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.

8 responses to “Welcome to the desert of the male”

  1. henry says :

    respect! in the place where i did my graduate degree, male teachers/researchers were all about trying to create and envision the future, ‘pushing the envelope’. female teachers and researchers talked about doing things for the now, looking at the present and one’s own practice with a critical outlook. in my opinion the limitation was that the stuff done by males was totally lacking context which makes/made it totally invaluable to me then.

  2. Michal Migurski says :

    A pre-requisite of being cited is to have released citable things.

    One example from your list, Younghee Jung, illustrates my response: her blog, younghee.com, hasn’t been touched since September. Although I know from friends like yourself that she is an influential design(er?) at Nokia, I can’t find much in the way of linkable expressions of her work product or ideas online with the exception of the New Yorker video you linked to. By contrast, her co-worker Jan Chipchase has been flooding his blog, janchipchase.com, with field photography and small, provocative questions for months, and bounces constantly to the top of my reading list. I’ve personally witnessed a few situations where it alone has convinced conference organizer friends to chase after Jan’s involvement in their events.

    Others on your list, such as Natalie Jeremijenko, have disappeared from my radar completely. It’s probably a factor of the directions in which I point my own attention (blogs, tech crap, achewood, ffffound), but doesn’t “publish or perish” apply here, regardless of gender?

  3. AG says :

    That’s an interesting seam you’ve opened up, Mike, and it leads in a different directions than we were heading.

    This is because I can remember looking through a minor stack of Younghee’s work when I was working on Everyware, most of it citable. Of course, little or none of it is online – it’s conference papers from the Springer Verlag proceedings, and so on.

    So maybe it’s not that she’s not publishing. Maybe it’s that she’s publishing in a medium or a format that’s relatively inaccessible to the folks whose discourse plays such an important role in building reputation on the Web. (One might even argue that this amounts to the same thing. It wouldn’t necessarily be my argument, but it’s not an absurd thing to think.)

    Honestly, it makes me a little uncomfortable talking so specifically about someone’s publication history when she could just as easily comment here herself. Either way, though, I think you’d have to admit that there are many, many whose work is technically less citable, and who seem to enjoy a privileged place among the soi-disant digerati nonetheless.

  4. Christopher Fahey says :

    Sometimes men draw on and flaunt our gender without even realizing it or doing it deliberately. A few weeks ago some talking head was asked about Hillary Clinton explicitly using her female-ness (“playing the gender card” was the phrase used) as a factor that voters should use to determine her value as a candidate, and to view her through that lens. The taking head responded by pointing out that all of the GOP candidates were already using their maleness as their most important positive quality, as seen in their competitive posturing for the position as the one candidate most likely and ready to start a war, shoot a gun, watch football, etc. They are competing for the title of “most macho candidate”. How is that not “playing the gender card”? Now, I would argue that these particular men are playing up their maleness deliberately at least in part, for example on the advice of their pollsters, but even so they don’t see it as “playing the gender card” so much as they see it as “being male is how we win”.

    Perhaps we still live in a world, both at the macro and micro social levels, where what is valued most, from gun skills to hacking skills, are still largely male-associated.

    If you put out a want ad for a tech job and all the respondants are men, what should you do?

    If you publish a blog and most of the commenters are men (an imbalance which, I should note, both my site and yours come close to), how does that change your responsibilities? Is it because of your flaunting your maleness (because tech is gendered like guns are), or because of the milieu?

  5. brittag says :

    OK, chiming in because I’m a girl and I read and enjoy the blog-o-discourse(tm) in this area. I’m glad that you’re advocating Good Scholarly Practices – yesss, everybody could use a reminder to consider “where do your ideas about the needs and desires activated in/by this regime come from? And whose telling do you cite as authoritative? [and why?]” But this post surprised me a little because this area of blog-o-discourse tends not to raise my feminist hackles so much. When I read that strawman post (if I’m identifying it correctly), it read ‘neutrally’ to me – neutral of course meaning implicitly male because our society is male-normative – but not annoyingly/stiflingly male. I liked it; it inspired me. I didn’t notice the genders of the people involved. This is unlike various other areas of blog-o-crapping (for example, lifehacks/productivity stuff) where I get the impression that they assume I’m male and then stop reading.

  6. AG says :

    Well, obviously, I can’t tell you what to think or feel. I can only say that when I encounter some (fairly extensive) body of discourse constructed entirely by men and referring only to the work of other men, I start to feel airless myself. If it’s an echo chamber, it’s an awfully anechoic one. It feels muffled to me.

    I also have to say that I don’t really think of any of what I’m asking for as “Good Scholarly Practice.” I’m not a scholar, and neither is the person whose post triggered all this reflection. It’s just, frankly, the minimal reflexivity I’d expect of anyone who’d design for the public(s) swept up in most visions of ubiquity.

    I do think in retrospect that I came down a little hard on one person, one of whose posts provided me with a convenient example of the kind of airlessness I have such a hard time with, and on reflection, I probably wouldn’t construct this piece quite the same way now. Happily, though, the person in question both concedes the point, and has been unfailingly gracious about the way it was raised.

  7. b says :

    as a lurker here who doesn’t comment, i’ll take this opportunity to say that you hit the nail on the head. i’d hate to see you backpedal or apologize when you never named names anyway (much like i’d hate a retreat even if you did address an individual). in a larger context, oppression doesn’t end until oppressors take up the cause. white people need to be antiracist leaders, and men need to speak about the damaging effects of patriarchy to the best of their ability. my comfort lies in your discomfort – to notice the blatant inequity in gender-neutral ideological spaces that become the next potential new male canon of thought. i’m so weary of white male privilege, i couldn’t possibly find concise words to describe it. i quit doing a lot of tech stuff, mostly related to various components of online video (as well as abandoned half my graduate coursework), because i was tired of the male circle jerks that helped render me irrelevant. sometimes it’s just too much to fight alone, which is how it can feel, supportive male allies or otherwise. posts like these are hope, especially from someone teaching in an academic program i respect. thank you for that.

  8. Tahlia says :

    What a stuff of un-ambiguity and preserveness of precious familiarity
    on the topic of unexpected feelings.

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