tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
This post is the second in a 4-part series. The first part was "Defame and Blame".

Phone Books and Megaphones

Think back to 1986. Imagine if somebody told you: "In 30 years, a public directory that's more accessible and ubiquitous than the phone book is now will be available to almost everybody at all times. This directory won't just contain your contact information, but also, a page anyone can write on, like a middle-school slam book but meaner. Whenever anybody writes on it, everybody else will be able to see what they wrote." I don't thin you would have believed it, or if you found it plausible, you probably wouldn't have found this state of affairs acceptable. Yet in 2016, that's how things are. Search engine results have an enormous effect on what people believe to be true, and anybody with enough time on their hands can manipulate search results.

Antisocial Network Effects

When you search for my name on your favorite search engine, you'll find some results that I wish weren't closely linked to my name. People who I'd prefer not to think about have written blog posts mentioning my name, and those articles are among the results that most search engines will retrieve if you're looking for texts that mention me. But that pales in comparison with the experiences of many women A few years ago, Skud wrote:

"Have you ever had to show your male colleagues a webpage that calls you a fat dyke slut? I don’t recommend it."

Imagine going a step further: have you ever had to apply for jobs knowing that if your potential manager searches for your name online, one of the first hits will be a page calling you a fat dyke slut? In 2016, it's pretty easy for anybody who wants to to make that happen to somebody else, as long as the target isn't unusually wealthy or connected. Not every potential manager is going to judge someone negatively just because someone called that person a fat dyke slut on the Internet, and in fact, some might judge them positively. But that's not the point -- the point is if you end up in the sights of a distributed harassment campaign, then one of the first things your potential employers will know about you, possibly for the rest of your life, might be that somebody called you a fat dyke slut. I think most of us, if we had the choice, wouldn't choose that outcome.

Suppose the accusation isn't merely a string of generic insults, but something more tangible: suppose someone decides to accuse you of having achieved your professional position through "sleeping your way to the top," rather than merit. This is a very effective attack on a woman's credibility and competence, because patriarchy primes us to be suspicious of women's achievements anyway. It doesn't take much to tip people, even those who don't consciously hold biases against women, into believing these attacks, because we hold unconscious biases against women that are much stronger than anyone's conscious bias. It doesn't matter if the accusation is demonstrably false -- so long as somebody is able to say it enough times, the combination of network effects and unconscious bias will do the rest of the work and will give the rumor a life of its own.

Not every reputation system has to work the way that search engines do. On eBay, you can only leave feedback for somebody else if you've sold them something or bought something from them. In the 17 years since I started using eBay, that system has been very effective. Once somebody accumulates social capital in the form of positive feedback, they generally don't squander that capital. The system works because having a good reputation on eBay has value, in the financial sense. If you lose your reputation (by ripping somebody off), it takes time to regain it.

On the broader Internet, you can use a disposable identity to generate content. Unlike on eBay, there is no particular reason to use a consistent identity in order to build up a good track record as a seller. If your goal is to build a #personal #brand, then you certainly have a reason to use the same name everywhere, but if your goal is to destroy someone else's, you don't need to do that. The ready availability of disposable identities ("sockpuppets") means that defaming somebody is a low-risk activity even if your accusations can be demonstrated false, because by the time somebody figures out you made your shit up, you've moved on to using a new name that isn't sullied by a track record of dishonesty. So there's an asymmetry here: you can create as many identities as you want, for no cost, to destroy someone else's good name, but having a job and functioning in the world makes it difficult to change identities constantly.

The Megaphone

For most of the 20th century, mass media consisted of newspapers, then radio and then TV. Anybody could start a newspaper, but radio and TV used the broadcast spectrum, which is a public and scarce resource and thus is regulated by governmental agencies. Because the number of radio and TV channels was limited, telecommunications policy was founded on the assumption that some amount of regulation of these channels' use was necessary and did not pose an intrinsic threat to free speech. The right to use various parts of the broadcast spectrum was auctioned off to various private companies, but this was a limited-scope right that could be revoked if those companies acted in a way that blatantly contravened the public interest. A consistent pattern of deception would have been one thing that went against the public interest. As far as I know, no radio or TV broadcaster ever embarked upon a deliberate campaign of defaming multiple people, because the rewards of such an activity wouldn't offset the financial losses that would be inevitably incurred when the lies were exposed.

(I'll use "the megaphone" as a shorthand for media that are capable of reaching a lot of people: formerly, radio and broadcast TV; then cable TV; and currently, the Internet. Not just "the Internet", though, but rather: Internet credibility. Access to the credible Internet (the content that search engine relevance algorithms determine should be centered in responses to queries) is gatekept by algorithms; access to old media was gatekept by people.)

At least until the advent of cable TV, then, the broader the reach of a given communication channel, the more closely access to that channel was monitored and regulated. It's not that this system always worked perfectly, because it didn't, just that there was more or less consensus that it was correct for the public to have oversight with respect to who could be entrusted with access to the megaphone.

Now that access to the Internet is widespread, the megaphone is no longer a scarce resource. In a lot of ways, that's a good thing. It has allowed people to speak truth to power and made it easier for people in marginalized groups to find each other. But it also means that it's easy to start a hate campaign based on falsehoods without incurring any personal risk.

I'm not arguing against anonymity here. Clearly, at least some people have total freedom to act in bad faith while using the names they're usually known by: Milo Yiannopoulos and Andrew Breitbart are obvious examples. If use of real names deters harassment, why are they two of the best-known names in harassment?

Algorithm as Excuse

Zoë Quinn pointed out on Twitter that she can no longer share content with her friends, even if she limits access to it, because her name is irrevocably linked to the harassment campaign that her ex-boyfriend started in order to defame her in 2014, otherwise known as GamerGate. If she uses YouTube to share videos, its recommendation engine will suggest to her friends that they watch "related" videos that -- at best -- attack her for her gender and participation in the game development community. There is no individual who works for Google (YouTube's parent company) who made an explicit decision to link Quinn's name with these attacks. Nonetheless, a pattern in YouTube's recommendations emerged because of a concerted effort by a small group of dedicated individuals to pollute the noosphere in order to harm Quinn. If you find this outcome unacceptable, and I do, we have to consider the chain of events that led to it and ask which links in the chain could be changed so this doesn't happen to someone else in the future.

There is a common line of response to this kind of problem: "You can't get mad at algorithms. They're objective and unbiased." Often, the implication is that the person complaining about the problem is expecting computers to be able to behave sentiently. But that's not the point. When we critique an algorithm's outcome, we're asking the people who design and maintain the algorithms to do better, whether the outcome is that it uses too much memory or that it causes a woman to be re-victimized every time someone queries a search engine for her name. Everything an algorithm does is because of a design choice that one or several humans made. And software exists to serve humans, not the other way around: when it doesn't do what we want, we can demand change, rather than changing ourselves so that software developers don't have to do their jobs. By saying "it's just an algorithm", we can avoid taking responsibility for our values as long as we encode those values as a set of rules executable by machine. We can automate disavowal.

How did we get here -- to a place where anyone can grab the megaphone, anyone can scribble in the phone book, and people who benefit from the dissemination of this false information are immune from any of the risks? I'll try to answer that in part 3.

To be continued.


Do you like this post? Support me on Patreon and help me write more like it.

tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
This post is the first in a 4-part series. Part 2 is "Phone Books and Megaphones."

Defame and Blame

The Internet makes it cheap to damage someone else's reputation without risking your own. The asymmetry between the low cost of spreading false information and the high cost to victims of such attacks is an economic and architectural failure, an unintended consequence of a communications infrastructure that's nominally decentralized while actually largely centralized under the control of a few advertising-based companies.

We do not hear a lot of discussion of harassment and defamation as either an economic failure or an engineering failure. Instead, we hear that online harassment is sad but inevitable, or that it happens "because people suck." As Anil Dash wrote, "don't read the comments" normalizes the expectation that behavior online will sink to the lowest common denominator and stay there. People seem to take a similar approach to outright harassment as they do to comments expressing bad opinions.

The cases I'm talking about, like the defamation of Kathy Sierra or the Gamergate coordinated harassment campaign, are effective because of their use of proxy recruitment. Effective propagandists who have social capital have learned how to recruit participants for their harassment campaigns: by coming up with a good lie and relying on network effects to do the rest of the work. Spreading false information about a woman -- particularly a woman who is especially vulnerable because of intersecting marginalized identities -- is easy because it confirms sexist biases (conscious or not-so-conscious) that we all have. Since most of us have internalized the belief that women are less competent, convincing people that a woman slept her way to the top doesn't take much effort.

"Don't read the comments" isn't good advice for people who are merely being pestered. (And anyway, we might question the use of the word "merely", since having to manage a flood of unwanted comments in order to receive desired communication tends to have a certain isolating effect on a person.) But it's especially bad advice for people who are being defamed. What good does it do to ignore the people spreading lies about you when ignoring them won't change what set of web pages a search engine returns as the top ten hits for your name? When you advise targets of harassment to "ignore it" or to "not feed the trolls", you shift responsibility onto victims and away from the people who benefit from the spread of false information (and I don't just mean the people who initiate harassment campaigns). In short, you blame victims.

Algorithms, Advertising, and Accountability

We neither talk much about the democratization of defamation, nor know how to mitigate it. It happens for a reason. Online harassment and defamation campaigns are an inevitable consequence of a telecommunications infrastructure that is dominated by for-profit advertising-supported businesses governed by algorithms that function autonomously. However, neither the autonomy of algorithms nor the ad-supported business model that most social media and search engine companies share is inevitable. Both are a result of decisions made by people, and both can be changed if people have the will to do so. The combination of ads and unsupervised algorithms currently defines the political economy of telecommunications, but it's by no means inevitable, natural, or necessary.

Broadcast television is, or was, advertising-supported, but it didn't lend itself to harassment and defamation nearly as easily, since a relatively small group of people had access to the megaphone. Likewise, online services don't have to encourage bad-faith speech, and discouraging it doesn't necessarily require a huge amount of labor: for example, eBay functions with minimal human oversight by limiting its feedback function to comments that go with an actual financial transaction. However, online search engines and recommendation systems typically use an advertising-based business model where customers pay for services with their attention rather than with money, and typically function with neither human supervision nor any design effort paid to discouraging defamation. Because of these two properties, it's relatively easy for anyone who's sufficiently determined to take control of what shows up when somebody looks up your name in the global distributed directory known as your favorite popular search engine -- that is, as long as you can't afford the public relations apparatus it takes to guard against such attacks. Harassment campaigns succeed to the extent that they exploit the ad-based business model and the absence of editorial oversight that characterize new media.

What This Article is Not About

Three topics I'm not addressing in this essay are:
  • Holding public figures accountable. When people talk about wanting to limit access to the megaphone that search engines make freely available to sufficiently persistent individuals, a common response is, "Are you saying you want to limit people's ability to hold powerful people accountable?" I think it's important for private citizens to be able to use the Internet to expose wrongdoing by powerful people, such as elected officials. I don't agree with the assumption behind this question: the assumption that private citizens ought to be exposed to the same level of public scrutiny as public figures are.
  • "Public shaming." What some people call "public shaming" refers to criticism of a person for a thing that person actually said. When Jon Ronson wrote about Justine Sacco getting "publicly shamed", he didn't mean that people falsely accused her of using her public platform to make a joke at the expense of people with AIDS. He and Sacco's critics agree that she did freely choose to make that joke. I'm talking about something different: when people use technology to construct a false narrative that portrays their adversary as having said something the adversary didn't say. This is not an article about "public shaming".

    The difference between defamation and shaming is defamation is defined by the behavior of the subject rather than the emotional reaction of the object; the latter sort of rests on this idea that it's wrong to make certain people feel certain ways, and I don't agree with that idea.

  • Censorship. I'm not advocating censorship when I ask how we entered a technological regime in which quality control for information retrieval algorithms is difficult or impossible without suppressing legitimate speech. I'm pointing out that we've designed ourselves into a system where no fine distinctions are possible, and the rapid dissemination of lies can't be curtailed without suppressing truth. As Sarah Jeong points out in her book The Internet of Garbage, the belief that discouraging harassment means encouraging censorship is founded on the false assumption that addressing harassment online means suppressing or deleting content. In fact, search engines already filter, prioritize, and otherwise implement heuristics about information quality. Some of the same technologies could be used to -- in Jeong's words -- dampen harassment and protect the targets of harassment. If you object to that, then surely you also object to the decisions encoded in information retrieval algorithms about what documents are most relevant to a query.

What's Next

So far, I've argued that social network infrastructure has two design flaws which serve to amplify rather than dampening harassment:
  • Lack of editorial oversight means that the barrier to entry to publishing has changed from being a journalist (while journalists have never been perfect, at least they're members of a profession with standards and ethics) to being someone with a little charisma and a lot of free time.
  • Advertising-supported business models means that a mildly charismatic, very bored antihero can find many bright people eager to help disseminate their lies because lies are provocative and provocative stories get clicks.

In the next three installments, I'll elaborate on how we got into this situation and what we could do to change it.


Do you like this post? Support me on Patreon and help me write more like it.

tim: "Bees may escape" (bees)
"I wish the war was on,
I know this sounds strange to you.
I miss the war-time life,
anything could happen then:
around a corner, behind a door."
-- John Vanderslice, "I Miss the War"


This is the long-form version of a series of tweets that I wrote about resistance to emotional safety. Everything here has been said before by people other than me, but I'm presenting it in the hopes that it may be useful in this form, without attempting to cite sources exhaustively. I probably wouldn't have thought to write it down, though, had I not read this series of tweets from [twitter.com profile] inthesedeserts.

CW: discussion of trauma, emotional abuse, gaslighting, self-harm

There's a thing that can happen when you've spent a lot of time at war. For some of us, it's hard to feel comfortable in safe situations. It's paradoxical, right? I've done my share of writing about codes of conduct and about content warnings (or trigger warnings). I've argued that creating an atmosphere of emotional safety is important, especially for trauma survivors. Because people in marginalized groups are disproportionately likely to be trauma survivors, diversity and inclusion are inextricable from treating survivors like first-class citizens. If safety is so important to me, why would I say that safety also often makes me feel uncomfortable?

It may not make sense, but it's true: safety is both something I seek out and something I often avoid when it's offered to me. In the abstract, it's desirable. But when it starts to seem like a real possibility, it can be super threatening.
Read more... )
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
For reasons, I find myself using a Linux machine -- specifically one running Ubuntu Trusty (for all intents and purposes) -- and for other reasons, I wanted my screensaver to display random photos from a folder (specifically a folder of images from posts I liked on Tumblr, but that part is separate).

My computer was set up to use the Cinnamon desktop manager and I didn't want to change that especially (something that I learned when I unintentionally uninstalled it while trying to change the screensaver). In Cinnamon you change the screensaver by going to the system settings and then selecting the Screensaver icon, which presents you with a list of possible screensavers, most of which are from xscreensaver. One option is the GLSlideshow program, which did exactly what I wanted: displays photos from a folder you select.

Only problem is, the System Settings GUI lets you choose GLSlideshow as your screensaver but doesn't have any configuration options that are screensaver-specific. So there's no way in the GUI to select the folder of pictures you want to use.

An easy way to address this problem would be to set Cinnamon's internal screensaver to never trigger and to install xscreensaver. But I wanted to run my screensaver when I clicked on the Lock Screen menu option. I couldn't figure out a way to reconfigure Cinnamon's menu options, so I resolved to find a solution that didn't require me to do that or to disable or circumvent Cinnamon's screensaver.

After some digging, I discovered that you can configure the folder GLSlideshow uses by creating a ~/.xscreensaver file -- this post answers that part of the question.

After I added that dotfile -- oh, and also deleted my ~/.cache directory, which took another 15 or so minutes to figure out (an alternative I tried first, which worked just as well, I think, is to rename the directory with your photos in it, and edit the .xscreensaver file to reflect the new name) -- I had a screensaver that showed random photos from my chosen directory when I locked my screen, but the photo that it chose would stay the same for a long time; I wanted the photos to alternate faster.

edited to add, 2016-05-13: You may also have to delete your ~/.xscreensaver-getimage.cache file, and/or ~/tmp/.xscreensaver-getimage.cache.

After another 15-20 minutes of digging, I found that GLSlideshow has two command-line options, -pan and -duration, that control how long it displays a single photo for. I still don't quite understand the semantics of these flags, but it suffices to set the pan and duration values to the same integer (5 seconds seems reasonable) to get the behavior I want. This is explained in this post.

Okay, but how do I actually pass those flags? GLSlideshow gets invoked by some widget that's part of Cinnamon that I can't change, and which doesn't expose that configuration in the UI? There is a solution that you get when you search for this problem, and it's wrong, or at least, doesn't work with Cinnamon on Trusty.

The solution is a hack: a single command

gsettings set org.cinnamon.desktop.screensaver xscreensaver-hack "glslideshow -pan 5 -duration 5"

to replace the specific xscreensaver module that the Cinnamon screensaver runs (the "xscreensaver hack") with that same module, suffixed by the flags that you want to pass to it. This works, although perhaps it shouldn't. Now I have a screensaver that displays a random photo from my photos folder and changes the photo every 5 seconds! Yay!

But in the meantime -- false starts, accidentally uninstalling Cinnamon (turns out if you use apt to uninstall the Cinnamon screensaver, it helpfully removes all of Cinnamon), and all -- I spent about 2 hours doing something that would take about 3 minutes on a Mac.

How's 2016, the year of the Linux desktop, treating you?

tim: A person with multicolored hair holding a sign that says "Binaries Are For Computers" with rainbow-colored letters (computers)
I thought I would write down what I do to back up my computer (a laptop running Mac OS X), since it took a surprising amount of time to figure out.

I have a private Github repository containing most of the text files I create that I want backed-up and versioned. This costs me $7/month, which is well worth it to me.

Camera phone pictures, and any documents I want to be able to share and/or access easily from my phone and from computers other than my own, go on Google Drive. I pay $2/month for 100 GB of storage, most of which I'm not using.

I back up most of the files in my home directory on my laptop with rsync to rsync.net. This costs me $5/month for 50 GB of storage. I followed their instructions to do nightly backups (which I schedule for 3 AM when my laptop is usually plugged in and on a network, but I'm not using it) using launchd. Doing the initial backup took me over a month, because of somewhat unreliable Internet access and because of the time it took to sift through and figure out what files I could delete and which ones I didn't need a cloud backup of in order to stay under quota. (Part of that time was the time it took for me to consolidate about 5 different external hard drives containing the past 18 years of backups onto my laptop hard disk.) Since I only have 50 GB, I don't back up my music library onto rsync, figuring that a TimeMachine backup is enough and that in the worst case, I can replace almost all of it from the Internet or CDs.

Once a week I plug in my TimeMachine disk and let it do its work, so I always have a full backup that's no more than a week old in addition to the partial cloud backups that I get from git, Google Drive, and rsync.net. Of course, this doesn't help if my house burns down, but does help if my laptop gets lost or stolen when I'm not at home since I keep the backup disk at home.

Writing this, I'm not sure why I'm paying for both rsync and Google Drive, since I have more storage on Google Drive and am paying less. I wanted something that was easy to automate using the command line, but I haven't actually looked into options for doing automatic backups to Google Drive. On the other hand, it took me so much time to get regularly scheduled rsync backups working that I'm reluctant to put more time into it.

I haven't yet figured out how to back up my phone (Android); there doesn't seem to be a good way to back up everything (including text messages) without rooting my phone. I've been reluctant to put in the time required to root my phone, but it looks like I will have to. Suggestions welcome!
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
"Well, Jesus was a homeless lad
With an unwed mother and an absent dad
And I really don't think he would have gotten that far
If Newt, Pat and Jesse had followed that star
So let's all sing out praises to
That longhaired radical socialist Jew

When Jesus taught the people he
Would never charge a tuition fee
He just took some fishes and some bread
And made up free school lunches instead
So let's all sing out praises to
That long-haired radical socialist Jew

He healed the blind and made them see
He brought the lame folks to their feet
Rich and poor, any time, anywhere
Just pioneering that free health care
So let's all sing out praises to
That longhaired radical socialist Jew

Jesus hung with a low-life crowd
But those working stiffs sure did him proud
Some were murderers, thieves and whores
But at least they didn't do it as legislators
So let's all sing out praises to
That longhaired radical socialist Jew

Jesus lived in troubled times
the religious right was on the rise
Oh what could have saved him from his terrible fate?
Separation of church and state.
So let's all sing out praises to
That longhaired radical socialist Jew

Sometimes I fall into deep despair
When I hear those hypocrites on the air
But every Sunday gives me hope
When pastor, deacon, priest, and pope
Are all singing out their praises to
Some longhaired radical socialist Jew.

They're all singing out their praises to....
Some longhaired radical socialist Jew."

-- Hugh Blumenfeld

tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
This is the second post in a two-part series. The first part is here.

Shrinking the Social Trusted Computing Base



In a software system, the trusted computing base is that portion of software that hasn't been formally verified as correct. For the purposes of this analogy, it's not important what "formally verified" means, just that there is a way to determine whether something has been verified or not -- often, "verified" means automatically checked by a machine. If you have software that verifies other software, you might ask who verifies the verifier. Ultimately, there's always some piece of code that's at the bottom -- you can't have turtles all the way down. That code has to be reviewed by people to increase the likelihood that it's correct. Of course, people can make mistakes and it's always possible that people will fail to spot errors in it -- but the more people review it carefully, the more confident we can be that it's correct.

Moreover, the smaller the amount of code that has to be verified in this exacting way, the more confidence we can have that the whole system is reliable, even though we can never be totally sure that a system is free of errors. When people interested in software quality talk about making the trusted computing base smaller, this is what they mean. People make mistakes, so it's best to have computers (who don't get bored) do the tedious work of checking for errors, and limit the amount of work that fallible humans have to do.

People who understand the imperative to keep the trusted computing base small nevertheless, sometimes, fail to see that social interactions follow a similar principle. In the absence of a formal code of conduct, when you join a group you have to trust that everybody in that group will respect you and treat you fairly. Codes of conduct don't prevent people from harming you, but they do grant increased assurance that if somebody does, there will be consequences for it, and that if you express your concerns to other people in the group, they will take your concerns seriously. When there is a code of conduct, you still have to trust the people in charge of enforcing it to enforce it fairly and humanely. But if you disagree with their actions, you have a document to point to in order to explain why. In the absence of a code of conduct, you instead have to argue with them about whether somebody was or was not being a dick. Such arguments are subjective and unlikely to generate more light than heat. It saves time and energy to be explicit about what we mean by not being a dick. And that, in turn, minimizes work for people joining the group. They just have to review your code of conduct and determine whether they think you will enforce it, rather than reviewing the character of every single person in the group.

It's clear that nerds don't trust a rule like "don't be a dick" when they think it matters. Open-source or free software project maintainers wouldn't replace the GPL or the BSD license with a text file consisting of the words "Don't be a dick." If "don't be a dick" is a good enough substitute for a code of conduct, why can't we release code under a "be excellent to each other" license? Licenses exist because if someone misuses your software and you want to sue them in order to discourage such behavior in the future, you need a document to show the lawyers to prove that somebody violated a contract. They also exist so that people can write open-source software while feeling confident that their work won't be exploited for purposes they disagree with (producing closed-source software). A "don't be a dick" license wouldn't serve these purposes. And a "don't be a dick" code of conduct doesn't serve the purpose of making people feel safe or comfortable in a particular group.

When do you choose to exercise your freedom to be yourself? When do you choose to exercise your freedom to restrain yourself in order to promote equality for other people? "Don't be a dick" offers no answer to these questions. What guidance does "don't be a dick" give me if I want to make dirty jokes in a group of people I'm not intimate with -- co-workers, perhaps? If I take "don't be a dick" to mean they should trust me that I don't intend to be a dick, then I should go ahead and do it, right? But what if I make somebody uncomfortable? Is it their fault, because they failed to trust me enough to believe that my intent was to have a bit of fun? Or was it my fault, for failing to consider that regardless of my true intent, somebody else might not give me to benefit of the doubt? If, rather than not being a dick, I make a commitment to try as hard as I can to take context into account before speaking, and consider how I sound to other people, I might choose to self-censor. I don't know another way to coexist with other people without constantly violating their boundaries. This requires sensitivity and the ability to treat people as individuals, rather than commitment to a fixed code of behavior whose existence "don't be a dick" implies.

I wrote about the idea of "not censoring yourself" before, and noted how saying everything that comes into your head isn't compatible with respecting other people, in "Self-Censorship". If I censor myself sometimes, in different ways depending on what context I'm in, am I failing to be my entire self? Maybe -- or maybe, as I suggested before, I don't have a single "true self" and who I am is context-dependent. And maybe there's nothing wrong with that.

Part of what politics are about is who gets accorded the benefit of the doubt and who gets denied it. For example, when a woman accuses a man of raping her, there's an overwhelming tendency to disbelieve her, which is often expressed as "giving the man the benefit of the doubt" or considering him "innocent until proven guilty." But there is really no neutral choice: either one believes the woman who says she was raped is telling the truth, or believes that she is lying. You can give the benefit of the doubt to the accused and assume he's innocent, or give the benefit of the doubt to the accuser and assume that she would only make such a serious accusation if it's true. When you encourage people to accord others the "benefit of the doubt", you're encouraging them to exercise unconscious bias, because according some people the benefit of the doubt means withholding it from others. In many situations, it's not possible for everybody to be acting in good faith.

Resisting Doublespeak



Maybe we shouldn't be surprised that in an industry largely built on finding ways to deliver a broader audience to advertisers, which nonetheless bills itself as driven by "innovation" and "making the world a better place", doublespeak is so widespread. And advertising-funded companies are ultimately driven by that -- every thing they do is about delivering more eyeballs to advertisers. If some of the things they do happen to make people's lives better, that's an accident. A company that did otherwise would be breaching their obligations to stockholders or investors.

Likewise, maybe we also shouldn't be surprised that in an industry built on the rhetoric of "rock star" engineers, the baseline assumption is that encouraging everybody to be an individual will result in everybody being able to be their best self. Sometimes, you need choral singers, not rock stars. It might feel good to sing a solo, but often, it's necessary to blend your voice with the rest of the choir. That is, in order to create an environment where it's safe for people to do their best, you need to be attuned to social cues and adjust your behavior to match social norms -- or to consciously act against those norms when it would be better to discard them and build new ones.

Both "be yourself" and "don't be a dick" smack of "there are rules, but we won't tell you what they are." At work, you probably signed an employment agreement. In life, there are consequences if you violate laws. And there are also consequences if you violate norms. "Being yourself" always has limits, and being told to be your entire self tells you nothing about what those limits are. Likewise, "don't be a dick" and its attendant refusal to codify community standards of behavior signifies unwillingness to help newcomers integrate into a community and to help preserve the good things about its culture while also preserving space to be themselves while respecting others.

When you refuse to tell somebody the rules, you're setting them up for failure, because breaking unwritten news is usually punished quietly, through social isolation or rejection. The absence of rules is effectively a threat that even if you want to do your best, you could be excluded at any time for violating a norm you didn't know existed. (Also see "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" by Jo Freeman.)

So instead of instructing people to "bring your whole self to work", we could say what is welcome in the office -- ideas, collaboration, respect -- and what should be left at the door -- contempt for other people's chosen programming languages, text editors, belief systems, or dietary habits; exclusive behavior; and marginalizing language. Instead of telling people not to be a dick, we could work together to write down what our communities expect from people. And instead of preaching about changing the world, we could admit that when we work for corporations, we're obligated above all to maximize value for the people who own them.

Saying things you hope are true doesn't make them true. Insisting that your environment is safe for everybody, or that everybody already knows how to not be a dick, doesn't create safety or teach respect, anymore than claiming to be a "10x engineer" makes you one. Inclusion requires showing, not telling.
Do you like this post? Support me on Patreon and help me write more like it.

*confetti*

Dec. 16th, 2015 10:21 am
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
I've reached my goal of getting 40 people to donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds for my 35th birthday! I've been doing a birthday fundraiser almost every year since (I think) 2009, and this one has been the most successful ever.

Thanks to everybody who gave for supporting reproductive choice!
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
This is the first post in a two-part series.

Creative Commons-licensed image by David Swayze

"Be your entire self at work." You might hear these words during orientation at a new job, if you work for the kind of company that prides itself on its open, informal culture -- a software company in Silicon Valley, perhaps. When you hear that everybody is free to be their entire self at your workplace, do you hear a promise or a threat?

"You're allowed to bring your whole self to work" should be true by default; in an ideal world, it wouldn't need to be said. Repressing essential aspects of your personality is an energy-sapping distraction. At the same time, it's such a broad statement that it denotes nothing -- so we have to ask what it connotes. When your boss (or your boss's boss's boss, or someone acting on that person's behalf) grants you permission to bring your whole self to work, what's the subtext?

Here's another thing you might hear tech people say that's so vague as to be tautological: "We don't need a code of conduct, because all we need to do is be excellent to each other or say 'don't be a dick.'" The tautological part is "don't be a dick", which is an anti-pattern when used as a substitute for clear community expectations. Nobody could reasonably argue against the value of being excellent to other people or in favor of being a dick. As with "be yourself", the vacuity of "don't be a dick" suggests the need to ask what it really means when someone says the only rule we need is "don't be a dick" (or its relative "be excellent to each other".)

"Be yourself" and "don't be a dick" share at least three problems.

  • Unequal distribution of risk: If you're trans, neuroatypical, queer, or poly, you're probably familiar with the risks of disclosing important parts of your life. In the absence of evidence that it's actually safe to be yourself at work, telling people "be yourself" is a request to trust everyone to respond appropriately to you being yourself. That's a lot to ask somebody who is brand-new to a group. Is there a way to show newcomers that it's safe to be who you are here, rather than telling them?
  • Unwritten expectations: "Don't be a dick", when accompanied by unwillingness to codify your community's norms (such as in a written document like a code of conduct), is a request to trust everyone to not be a dick. When norms are codified, you don't have to trust everyone to not be a dick: the document doesn't prevent anyone from being a dick, but it provides a basis for increased trust that if someone is a dick, they will be discouraged from future dickishness and, in the case of repeat offenders, potentially be excluded from interaction.
  • Unhelpful balancing of different goals: Both "be yourself" and "don't be a dick" (the latter with its implication that you're free to do whatever you want as long as you don't think you're being a dick about it) reflect on apparently arbitrary weighting of personal freedom as more important than fairness.


Different people perceive a statement like "be yourself" differently -- and the same person might perceive it differently depending on who's saying it -- because different people have different levels of trust in each other. Trust is political: marginalized people manage risk in different ways than people in dominant groups, and the more marginalized groups you're in, the subtler it becomes. Likewise, written community norms benefit newcomers and marginalized people, while unwritten norms (such as the ones implied by "don't be a dick" serve to maintain in-group homogeneity. If people who say "don't be a dick" want to keep their communities uniform, it would behoove them to at least say so.

The assumption that mutual trust already exists may lead you to conclude that we'll be equal when everyone gets to act exactly the way they want. But marginalized people have legitimate reasons not to trust people in groups that dominate them -- namely, past experiences. Trust has to be earned; one way to establish it is by being explicit about expectations.

In computer systems, sometimes we use the terms "pulling a thread" or "thread pulling" for the process of finding the root cause of a problem in a complex system, which is often hidden beneath many layers of abstraction. At the same time, sometimes what seems to be a minor problem as observed from the outside can signify deeply rooted flaws in a system, the way that pulling on a loose thread in a knitted garment can unravel the whole thing. In this essay, I want to pull a cultural thread and examine the roots of the assumptions that underlie statements like "just be yourself." Just as problems in large, distributed computer systems often have causes that aren't obvious, the same is true for social problems. While you don't have to agree with my analysis, I hope you agree with me that it's worth asking questions about why people say things that appear to be trivial or obviously true at first glance.

The Risks of Disclosure



Personal disclosure can be risky, and those risks are distributed unevenly through the population. Here are some examples of what can happen when you do take the risk of being your entire self at work -- or anywhere, for that matter, but any of these reactions are more concerning when they happen in the place where you earn your livelihood, and when they're coming from people who can stop you from making a living.


  • Mentioning your membership in a sexual minority group can make other people uncomfortable in the extreme. You could reasonably debate whether that ought to be true when it comes to talking about kinks, but even mentioning that you're gay or trans can become cause for sexual harassment accusations. You say your company isn't like that? Will someone who's experienced this at a previous employer believe you?
  • If you talk about having PTSD, or ADD/ADHD, or being on the autism spectrum, you may be told "don't label yourself, just live!" To not label yourself -- to not seek solidarity and common ground with others who share your life experiences -- is tantamount to not organizing, not being political, not taking power. Maybe you don't want to be told this for the nth time. (Of course, you also risk retaliation by managers or co-workers who may not be thrilled about having disabled or neuroatypical employees or co-workers.)
  • If you disclose that you are trans, you are likely to be misgendered in the future (or worse).
  • If you mention a chronic illness, people are likely to provide unsolicited and unhelpful advice; dealing with their reactions when you say so can be draining, and smiling and nodding can be draining too.


More broadly, disclosing mental health or sexual/gender minority status (as well as, no doubt, many other identities) means managing other people's discomfort and fielding intrusive questions. Maybe it's easier to not disclose those issues, even if it means letting people think you're someone you aren't. And in some cases, disclosure might just not be worth the discomfort it causes to others. Am I being less real when I keep certain aspects of myself private in the interest of social harmony? Does thinking about how others will feel about what I say make me less authentic? Does being real amount to narcissism?

There are always boundaries to what we reveal about ourselves in non-intimate settings: it's why we wear clothes. Telling people to be authentic obscures where those boundaries are rather than clarifying them. And what does "be who you are" or "be your entire self" mean, anyway? Every person I know gets to see a different side of me. Which one is the real me? Is the person I am when I'm with my closest friend more like the real me than who I am at work, or is it just different? The idea that everybody has a single true self rather than multiple selves of equal status is just a way in which some people formulate their identities, not a universal truth.

I think part of the origin of "be your entire self" rhetoric lies in the imperative -- popular among some cis gay and lesbian people and their allies -- to implore all queer people to come out of the closet. Being open about your identity, they say, is essential to helping queer people gain acceptance. There are a lot of problems with coming-out as a categorical imperative. One of them is that closets are safe, and it's easy to sneer at others' desire for safety when you yourself are safe and secure.

I think "be your entire self" comes from the same place as "everyone should come out." Both statements can be made with good intentions, but also, necessarily, naïve ones.

Unwritten Expectations Impede Trust



"Be yourself" may seem harmless, if trite, but I hope I've shown that it relies on assumptions that are problematic at best. It can also conceal failure to make social expectations clear. Unwritten expectations often serve to exclude people socially, since fear of violating rules you don't know can be a reason to avoid entering an unfamiliar space. When that fear means not applying for a job, or not participating in a community of practice that would benefit from your participation and help you grow as a professional, it has concrete consequences in marginalized people's lives.


"As a reviewer of code, please strive to keep things civil and focused on the technical issues involved. We are all humans, and frustrations can be high on both sides of the process. Try to keep in mind the immortal words of Bill and Ted, "Be excellent to each other."
-- Linux kernel "Code of Conflict"


When you refuse to say what your community's standards for acceptable behavior are, you're not saying that your community has no standards. You're just saying you're not willing to say what they are. When Linus Torvalds says "be excellent to each other", what do people hear? If you're someone socially similar to him, maybe you hear that the kernel community is a safe place for you. If you're someone who has been historically excluded from tech culture, you might hear something different. You might ask yourself: "Why should I trust you to be excellent to me? What's more, how do I know I can trust everyone in this group to be excellent to me, much less trust that everyone's definition of 'excellent' is compatible with my well-being?"

When you say the only rule is "don't be a dick", or implore people to be themselves, or tell people they don't need to put on a suit to work at your company, what you're really saying is "trust me!" Trust everyone in the group not to be a dick, in the first case. Trust everyone not to judge or belittle you, in the second. Trust them to judge you for who you are and not on what you're wearing, in the third case. When somebody says "trust me!" and your gut feeling is that you shouldn't trust them, that's already a sign you don't belong. It's a grunch. It's a reminder that you don't experience the automatic trust that this person or group seems to expect. Does everybody else experience it? Are you the only distrustful one? Is there something wrong with you, or is your mistrust warranted based on your past experiences? Asking yourself those questions takes up time.

Freedom and Equality



Sometimes, freedoms conflict, which is why freedom is just one value that has to be balanced with others, not an absolute. If your freedom of expression prevents me from being at the table, or making a living, or even beginning to realize my potential at all, then your freedom limits mine and the solution involves considering both of our interests, not concluding in the name of "freedom" that you should be able to exclude me. Inequality isn't compatible with freedom, and boosting your "freedom" at my expense is inherently unfair and unequal.

The bridge between freedom and equality is trust. People who trust each other can be who they are while trusting other people to call them out on it if being who they are infringes on other people's well-being. Likewise, people who trust each other will give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume good faith when conflicts happen. But in the absence of trust, freedom won't naturally lead to equality, because marginalized people will (rightly) assume that the power dynamics they're used to are still operating, while less-marginalized people will assume that they are free to keep recreating those power dynamics.


In tech, there's a certain kind of person who often champions "freedom" at the expense of others' safety.

"...if you want me to ‘act professional,’ I can tell you that I’m not interested. I’m sitting in my home office wearing a bathrobe. The same way I’m not going to start wearing ties, I’m *also* not going to buy into the fake politeness, the lying, the office politics and backstabbing, the passive aggressiveness, and the buzzwords." -- Linus Torvalds, as quoted by Elise Ackerman


There's a lot to unpack in this quote; in it, Torvalds exemplifies a tendency among programmers, especially privileged male programmers, to use having to wear a suit or tie as a proxy for the forms of oppression they fear if their (e.g.) open-source project adopts norms about respect which they associate with big companies that produce proprietary software. Torvalds and his ilk might express contempt for the notion of a "safe space", but they actually care a lot about safe spaces: they want spaces in which it's safe for them to wear their bathrobes and swear. They're afraid that creating a space that's safe for every open-source contributor, not just white cis men in bathrobes, might threaten their own safety.

If having to wear a suit is the worst limitation on your life you can imagine, maybe it's time to take a step back and consider the experiences of people with less privilege. In fact, standardized expectations about dress can be helpful, at least when they aren't based on binary gender. Replacing "everyone has to wear a suit" with "only people in T-shirts and jeans will be taken seriously" doesn't fundamentally reduce the degree to which people get judged on their appearance rather than their abilities -- it just replaces one limiting dress code with another. And maybe suits aren't really that limiting. Uniforms can have an equalizing function. I'm not a particular fan of wearing suits all the time myself, but when abolishing suits doesn't result in the emergence of another sartorial hegemony, it potentially burdens people with decisions that they wouldn't have to make if there weren't clear norms and expectations for dress. As always, there are going to be expectations. I'm not aware of many companies where going to work naked is encouraged. So if suits aren't encouraged, a whole host of decisions have to happen, and guesses have to be made, about what people will think of you based on your clothing. It's a lot of cognitive load. Maybe sometimes, clear expectations about how to dress help people be equal! Who loses when Torvalds and others like him win the ability to work in their bathrobes? Who loses when Torvalds, apparently unable to conceive of sincere politeness and genuine respect, wins the right not to feign regard for others?

"If telling people to be themselves creates unsafe spaces, how can I let people know my space is safe?", you might ask. I'll try to answer that in part 2.
Do you like this post? Support me on Patreon and help me write more like it.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Apropos of nothing, bunnies!

(from [tumblr.com profile] awesome-picz on Tumblr)

I like bunnies. I also like expanding access to abortion. If you do too, you should donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds. For my 35th birthday in 3 days, I'm trying to get 40 people to donate -- so far, 32 awesome people have given! Here are their names, and if you comment saying that you gave, I'll add your name too. (Or let me know privately so I can update my tally without using your name, if you would rather be anonymous.)

We can do this!!
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds or this puppy will be sad! (source)

Well, probably not. But I will be. With 3 days left to my 35th birthday, I'm still trying to get 12 more people to make a donation to help people get abortions. It's just that simple. Here's how to give, and once you do, let me know so I can update my tally!
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Here's a kitten! (image by Instagram user veggiedayz)

Now that I've got your attention, why not donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds? You'll be helping somebody get the abortion they need. You'll be annoying a forced-birther. And if you do it within the next 4 days, you'll be helping wish me a happy 35th birthday. If you let me know that you gave, I'll be one step closer to not having to post nag messages multiple times a day ;)
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This bucket of puppies really wishes you would donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds. Well, okay, that's a lie, but what's true is that I do! (Photo from [tumblr.com profile] babyanimalgifs.)

I'll be 35 in 6 days, and all I want for my birthday is for you to donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds. So far, 21 people have donated, bringing me more than half the way towards reaching my goal of donations from 40 people. Please let me know if you give so I can continue tracking my progress! And thanks to the wonderful people who have donated so far (follow the previous link to see their names)
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Here are some dogs (courtesy [twitter.com profile] samoyedsbot):

Now that I've got your attention, how about helping wish me a happy 35th birthday by donating to the National Network of Abortion Funds? Please let me know if you do so I can track whether I reached my goal!
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Here is a cat (credit: [tumblr.com profile] cybergata on Tumblr)

I don't know what this cat's opinion about reproductive choice is. But I know what mine is! It's that I want you to donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds for my birthday. 5 down, 35 to go!
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Here's a cat who adopted four baby hedgehogs.



If you think everyone has the right to choose to either be a parent or not be a parent, then please donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds for my birthday! 2 down, 38 to go 4 down, 36 to go, 13 days left :)
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
Update: I've reached my goal, but don't let that stop you from donating to NNAF!

I'll be turning 35 on December 18. If you would like to celebrate with me, please make a donation to the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) and let me know. Since I'm turning 35, I suggest a $35 donation if you can afford it, but any amount matters, even $1.

NNAF is a network of local, grassroots organizations that provide direct financial aid to people who need abortions but can't afford to pay for the costs (which often include the costs of traveling to a remote location, since in many parts of the US, the closest facility that performs abortions is hundreds of miles away). Local abortion funds exist in 42 states of the US, and you're welcome to donate directly to your local fund, but NNAF helps get the money to where it's most needed.

Right now, why NNAF's work is necessary should need no explanation. Outright violence against clinics, with the goal of scaring people who provide abortions into stopping, has been happening consistently for the past 40 years. This campaign has been accompanied by a more respectable campaign of legislative violence aimed at making abortion as hard to obtain as possible, including but not limited to the Hyde Amendment, which bans Medicaid from covering abortions and effectively prevents low-income people from getting abortions except with the help of nonprofit groups like abortion funds.

I agree with NNAF's statement: "every woman needs to have the ability to make her own decision about having a child, no matter what her income is." I would go further and say that the same is true about every person who may become pregnant, no matter what their gender.

My goal for this year is for 40 people to donate; in 2013, 36 people donated to the Ada Initiative (which has since shut down) for my birthday, so I think I should be able to get 4 more donations this year! So, if you donate, please let me know. If you don't let me know, I won't be able to know if I reached my goal, and I'll be sad. You can let me know by commenting on this post, tweeting at me or commenting on my Facebook wall, or -- if you prefer to be private -- emailing me (catamorphism at gmail.com) or sending me a private message on any of the services I use. Also, I will assume it's okay to thank you in a public post by the name or pseudonym that I know you by unless you tell me otherwise. You don't have to tell me the amount that you donated.

By donating you'll make me happy, piss off the religious right, but most importantly, help make sure nobody has to go through a pregnancy and give birth because they're short $100. So do it now! NNAF is a nonprofit 501c3 organization, so if your US employer matches funds, please request a matching donation from them so that your money goes even further.

Thanks to the following people for donating:

  1. [personal profile] emceeaich
  2. Les
  3. [twitter.com profile] bcjbcjbcj
  4. [anonymous]
  5. [twitter.com profile] puzzlement
  6. Kerry
  7. Laura
  8. Becka
  9. [personal profile] gfish
  10. [anonymous]
  11. Ming
  12. [twitter.com profile] aeolianharp
  13. Zoe
  14. Lance
  15. Chung-chieh Shan, [twitter.com profile] ccshan
  16. Conrad
  17. [personal profile] katarik
  18. [personal profile] yatima
  19. [personal profile] miang
  20. [personal profile] andrewt
  21. Aaron
  22. Daniel
  23. [twitter.com profile] jessamynsmith
  24. [anonymous]
  25. [personal profile] sathari
  26. [twitter.com profile] vaurorapub
  27. [twitter.com profile] wilkieii
  28. [personal profile] sonia
  29. [twitter.com profile] yayzerbeam
  30. [anonymous]
  31. Tinny
  32. [twitter.com profile] joshbohde
  33. [personal profile] mjg59
  34. Summer
  35. Kenny
  36. [twitter.com profile] AaronM
  37. [twitter.com profile] lindseybieda
  38. [twitter.com profile] CoralineAda
  39. [twitter.com profile] jpetazzo
  40. [twitter.com profile] ms_headdesk
  41. [anonymous]
  42. Amy
  43. [livejournal.com profile] anemone

If you donated, your name isn't on this list, and you would like it to be, let me know!
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
This post is the last in a 3-part series. The previous parts were "Husband, Father, Christian, Fascist" and "Jesus as 10x Engineer".

Elitism as Insecurity



The preoccupation with hacker-as-identity sets the field of engineering back. It's also anti-meritocratic: preserving the quasi-religious or homosocial-bonding-based cult of the hacker doesn't do much to advance the field of software development. Being able to be chummy or weird with your bros doesn't have much to do with getting work done. (I like to make in-jokes with my friends too, but I don't carry with me a feeling of entitlement to make those in-jokes a union card for my profession.) Homogeneity makes people work worse, not better.

The idea of escape from adulthood, with its relationships and feelings and messy truths, is a strong temptation for many engineers, including me. Don't we all want to be the king, the one who is revered above all others? As I wrote about in "Killing the Messenger at Mozilla", the "lone genius" story appeals to Archetypal Engineers; they enjoy talking about how one person developed JavaScript in ten days more than they enjoy showing how many, many people working together over years to make incremental additions to it made it as useful as it is.

The primacy of this temptation is why the anti-SJW moral panic is the face of fascism in technology. It's about the fear that if nobody can be the king, then you never can either. It's about the fear that if you're not worshipped like a quasi-deity, you are nothing. If you think "fascism" is taking it too far, then I recommend [personal profile] graydon2's article "The EntitleMen: techno-libertarian right wing sockpuppets of silicon valley".


"Elitism grows out of arrogance mixed with insecurity. Elitists aren’t interested in sharing knowledge, they’re interested in being the source of the knowledge. Elitists are only interested in disseminating their knowledge to the larger population if they are the authority."
-- Cahlan Sharp, "Software Developers’ Growing Elitism Problem"


The group that Sharp calls "elitists" and that I've been calling "J. Random Hackers" are anti-SJW because they are insecure about their own lack of understanding of people, social groups, and cultures that they regard as unimportant (but fear might be important). When an elitist says "SJW", they mean someone whose knowledge makes them feel threatened. Elitists attempt to respond to this threat by devaluing knowledge possessed by SJWs and by discrediting SJWs as engineers. After all, if you could be both a good SJW and a good engineer, and if to be an SJW means to be in possession of facts and truths that could be useful, what room would be left for the elitists? They could learn more, but as Sharp wrote, they don't want to learn -- they want to be the source of knowledge for other learners.

Against Pollution of Agency



As I wrote in "The church of the hacker, or fake geek girls and outside agitators", "To say, 'It doesn't have to be this way' is to expose yourself and your reputation and credibility to every kind of attack possible, because 'it doesn't have to be this way' are dangerous words." The danger that elitists perceive from SJWs is that elitists will both lose their comforting, safe space built in apparent absolute truths and formal systems and lose their socioeconomic status if forced to compete with people who don't match the Archetype.

When ESR writes that SJWs must be expelled from tech, he is polluting the agency of people he feels threatened by. In fact, pollution of agency is the primary, perhaps the only function of the term "SJW".

This is what “SJW” means. Everything, nothing. A bogeyman, a strawman. And so the only thing it can really mean is an adamant refusal to consider a certain kind of idea — a staunch emphasis that a certain kind of idea is not even worth consideration. It’s a kind of shorthand for loudly and proudly sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears. It exists to save people the trouble of thinking; it exists to give people something to stay angry at.

“SJW” is the ink used to draw lines through which a distasteful ideology need not pass. To put it bluntly, it defines the boundary of a safe space.
-- [twitter.com profile] eevee, "Words mean things, unfortunately"


J. Random Hacker says he's apolitical, but uses his social capital in order to weaken the cognitive authority of ideas that threaten his interests. He says he's non-ideological, but he's so worried that his ideology can't succeed without the use of force that he cannot fathom it succeeding on its own merits. He says he rejects safe spaces, but he uses words like "hacker", "SJW", and "meritocracy" to demarcate a space in which he and his friends can feel safe. He says he believes in evaluating contributions based on merit, but has no definition of or metric for "merit" that doesn't depend on the names and faces of the people making those contributions. He says that his approach results in the highest quality of outcome, but doesn't know how to measure quality. He says he believes in free speech, but uses bullying words like "SJW" to silence people he disagrees with. He says the groups he belongs to comprise the best people, but is terrified of his own mediocrity. He says his claims are backed up by evidence, but asserts without proof that definitionally, SJWs can't also be competent engineers with technical contributions to make. He says SJWs are wasting his time by bringing irrelevant concerns into tech communities, but wastes his own time by patrolling the borders of those communities rather than tending the gardens inside them. He exemplifies what George Orwell wrote about in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language".

Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.


We have to recognize and name pollution-of-agency attacks for what they are: on a moral level, in order to protect the truth and defend the use of words to convey meaning rather than to leverage power. And on a practical level, we need to call pollution-of-agency attacks what they are in order to assert our right to use our talents and to work at jobs we can do.

Finally, isn't it more fun to learn and grow than to cling to one's rigidity? While the work of inclusion doesn't happen on its own, including people still takes less effort than fighting off people who want to join the party. The small amount of time it takes to use inclusive language and to consider what you say before you say it is an investment in the future health of your project. The time it takes to fight off SJWs, on the other hand, is time spent self-sabotaging. Why would you even consider forking a project based on fear rather than an irreconcilable technical disagreement?

Isn't it more fun to write code than to guard social borders in the name of Jesus, 10x engineers, or J. Random Hacker? What are you really achieving when you spend your limited time on a witch hunt rather than on reviewing pull requests? I guarantee you that hunting witches won't make your code pass more tests, patch its security vulnerabilities, or help anybody switch from proprietary to open-source software. If all bugs are shallow with enough eyes, encouraging people to turn their eyes away from your code will permit bugs to thrive. If the bazaar model works better than the cathedral model for development, then joining forces with people who share your goals is more effective building a walled garden into which only the ideologically pure can enter. And if the usefulness of code can be measured with no knowledge of its author, then you should be striving to remove barriers of entry into your project that filter out code solely on the basis of who wrote it.

"Where does magic come from?
I think magic's in the learning
'cause now when Christians sit with Pagans
only pumpkin pies are burning."

-- Dar Williams, "The Christians and the Pagans"
Do you like this post? Support me on Patreon and help me write more like it.
tim: A person with multicolored hair holding a sign that says "Binaries Are For Computers" with rainbow-colored letters (binaries)
This post is the second in a 3-part series. The previous part was "Husband, Father, Christian, Fascist".

Hackers and Christians



I've so far argued that discourse like ESR's blog post reflects an assumption that no "SJW" can truly be interested in doing engineering work, whereas within the same discourse, it is a given that Christians can be good engineers. I've also argued that the distinction made is a distinction between marked and unmarked ideologies. But I still haven't answered the question of why it is that Christianity (and the set of assumptions that come with the public declaration of oneself as "Christian", distinctly from e.g., "Catholic", "Methodist", "Anglican", or "Baptist") came to be an unmarked ideology within Anglophone software engineering culture (forthwith, just "tech") whereas the "SJW" label came to be a marked one.

A lot of us SJWs never wanted to be ideological ourselves; we embarked from a place of just wanting to do the work, sincerely believing that we would be seen and judged on the basis of our work output rather than our gender, race, or other identities that aren't strictly relevant to doing work. Or, if we didn't totally believe that was how it was going to go, at least we hoped so. Some of us believed that "show me the code" was sincere and that if we just leaned in, paid our dues, and contributed, we would be recognized and accepted as members of a community of practice.

For many of us, then, our ideological convictions arose out of self-preservation, when we realized that meritocracy was a lie and that in fact, the tech in-group was more interested in maintaining its power than in doing the highest-quality possible work. When you harass people who are trying to do their jobs, or support that harassment, or fail to speak out against it, you're not interested in building the best thing you can, because to build the best thing you can you have to include everybody who wants to and can work together on it and contribute. Pushing away people who have something to contribute is an exercise in purity-based morality, not a sound business or technical strategy.

At the risk of stretching a metaphor, then, I posit that Christianity (again, the exercise of publicly self-labeling as Christian rather than a particular set of beliefs, since that exercise tells you nothing about what someone believes or does and everything about how they want to be seen by others) meshes well with the J. Random Hacker archetype because both worldviews are monotheistic. It's just that the deity that J. Random Hacker offers the most praise to is the abstractions of empiricism, rationality, and objectivity, not as tools for thought but as fundamental principles that afford fixed interpretations. Ontologically, Christianity and science -- the version of science that software engineers believe in that mostly involves flagging as a person who "fucking loves science" rather than actually doing science -- are two great tastes that go great together, at least when you define "Christianity" and "science" right. Acolytes of J. Random Hacker impoverish both science and Christianity by casting them as forms of textual literalism that prioritize obedience to a higher authority (whether that's God, or objective truth) ahead of relationships with equals.

Both Christianity and science can mean a lot more than that, and I think that both are better when they aren't reduced to fundamentalism. Myself, I like a rich sauce to season my thinking better than the sticky, burnt residue left when you boil away everything that can't be formulated as a rigid system of rules. The point, though, is that both Christianity and science, when conceived of by J. Random Hacker, have more to do with the burnt residue of absolute truth than with the flavors or nuance of conversation, trade-offs, and conditional truth.

Paganism, then, also at the risk of stretching a metaphor, is the archetype to which haters of "SJWs" truly appeal. (No, the irony of ESR, a self-identified neopagan, calling for an anti-SJW witch hunt isn't lost on me). If somebody calls you an SJW, what they're probably saying is that you think we have to balance multiple concerns in order to lead a good life; that maintaining and nurturing egalitarian relationships comes ahead of adherence to rules and worship of a higher power; and that your mind can admit multiple conflicting truths.

It's tricky to use identities you don't subscribe to as metaphors, and that's what I'm doing. But I think there is something to the tension between focus on private religious practice and personal salvation ("Christianity" as such) and focus on collective action and, indeed, justice ("what love looks like in public", cf. Cornel West), that can be identified with Paganism. Indeed, to rise to power, Christians (historically) had to discredit and threaten Pagans; that's exactly what's happening in the struggle between SJWs and JRHs.

In tech, like "white", "Christian" actually means very little as a label other than "not in the oppressed class". In a white- and Christian-dominated society, to advertise one's pride in either one's whiteness or one's Christianity has nothing to do with pride in a genuine identity and everything to do with contempt for somebody else's identity. "White pride", like the broad concept of Christian identity, is a threat concealed as an identity.

Jesus as 10x Engineer



How does the tension between private and public action, between absolute and relational ethics, reflect other realities about engineering culture? Maybe it explains the currently-fashionable focus on technical skills, so-called "10x engineers", and individual genius and its attendant deprioritization of collaboration, teamwork, and the work it takes to create healthy organizations.

Maybe it explains the attribution of messaianic qualities to "great hackers", something that seduced me when I read the King James Version of the Jargon File (which is to say, the version that ESR edited) as a teen. Keeping the girls out of the treehouse looks childish when 28-year-old senior engineers are doing it, so recasting the struggle as the protection of the temple from invaders lends the scene a nice epic quality, like a popular video game or fantasy movie series.

Maybe it explains hostility to flexibility in process, to moral relativism, to anything that might break the embrace of strict, rigid rules for how things and people do and should behave that makes the tech industry a safe space for J. Random Hacker and his followers.

Maybe fear of SJWs is fear of genuine connection with other people, of interruption of the communion with machines that J. Random Hacker claims to be all about. He says this communion is more important than community, even though the only entities he truly ever communes with are the people, living and dead, who designed and built the machines.

I think "Christians vs. Pagans" maps well onto "Hackers vs. SJWs" because what self-identified Christians and Hackers (even non-Hacker Christians and non-Christian Hackers) share is a desire for absolutes, for unambiguous formal specifications, for clear meaning, for single answers; they share a fear of complicated questions, nuance, emotions, empathy. Of course, formal specifications can be useful tools and some questions do have right answers. Humans really are changing the climate, and vaccinations really don't cause autism. But there's a difference between use of formal specifications as a tool, or as an idol.

Maybe this is also why some people (including myself a few years ago) are so obsessed with preserving the meaning of the word "hacker" as a special kind of engineer. It's not enough just to be an engineer, to have an occupation. "Hacker" goes beyond that, and is an identity, a group you can feel you belong in (if you look like the right kind of person). Sort of like a church.

For "Hacker" to remain special, for that word to retain its mystical or priestly qualities, it is necessary to keep those who are believed to see engineering as "just a job" from claiming it, and also for Hackers (sometimes called "10x engineers") to retain social status that engineers as a group lack.

To be continued!

Edited to add two other perspectives on why ESR is wrong:
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
This post is the first in a 3-part series.

When I worked at Mozilla, my co-worker "Bill" (not his real name) emailed me on my personal account to tell me that I would be less angry if I found Jesus like he had. At the same job, when I was on my way out, another co-worker, "Ted" (also not his real name), told me that "people here think you're only interested in politics and not in code."

I thought about Bill and Ted when I saw Eric S. Raymond (ESR)'s latest hot take: "Why Hackers Must Eject the SJWs".


What unites Ted and ESR is the belief that interest in "politics" precludes interest in engineering -- or, perhaps, interest in the wrong kind of politics. What unites Bill and Ted is the assumption that there are some outside interests that are acceptable for engineers to have (like being a Christian, and converting others to one's faith) and others that are not (such as social justice).

As per Joanna Russ's system of categorization for tactics used to silence women's writing, the rhetorical strategy that Ted and ESR shared is that of the pollution-of-agency attack:

Pollution of Agency attacks use a woman's character or traits attributed to her considered to be negative to deny the quality or importance of her work. Sex and sexuality, mental health status, or physical attractiveness are common traits or actions used in a pollution of agency attack.

-- "Russ Categories", Geek Feminism Wiki

While pollution-of-agency attacks are disproportionately used against women, they're also used against anyone else who threatens conservative control over a particular domain of cultural production, whether it's science fiction writing or engineering. The script that both Ted and ESR followed is that having the wrong political views (specifically radical or progressive ones) devalues an engineer's work, regardless of any intrinsic properties of the work (indeed, may justify ignoring that work altogether). ESR's attack was particularly effective because it used the term "SJW" ("social justice warrior"), which has become shorthand for that group of people whose work must be either attacked or ignored because they hold political views that challenge your own stronghold on prestige and power.

What unifies all three stories is the question of what it costs to hold a particular ideology in tech. Being seen as an "SJW" has a cost: the effort it takes to contend with pollution-of-agency attacks. Being seen as a Christian engineer does not have this cost; while people may disagree with your views, they won't question your competence or the legitimacy of your work just because you are a Christian.

Husband, Father, Christian, Fascist



The reason why Bill and Ted could coexist at the same organization -- why my right to be there was questioned because of my interest in "politics" while Bill was welcomed despite his constant efforts to use the workplace as a forum for religious evangelism -- lies, I think, in a certain archetype about what it means to be an engineer. ESR himself described one version of this archetype in "A Portrait of J. Random Hacker", an appendix he added to the Jargon File. Subsequently, using ESR's term, I will refer to this archetypal engineer -- a fictional person who many engineers are anxious about emulating as closely as possible -- as "J. Random Hacker", though my characterization of JRH will depart from his.

J. Random Hacker identifies as an apolitical man who also isn't religious in a way that would set him apart from his underlying culture. He could lack religious views altogether, or he could subscribe to the religion that is dominant in his culture. Although I'm going to be using Christianity as a metaphor for monoculture in this essay, I could just as easily have used atheism. The important thing isn't the specifics of the belief system so much as that J. Random Hacker doesn't rock the boat when it comes to views outside a narrow construction of "technical" discourse. Likewise, JRH certainly isn't apolitical, since he participates in society and therefore takes part in power relations -- but he holds a set of political views (such as the view that it's desirable or even possible for a person to be apolitical) that support existing power structures rather than challenging them.

In other words, J. Random Hacker presents himself as non-ideological. Ideology, he says, would only get in the way of getting work done. But without ideology, we wouldn't know what work is worth doing or what methods are acceptable for getting that work done. J. Random Hacker is just as ideological as any SJW; the difference between them is the broad acceptance, or lack thereof, of their ideologies. J. Random Hacker knows that he is ideological, and lives in terror that his secret will get out. He is uncomfortable around SJWs because he fears that any engagement with other ideologies will highlight that his own beliefs are not necessarily normal, natural, logical, or rational, but rather, continge on the needs and desires of the interest groups to which he belongs.

At Mozilla, I saw the Hacker and SJW archetypes clash during the Planet Mozilla Controversy, and later, from a distance, during the Gamergate coordinated harassment campaign when a member of the Mozilla ops team expressed concern about whether Mozilla would appear to be "supporting misguided Social Justice Warriors".

The first debate was about whether hate speech against people in protected classes is a normal, natural thing for J. Random Hacker to engage in, or whether it needed to be highlighted as harmful to the community. Disagreeing that hate speech harms the community amounts to consensus that the community doesn't need people who don't match the J. Random Hacker pattern.

The second conversation reflected the double standard applied to "Social Justice Warriors" vs. harassers: to appear to support "misguided Social Justice Warriors" would contaminate the purity of Mozilla as an engineering organization, whereas supporting harassers of women would not, because, indeed, women themselves are a threat to the purity of the J. Random Hacker archetype, and thus misogynist harassers do the work needed to protect the in-group from contamination. Gamergate strengthens the archetype by continuing to ensure that it won't be spoiled by what women might have to contribute; "SJWs", on the other hand, would harm it with the introduction of ideology (but really, of foreign ideology).

It is a truth universally accepted among some of us who use Twitter that the substring "husband, father" is a red flag in a bio. Sometimes the substring appears as "husband, father, Christian". You might protest that I shouldn't be assuming things about people just because they're husbands and fathers, but that's precisely my point: I'm not. I'm assuming things about people who feel the need to foreground their identity as husbands, fathers, Christians ahead of descriptors that mean something. There is nothing especially unique about being a husband or father; knowing that someone is a husband and father tells you very little about them (for example, it doesn't tell you whether they're a loving or a controlling husband, or whether they're a nurturing or an abusive father). Someone who needs to tell you that he is a husband and father, who describes his identity in terms of the women and children he feels he controls, is doing something more specific: he's flagging the purity of his identity. Which is to say, at least from his point of view, his lack of identity; his lack of ideology. Don't you just hate "identity politics"? It was easier when politics was only about advancing my identity.

Some people would see me as a Christian because of the religion I belong to, and that's fine, although I don't identify as one. I'm also not especially attached to the label "SJW" other than that it's a fun form of alchemy to reclaim terms used to attack and use them as terms of pride. I'm less interested in accepting or rejecting either label for myself than in asking what "SJW" signifies within the cultural context of Anglophone engineering culture, and likewise for "Christian". I think that it's important to some people to identify as "Christian engineers", and important to them to maintain the conditions under which nobody blinks at that, because to identify yourself as Christian (within the scope of the broader interest groups that the tech industry serves) is to unmark yourself, to assert yourself as in the majority or dominant group. "SJW", on the other hand, is a catchall for whatever the in-group doesn't want polluting their air.

Whether somebody is self-identifying as "husband, father, Christian" or declaring that we must eject the SJWs, their concern is with the maintenance of in-group purity and the consolidation of power. Professing disdain for ideology and a preoccupation with the purity of one's identity -- whether it's husband- and fatherhood or fidelity to the J. Random Hacker archetype -- are aspects of fascist ideologies. To declare oneself as a husband, father and Christian reflects fascist-influenced thinking: it is predicated on a choice to distinguish oneself primarily on the basis of a single identity (that of the technically meritorious engineer), and to organize one's other life choices around minimizing the edit distance between oneself and J. Random Hacker. Of course, these choices aren't exactly choices, since we don't choose our genders, among other things. That's the point of the "husband, father, Christian" avowal: it's an avowal that you are a person who has the privilege of opting out of marginalization.

Part 2: Jesus as 10x Engineer

Profile

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

June 2016

S M T W T F S
   1234
5 678 910 11
12 131415161718
19 202122232425
26 27282930  

Syndicate

RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags