Welcome to the desert of the male
Another one of those tiresome gender-equity pieces. If you find these distasteful or hectoring…tough luck. : . )
So here’s a problem I have. And, yes, it’s my problem, but I also believe that if you’re at all interested in the provision of ubiquitous, ambient or pervasive services it is to some degree yours as well. In some respects, you might even think of it as an issue of knowledge management in the domain.
Here’s the crux of it. Like a lot of you, I’ve got clients and students to work with, talks to give, books and articles to write. In this domain – poised as it is at the intersection of the technical and “the social” – doing any of that in good faith means staying on top of an unceasing profusion of information from an increasingly abject sprawl of fields, from architecture to economics to psychology to engineering. And more and more of late, I’ve found it difficult to get through a certain subset of this material: that which seems to both emanate from, and be directed back toward, a self-contained universe of wall-to-wall maleness.
There’s a lot of this, as it happens, and perhaps that shouldn’t come as any surprise whatsoever. All too often, all the privilege and grandeur in contemporary technological discourse seems to be located as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. No, the real surprise is that some of the worst offenders in this regard do not seem to be coming from where one might expect them to, from the most hidebound academic or purely technical circles.
Distressingly often, the most gender-insular thinking and writing I’m stumbling over is coming out of a place far closer to home: that loose orbit of hackers in mobile devices, Web services, RFIDs and sensors who are most likely to read this site, and who I am most likely to know personally. So I just know I’m gonna take some flak for this, but maybe the flipside is that one or two folks who really ought to be thinking about this will take the message under advisement. To be frank, I’m finding the all-male hit parade chokingly arid. Not nearly as bad as a great many other ongoing conversations one might point to in the world, of course. But entirely bad enough.
There’s a particular recent post I’m thinking of, that just seems to sum up and exemplify everything that’s wrong with this. (I won’t be naming the individual concerned. I have no reason to single him out or pick on him, I’m sure he’s a nice guy. This was just the proverbial straw, and while I think it’s generally best to ground any argument as likely to be contentious as the one I’m trying to make in a concrete example, I don’t see what end would be served by explicitly linking the piece here, other than embarrassing someone I have no wish to hurt.)
The post in question is a reasonably dense and lengthy piece of writing, by turns technical and highly personal. It’s strewn with both explicit links and half-opaque references to the work or thought of some fifteen other human beings – including a picture from my Flickr stream, which is how I found the page in the first place. It is not a trivial argument, and there are some important ideas in it – especially given the esteem in which the poster is held, and the influence he enjoys by dint of his talent, these ideas are clearly signposts pointing to the way in which social presence and community are likely to be represented in situated systems.
I tend to disagree with the assumptions underlying most of them, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment. What’s striking to me is that without exception, every single last identifiable person mentioned or alluded to on the page is male. And then, out of nowhere, a completely gratuitous reference to “bukkake,” which is likely to peel off a decent percentage of any remaining female audience (and if you think I’m ascribing a squeamishness that does not exist, or otherwise overstating the case, consider both this and the lengthy discussion it’s drawn from). Even the page-topping, but otherwise separate, list of a dozen or so del.icio.us-style links supports the general impression of total gender containment: the original poster of each of these links is identified, and guess what, all of them are male, too.
It’s as if the author gets all of his ideas and inspirations from men and, in turn, literally cannot conceive that his work might be encountered, used, or thought about by someone who is not male. Again: I have no idea whether these things are literally true of the poster in question, and in fact I tend to doubt it. But it sure does look that way. Appearances aren’t just important, they’re absolutely critical: the old PSYOP watchword was “perception is reality,” and I’ve never heard anyone convincingly argue otherwise.
OK. So what? Maybe this guy does happen – or did happen, in this sole instance – to derive all of his insight, inspiration and contextual grounding from the work of other men. What would be wrong with that?
Well, it would flunk a cursory due-diligence check, for starters. If the domain of thought we’re talking about is the provision of ambient informatic services, any lengthy piece of writing that excises reference to the work of women with such seeming exactitude and care is one that might fairly be regarded as irresponsibly sketchy on the prior art.
Just to cite rough contemporaries, my own writing on everyware and urbanism has been crucially inflected by the thought and work of Janet Abrams, Genevieve Bell, Victoria Bellotti, Michele Chang, Elizabeth Churchill, Liz Goodman, Mimi Ito, Natalie Jeremijenko, Kristine F. Miller, Bonnie A. Nardi and Vicki O’Day, Younghee Jung, Fiona Raby, Yvonne Rogers, Sabine Seymour and Lucy Suchman. That’s off the top of my head.
My interest in the field was inspired by Anne Galloway in the first place, and my ability to contribute to it has of course benefitted enormously from Nurri Kim’s private but no less decisive reflections. With specific regard to the subdomain of RFID/sensor hacking, Régine Debatty is the preeminent archivist of projects and interviewer of personalities in the field – something like Hans Ulrich Oberst, but interesting.
I list these names, I promise you, not by way of congratulating myself or burnishing my feminist bona fides, but merely to argue that with the exception of my purely private discussions with Nurri, I don’t see how you can seriously reckon with questions of ubiquity and not refer to any of the above people. They constitute a healthy swath of the thinkers currently active in this domain, in some case the truly foundational thinkers. Engaging the subject matter means dealing with their work, period.
Am I insisting that each and every male developer now thanklessly building ubiquitous services and applications needs to ensure that he prominently cites the work of one or more women in each and every blog post? Of course not. Nothing of the sort. Nor do I believe, god forbid, that people need to police their del.icio.us networks, their bookmarks, or the stack of books on their night table for correct gender weighting.
All I want is for developers working on projects in this domain to ask themselves two questions, most especially since their work is intended to function in “everyday life”: where do your ideas about the needs and desires activated in/by this regime come from? And whose telling do you cite as authoritative?
If, to both questions, the only names you come up with are those belonging to men, I’d argue you need to dig deeper, if for no other reason than that you’re overlooking people who could provide insight critical to your own work. (For the overwhelming majority of cases, I’m perfectly willing to ascribe this systematic oversight to unconsciousness, and at worst a certain willful laziness, rather than outright hostility. Doesn’t mean it’s not in need of fixing.)
For myself, I confess that, as a hygienic measure, I increasingly scan contemporary writing on ambient informatics any longer than a few paragraphs, looking for any reference to thought and thinkers outside insular maleness. Finding none, I’m generally inclined to disregard the work entirely, whatever and however considerable its other merits. I know, it’s my loss. But seriously, how can you contemplate the design of a constellation of services facing everyday life, and everyone who lives there, without managing to refer at any point to fifty-one percent of the people involved? Forget for a moment whether it’s politically correct or ethically sound. It doesn’t make sense as user-centered design, and it sure doesn’t make sense as a business case. Given this deficit, it’s simply not knowledge production I’d want to incorporate into my own view of things.
In fact, I’d argue that this is a deficit that is only going to become more telling over time, as ubiquitous tools and the choices embedded in them escape from developer communities and get layered into a far larger cohort’s experience of the daily. In this context, somehow managing to overlook the contributions of everyone not possessing (or at least performing) genotype XY strikes me as a condition of EPIC FAIL.