Which side are you on?

January 21, 2013 | 1 comment

Woodcraft FolkI grew up in a culture of counterculture politics. My parents met in Berkeley during the early seventies, which should tell you pretty much everything you need to know; they were, separately and together, involved in Vietnam protests, equal economic and political rights and liberties, tenants’ rights, and the environmental activities around Peoples’ Park. It’s partially in tribute to them that I, now, have settled in Berkeley myself, after a lifetime growing up in Britain. It still confounds me that it’s considered impolite to talk about politics in some circles, because growing up, it was impolite to not. Although I’m on a more capitalist trajectory, seeing the practical need to earn money as a form of self-protection and freedom, when push comes to shove I’m behind modern activist politics completely. These movements are not necessarily related, but I broadly support Occupy, WikiLeaks and Anonymous; I regularly donate (albeit relatively modest sums) to the EFF, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.

My politics often inform the projects I work on. Elgg was originally an angry response to the license fees and terms imposed by educational software, which siphons huge amounts of public money away from teaching. I became a part of latakoo because of its social mission to support journalism. I’m proud of both, but there’s no denying that both are commercial businesses, with investors and shareholders; a far cry from direct action.

In fact, publicly, to my shame, I’ve mostly been quiet. So have most of us.

On Friday, I attended an event for Internet Freedom Day, celebrating a year since SOPA was struck down, and also memorializing Aaron Swartz, who had a lot to do with that victory. One of the attendees was Peter Eckersley, the Technology Projects Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who stood on a chair, gave a beautiful speech, and then called the Internet community to action: why are so many Americans, per capita, in prison? The problems of Aaron Swartz’s specific case are numerous, but isn’t this the larger problem? He suggested that this is the problem that Aaron would have preferred us to tackle.

And why can’t we, as a community, tackle this problem? Sure, it’s not specifically a technical problem. But the technology community can certainly help find a solution. We can use big data analysis to look at case reports, determine trends and potentially uncover problems. We can build systems to create better reporting of miscarriages of justice. And we can accept that the technology world is well-connected, wealthy and well-educated, and can make an enormous impact on any social issue if it chooses to. There are network effects to activism, and the tech community has strength in numbers.

This is exciting to me. I believe that activists like Aaron – and the thousands of likeminded people that we’ve never heard of – are extraordinarily brave, and prescient. I do think the tech sector is about to be more political, and I intend to lend my support, my skills and my momentum wherever it is needed. It’s an exciting time for all of us. It’s time for each of us to ask ourselves: do we want to change the world, really, on a societal level – or not?

Gender differences on the new frontier

March 10, 2009 | 16 comments

It’s a commonly accepted fact that computing is a male-dominated industry, but I was shocked by the scale of the inequality. Okay, this is kind of unscientific, but take a look at these statistics:

  • Female population of the world: 49.8%
  • Female population of Facebook: 55%
  • Female population of social networks as a whole: 54.7%
  • Percentage of people awarded undergraduate computer science degrees by PhD-granting institutions in the US and Canada in 2006-7 who were women: 12%

While social media usage is skewed ever so slightly towards women, a whopping 88% of the people who study to learn the skills to build these tools are men. This is at a time when, in science generally, women receiving undergraduate degrees are increasing as a percentage year on year.

Some of the reasons for this have been covered a lot over the past year. This 2007 interview with Aaron Swartz (who worked on Creative Commons and is now behind the awesome government site Watchdog.net) contains some interesting thoughts on discrimination on the basis of both gender and race:

If you talk to any woman in the tech community, it won’t be long before they start telling you stories about disgusting, sexist things guys have said to them. It freaks them out; and rightly so. As a result, the only women you see in tech are those who are willing to put up with all the abuse.

[...] The denial about this in the tech community is so great that sometimes I despair of it ever getting fixed. [...] It’s an institutional problem, not a personal one.

Last year, Chris Messina called out a BusinessWeek article for disproportionately featuring the male participants at Web2Open, a Web 2.0 technology unconference Tara Hunt had predominantly organized. He followed it up this month with another post about the Future of Web Apps as a white boys’ club:

Turns out, white men also don’t have the monopoly on the best speakers – even in the tech industry – yet their ilk continue to make up a highly disproportionate number of the folks who end up on stage. And that means that good content and good ideas and important perspectives aren’t making it into the mix that should be, and as a result, audiences are getting short-changed.

This isn’t just about technology, and it isn’t just about the commercial web. We’re in an era where everything is going online; Barack Obama would arguably not be President of the United States without his engagement with grassroots social media technologies, and he is certainly continuing to embrace them into his Presidency. Yet if those technologies are effectively controlled by a minority of the population, that population’s biases and predispositions seep into how they’re designed, how they’re built, and ultimately how they work in practice.

Although I’ve picked out gender here, the same is doubtless true regarding race and sexuality discrimination in the tech sector, although the numbers haven’t been as widely published. As computing becomes more and more important in society as a whole, it becomes more and more important to ensure the people who help shape it are selected fairly and represent a cross-section of the people it serves.

Update: Lots of really interesting links in the comments, including Katie Piatt’s recommendation of Ada Lovelace Day, which encourages people to blog about women in tech.

Meitar Moscovitz points me to Will the Semantic Web Have a Gender?, a ReadWriteWeb article from last year about the possibility that the semantic web will reflect a predominantly male attitude to the world.

Image by mouton.rebelle and released under a CC-Attribution-Noncommercial license.