowledging lingering remnants of it is a reminder that they were on the wrong side of history.  The party line is that prejudice is an unfortunate tick on the broad back of American history and everything is OK now.  As the frighteningly conservative mother of a friend once said of black folks bearing hard feelings about racism "We've gotten over it.  Why can't they?"[6]  To continue to be accepted by the conservative parts of the country music audience and conservatives in the music business, I thought, Pride must need to play along with the conservative charade that all is well.

Although I think this pattern of denial is a very real thing among conservatives (and others who need the glass to be more than half full, for whatever reason) I no longer believe it explains Charley Pride's account of his own experiences.  I think we should take Charley Pride at his word, too, for a bunch of different reasons.  Again, one is that people like me, who have so little shared experience with him, have no business doubting him.[7]

Here we have two very different people in very different environments who's experiences seem to defy certain expectations about who is privileged and who is marginalized and how all of this stuff works.  But how deep does the contradiction go?  Up to this point I have not mentioned the concept of intersectionality[8][9][10][11].  The simplest message of intersectionality is that injustice and oppression are complicated.  More specifically, racism, classism, sexism/patriarchy, homo/transphobia, and other forms of oppression continuously intersect and interact throughout our experiences and social environments.  Not only to they interact, they are interconnected in our lives and cultures in such a way that they can not be understood singly.

From the intersectional point of view, the Marxist vs. feminist quarrel "sexism is classism," vs. "patriarchy transcends economics" is transformed.  They are both right, yet too exclusive.  Class struggle makes more sense if you consider gender issues and patriarchy make more sense if you consider class...and race...and age...and body type...and education.

If you believe modernism is the project of possessing objectivity and postmodernism is the project of understanding subjectivity[12], intersectional theory is decidedly postmodern.  Every marginalizing force a person experiences contributes to their point of view.  Likewise, all of a person's privileges.  This leads to the related area of standpoint theory, and a more complete explanation of why I never should have doubted Sons or Pride in the first place, even briefly.  It is much more to the point to try to understand what formed and informed their experience than to fret about it not immediately fitting into my world view.

The question "Did Charley Pride experience racism in the country music industry?" ceases to be relevant.  The fact of it matters to him, but it's the wrong question for me to ask.  A better question presents itself: "Why did Charley Pride say he experienced no racism in the country music industry?"  In both cases only Pride really knows the answer.  But the process of pursuing the second one will be more informative for the rest of us, and shows Pride a bit more respect.

Part of the answer to the "Why?" question may be that Pride commanded a level of respect from people like Chet Atkins and Red Foley that encouraged others to give him a chance.  Like the scene from Ray I mentioned above, once he got a hearing, he was in.  I stand by every condemnation of country radio[12.5] and country pop music I've made, but stars the size of Charley Pride don't just happen, in any type of music.  You have to have something real going on to sell 40 million records.  You have to be special.  Like I said about The Eagles, there aren't enough stupid people in the world to buy that many bad records[13], even if I don't like them.

It is probably too simplistic to say that Charley Pride had a good experience in a somewhat racist industry simply because he is a remarkable, well connected artist with charisma.  But it also might be fundamentally true.  People are not treated in a specific way exclusively because of their marginalized status, nor a simple (or even complex) combination of marginalization and privilege.  It is also their personality, skills, and other personal traits, assuming they are given a chance to express them.

Which leads us back to Susan Sons.  She says she joined hacker culture because it was a "community where my ideas, my skills and my experience mattered, not my boobs."[14]  Being only on the fringes of hacker culture myself (and barely able to write a simple Python script) I can't bring forth any judgement about Sons' skills or exactly how they are perceived.  That said, we have every reason to believe that she has earned the title, "hacker"[15], as conferred by other hackers.  She doesn't do a lot of name dropping in her essay, but when she does it is quite significant.  One last quote.

As a little girl from farm country who'd repeatedly been excluded from intellectual activities because she wasn't wealthy or urban or old enough to be wanted, I could not believe how readily I'd been accepted and treated like anybody else in the channel, even though I'd been outed. I was doubly floored when I found out that coder0 was none other than Eric S. Raymond, whose writings I'd devoured shortly after discovering Linux.

Charley Pride did not become a superstar because he was endorsed by Chet Atkins.  Charley Pride had a chance to prove himself because he was endorsed by Chet Atkins.  If you have neither skills nor potential it doesn't matter who endorses you.  If you never get a hearing nobody will ever know about your skills.

Eric S. Raymond's isn't a household name but he is in the first tier of influential people in Free Software and open source and has been since the late 1990's, if not earlier.  In addition to being a player in this story he has also written about meritocracy as a value and a process that ensure the quality of open source software and the health of its communities.  I think meritocracy fundamentally flawed, but it does ensure one very important thing: nobody succeeds or advances without merit.  Ambition alone will not put you in charge of anything.  You need to prove yourself.  

The problem is that others with merit or the potential to develop merit are sidelined because they either do not get or do not take the chance to prove themselves.  To work one's way up Free Software's meritocratic ziggurat you need to make yourself heard.  Put another way, someone needs to listen to you.  Raymond listened to Sons.  Thousands of people were already listening to Raymond.  She got a chance to prove herself, and did.

This is not a bad way of doing things.  As I said, it weeds out people with nothing to offer but ambition or ego.  But it only works for however many people are heard by those the community already respects.  What keeps a person from being heard is just as likely to be social or cultural as to be intellectual or technical.  Thankfully, those barriers did not keep Susan Sons out.  The question for the community is "Who is going to be Eric S. Raymond for every other worthy person?"

The answer is, "probably, nobody."

Sons describes the Free Software community (she says "open source") as having changed for the worse in her time there.  She feels the cultural value of a person's ideas and skills being all that matters has been lost.  She blames political changes and encroachment by an unhealthy brand of "modern-day 'feminism'" in Free Software and education.  Among other things, she feels these political changes unfairly target well meaning and largely innocent hacker men "simply for being here" or simply for being male.

I don't know why the Free Software community seems more sexually politicized than it used to be, but I suspect it is a function of the popular success of Linux, Apache, Python, Drupal, GIMP and the big Free databases.  This has meant more and bigger conferences, more full time Free Software jobs, and the involvement of a lot more people who have never used IRC, don't know what The Internet was like before the .com boom and have never heard of the hacker ethic.  

I'm not saying these people are the problem or that the earlier Free Software culture was actually healthier or better.  What I'm saying is that modern Free Software culture is more diverse and socially complicated.  There is no one meritocratic system through which to prove yourself, not only because there are more and larger projects, but because there is a bigger diversity of values, more different ways projects are run, and far too many individuals and sub-communities for anyone to know how it all fits together or how to navigate it socially.  

The scene isn't cozy and homey anymore.

There are more standpoints than we know how to cope with.  

So, people fall back to a much more primal way of dealing with each other, at least for people they don't already know.  Assumptions, stereotypes, dirty jokes[16], defensiveness, posturing.  Consuming information and not sharing. Only talking to the people you came with.  Arguing about "Free Software" vs. "open source" just to argue, not because it figures in an actual decision about a project[17].  Trying to enforce ideological purity by criticising people for using proprietary software when you know nothing of their background[18] or technical needs.  

Trying to prove the scene is still "yours," to all these newcomers.  If they don't like it they can leave.

Trying to prove the scene is now "yours," having only just arrived.  If the old-timers can't keep up they can leave.

Conflicts rooted in these behaviors (rather than conflict about technical decisions or other things hackers are really good at) makes it harder for people in the community to identify people who are ready to be mentored or what they could contribute.  It also drives people away.  This I think Sons and the geek feminist community can agree on.  A lot of harm is being done by some of these conflicts.  

I don't know how to foster the necessary understanding to overcome these conflicts.  Based on her Linux Journal piece, Susan Sons feels very distant from the geek/hacker/tech feminism community represented by the Ada Initiative and, with their grounding in critical and feminist theory and language often rooted in social science and social struggle.  For example, she rejects the term "male privilege" as a bludgeon for collective punishment of men.  I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding.  I don't think any of the people I know who use that term believe in collective guilt or want collective punishment.  If they do, they aren't saying that to me.  Male privilege is fact about how men are treated socially.  It says nothing about any individual's behavior.

I think misunderstanding about what feminists and other activists mean by "privilege" and phrases like "check your privilege" is huge and stirs up a lot of unnecessary defensiveness in a lot of different people.  Being privileged by race, money or anything else doesn't make a person evil or mean that activists think they are.  Privileges are social facts that have to be recognized before they can be dealt with.  It does not implicate an individual in wrongdoing, unless of course you know you are privileged and decide you are going to abuse those privileges in any and every way you can.  If you read this far, that probably isn't you.

What I am not saying is "can't we all just get along?" or "we're all in this together" or "we are all on the same side whether we know it or not."  No, we are divided by real differences of identity, culture and values.  The differences between liberal/individualist feminism and radical/cultural/critical feminism are very real, as are the differences between various on-line communities and our personal experiences.  What I am saying is that it is worth trying to understand and learn from each other, which I believe starts with giving each other a hearing and taking each other at our word.  

[1] An acquaintance once told me all heavy music is ripped off from early Rolling Stones records.  I don't know if he was mostly making a point about similarity or the fact that fans tend to live in a-historical fantasy worlds where their favorite bands spring directly from the head of Zeus.  Yes, Susan Sons uses that same mythological reference in her article linked later. I swear, it's a coincidence.  :-)
[1.5]  Dating the birth of heavy metal is difficult.  I don't buy the line about the term being used (along with "falling from the sky") to describe a certain guitarist's sound.  Even if we assume the term had never been applied to music before it only dates the coinage of the term, not the birth of the music.  So, please cut me some slack here.  They were born around the mid 60's and mid 70's.
[2] One of the reasons these stories broke my heart is that I have always identified more with punk rock (although I have also always listened to metal).  To my dismay punks were the antagonists here, or so these metal kids told me.
[3] Google searches like "country music conservative" return three types of hits: calls to boycott specific artists (or lists of artists) for not being conservative enough, articles with titles like "country artists aren't as conservative as you think" and lists of Republican celebrities.  See also patriotism/nationalism link.
[3.5] The truth is that I get tired of country fans talking about how wonderfully meaningful and moving country lyrics are compared to rock n roll when in fact I find so much of what's on country radio predictable, insincere, pandering and sappy.  On the other hand, when it comes to the country music I like it is for exactly the same reasons devout country fans give--fantastic songwriting that is both thought provoking and moving.  It is hard to argue with the claim that country music has a stronger songwriting tradition than rock, even if you couldn't tell by the insultingly insipid shit on the radio.  There are no good old days here.  I'm pretty sure it's always been this way.  "I Love My Truck" was a hit for Glen Campbell in 1981.  For the record, rock and pop radio suck too, and always have.  Although, the 1970s and 1980's era "99+" KFMH was cool.  For a time it was more or less unprogrammed.  That didn't last.  Advertisers want some idea where their adds are going.  During that era they would play most any request, no matter how off the wall it was.  I would have liked to see their record library.  Near the end they programmed a few hours of heavy metal each evening, but that concession to predictability wasn't enough.  The call sign now belongs to an oldies station in South Dakota, but the old Quad Cities station has been somewhat revived as an Internet radio entity,  One commercial radio station that didn't suck...but even they couldn't keep the lights on in the end. "It don't matter who lied, I got my truck right by my side."  More of the same after this word from our sponsor.
[4] She says she started hacking on Slackware at age 12.  She refers to "18 years in this community."  I remember seeing the Watergate hearings on TV.  Hello.  I am old.
[5] OK, she is defending her friends.  On the other hand, if that was her main concern she could have laid out the problems but point to her friends as exceptions or counterexamples, which would actually be a bigger compliment because it shows them swimming against the tide.
[5.5] Pride was the first celebrity-level country artist of his generation to also be black, and, probably is still the top selling black country artist of all time.  He has 39 Billboard country chart #1's.
[6] That's verbatim.  She was talking about being pulled over by a black cop for speeding.  She could "just tell" that he didn't like white people.  I wanted to point out she was living proof "we" have not "gotten over it" but she had probably already identified me as a race traitor, a concept she would surely deny knowing of, much less believing in.
[7] He also passes on the opportunity to talk about the bad-old-days.  It would be easy enough for him to say "America has come so far..." and how wonderful it is that the country music family is now so loving, welcoming and all about the music.  That isn't what he says.  He says, in short, "Most of my experience has been good."  I don't think he's a yes man.  Read the rest of the interview.  He isn't afraid to complain about other things.
[12] I know.  If it fits on a bumper sticker it isn't true.  Still, it's a nice bite sized definition.
[12.5] Nathan Bell says it best.  Not safe for work.
[13] Even Kiss, whom I dislike for too many reasons to write down, must have something to recommend them.  They have sold a LOT of records.
[14] I considered paraphrasing out the word "boobs" because I didn't want people second guessing my reasons for using that particular quote. The thing is, she says it best this way.  It is very much to the point.
[15] Here I use the Jargon File definition of "hacker," emphasizing the qualification that it is a title earned by merit.  One is a hacker when other hackers say so.  I do not consider myself a hacker, although I do consider myself to have some ties to hacker culture.
[16] Personally, I just don't tell them anymore for a bunch of reasons, but people who do enjoy a dirty joke need to understand that what is OK between people who absolutely know you are kidding because they have known you for years and the stark contrast between the joke and what they know to be your personal values is part of what makes it funny...should not be told in the seats while you are waiting for the keynote to start.  You don't know who is in earshot or how hurtful it may be to them simply because they don't know you.  Seriously, it makes a difference who is telling the joke.  If in doubt, don't tell it.
[17] Terminology and language do matter but that isn't a good enough reason to have a regressive argument RIGHT NOW instead of talking about something more immediately pertinent.  

[18] For all you know they only heard about Linux last Tuesday and still aren't clear what it is; a problem you, perhaps, could help with.  Nicely.  Maybe they need it for their job.  Maybe the fucking MacBook Pro was a gift.  The point is, you don't know.

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