Intro: The tech echo chamber
More so even than Facebook, Twitter allows anyone curious enough to wander into in an echo chamber:
- With Facebook, said echo chamber is carefully, mostly consciously constructed over many years, through friend choices, likes, and myriad other actions that influence the service’s algorithms, which ultimately determine what one sees in the NewsFeed. There is just one echo chamber, of one’s own making.
- With Twitter, though, it’s much easier to click on one Tweet (maybe something retweeted by someone followed), see all of the terrible responses to it and then become lost in an inane conversation about religion vs. science, or the gender problem in tech. The boundaries of the default echo chamber – the one made by choices of whom to follow, etc. – are permeable, in part because Twitter is harder to understand than Facebook and so its users wander around and find non-protected accounts with literally thousands of tweets to peruse (mostly private profiles with limited public information are the rule on Facebook but very much the exception on Twitter). There are multiple echo chambers, which is impossible on Facebook unless one is insane enough to manage multiple accounts.
For a while in late 2013 and early 2014, my echo chamber was one filled with tech bloggers and journalists, software developers, and venture capitalists. I’m not sure how this happened, other than that I felt like I needed to “use” Twitter more (I had only cursorily glanced at it for years) in the run-up to a bootcamp that I ended up not attending. Plus, I had followed John Gruber (of Daring Fireball) and proceeded to follow people he followed.
I learned a lot about technology from trying to stay on top of my Twitter stream, and my habit informed a lot of my early blogging on Android. After a while, though, I was exhausted by the attitudes underpinning many of the tweets in this stream, which seemed increasingly neoliberal (e.g., Uber’s practices are justified because cabs suck blah blah), out of their depth (e.g., trying to explain journalism based on knowledge of BuzzFeed and Techmeme), politically correct (e.g., tone deafness to the Charlie Hebdo murders), or just complain-y (e.g., everything from the “tackiness” of the gold iPhone 6/6 Plus colors to the U.S. taxation of citizens living overseas).
Twitter is the easiest way ever invented to get annoyed. It blends the I-can-say-whatever-I-want-to-to-my-niche-audience of a closed door meeting with the open access of broadcast television. Feathers will be ruffled, and I’m fine with that. People should be able to say whatever they want to, no exceptions AND I don’t have to agree with any of it (notice how I didn’t say “but” there).
Within this tech-centric Twitter echo chamber of mine, much lower on the annoying scale, was also a mix of well-founded concern about lack of opportunity for women in tech, intermixed with seemingly irrelevant calls to attend a local Maker Faire (the Maker movement is a tech-centric movement that organizes events around, and promote an overall culture of, the creation of things, mostly software or 3-D printed objects) and the usual helping of geek culture about comic books, sci-fi, and the whole lot. Maybe these two prominent thought-streams had something to do with each other, though. Could there be some relationship between the (very accurate and astute) observation that women don’t easily get ahead in tech and the worship of “making” things (software, mostly) and comic book character universes?
Makers versus everyone else
The current Maker movement is, like so much in tech – “the cloud” and “big data” being the best two examples – a rebranding of something old. It’s an extension of a certain ethos running back through the early days of the term “hacker” at MIT and even further to the Arts & Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Arts & Crafts
The latter prized above all the enthusiastic creation of beautiful objects as a form of rebellion against the slave-like factory labor that had come in vogue to enable the mass production of bland consumer products. Eventually, though, Arts & Crafts disappeared, for the simplest of reasons: money.
Rising inequality meant that the whimsical artistic creation at the center of the movement no longer had a firm middle-class audience, but rather, on one end, an affluent population that could do these activities in their spare time, and, on the other, a poor one that couldn’t afford the time or materials needed to get started. In just a few decades, Arts & Crafts went from being egalitarian and radical to being a hobby for the increasingly wealthy upper classes.
The same thing has happened to “hacker” culture (I’m talking about coders, not people who purposefully break into systems with malicious intent), although the transformation and the resulting irony are much more instructive. While so much of it continues to trade on the notion of programmers who can create entire new worlds and “disrupt” some faceless establishment, tech, with a growing share of the world’s most valuable firms, is becoming the establishment.
It consists, like automobile manufacturing or television before it, of companies that sell products, often at increasingly high priced roundaboutly justified by claims of “innovation,” while these same firms push for the devaluation of workers’ time and, well, creations. Think of many startups were launched in the wake of the Google IPO in 2004 or the Facebook one in 2012, startups that have been subsumed into the Maker culture that prizes discrete pieces of code and the production of visible objects. And then think of how institutions like YouTube – in relation to original and often copyrighted music – and Facebook – in relation to the Web content it has gotten for free for years and now wants to host on its own platform to cut out publisher middle men – have also tried to drive down the value of things that were made, whether music or longform writing.
To be a hacker is increasingly to be someone who works for just another company, playing the age-old game of marketing and selling, except in many cases with access to a venture capital spigot and an entire tech press that reinforces cliches about “hacking it” or “innovating.” That doesn’t sound very rebellious, but the aggression of today’s tech firms (Amazon’s relationship with book publishers comes to mind) still creates this sense that it’s the tech world versus everyone else, with the assimilation of entire industries and professions by software a necessary end to justify the means of valuing code so highly. This trajectory, ironically, threatens to commoditize coders themselves, completing the reversal of the original countercultural hacker revolution.
The Maker movement merges characteristics of Arts & Crafts (items like Makerbot 3-D printers have the same physicality of the Arts & Crafts wares) with hacker culture (the fixation on software as a creation that enacts substantial change). Like those other two movements, though, it has already ceased to be rebellious or countercultural and instead is just more new paint on an old barn, as Debbie Chachra observed in a stunning article that recently ran in “The Atlantic”:
“Making is not a rebel movement, scrappy individuals going up against the system. While the shift might be from the corporate to the individual (supported, mind, by a different set of companies selling a different set of things), it mostly re-inscribes familiar values, in slightly different form: that artifacts are important, and people are not.”
Artifacts are important, and people are not.
That was the sentence I was looking for so many months as I tried to write a draft of this piece. So much of America that is visible when walking around a city – buildings, roads, parks, you name it – was made by and for men. What else is in this artifact pile? Well, comic books, sci-fi TV shows and movies, collectible figurines, and video games – all mainstays of the emerging dominant geek-tech culture that is now at the helm in this phase of capitalism. These, too, are traditionally fabrications by and for men, even if there are exceptions and even if any given comic book reader is also a fierce gender equality advocate.
The sheer energy that goes into stuff, much of it with only the nichest of niche audiences in the developed world, and into solving games and arguing over continuities and canonical/non-canonical characters is not necessarily “wasted” – I don’t begrudge anyone her hobbies. However, it is time not spent on trying to explore work historical done by or associated with women, from teaching to caregiving, and how this work continues to be valued so much less, often for the simple reason that its outcome isn’t a fictional universe or a 3-D printed pair of shoes, but an educated person or a woman who is able to have years added to her life thanks to her caregiver.
Making, coding, and community managing
Chachra’s piece is worth reading all the way through, not only for her exploration of how gendered the Maker movement is, but also how she explores why educators and so many other professions often lumped together as “soft skilled” (this is my term, not hers) are undervalued while artifact-centric skills are valued to an almost absurd degree. It’s no secret, for example, that if one is to work for a tech firm as a community manager, she can expect a much lower salary than her programmer peers.
This was my experience for several years when I worked for a startup in customer support. It is a tough, tiring job that makes such a huge difference in how the company is seen and whether customers feel like they’re important or just one of many commodities. Still, for all the long hours and long email exchanges, it can, depending on the attitudes of management, feel like a second-rate position (it never felt that way to me; I loved the job and would happily do it again), one that is backhandedly referred to as “non-technical.”
Because, after all, what does a community manager “make”? Emails? Documentation? Much of what she produces won’t be seen by any more than just a few people, and even those persons will quickly move on except in exceptional circumstances (e.g., how a ticket about an app destroying someone’s hard drive was resolved). Why does that matter though?
Part of the reason for frowning upon such non-making habits is that they don’t produce new, publicly salable and consumable item. Software is often updated and sold or packed with ads, plus – crucially – it is a discrete result from a highly specific process (coding). In contrast, teaching or caregiving produces similar outcomes from one year to the next, and said outcomes can’t be contained in a box or .ipa file. A system predicated on artifacts and the notion of “innovation” can’t easily abide behaviors that don’t continually create “new” experiences (it’s debatable whether anything is truly “new,” but that’s a conversation for another time) or feed notions of the future (a concept of relatively recent vintage, and not universal) and instead involve care-taking for the present or, god forbid, discussions of the past (e.g., teaching history).
I suspect a lot of the venom and dismissal directed toward educators and the poor is more complex than simple abrasiveness or arrogance. It’s also annoyance at how so much of humanity is not part of, or cannot be or doesn’t wish to be, part of a narrowly focused, historically male-dominated system of artifact production. Most people probably don’t need to learn to code. The world probably needs just as many caregivers as it does DevOps engineers.
Moreover, like any movement with outspoken advocates, the Maker one has internal contradictions. What does Facebook “make?” – all of its content is supplied by other people, and no one pays for/buys it. Google exists mainly as a way to find things made by other people; if those artifacts didn’t exist, then neither could Google.
There are many examples here, and I won’t dwell. The important contradiction, though, is the one hiding in plain sight, between, on one side, frequent calls for gender equality/confusion at the gender issue/notion of tech someday bringing equality to the whole via cheap smartphones and Facebook and, on the other side, unceasing elevation of artifacts (code and also, to a lesser extent, hardware), including geek culture that is both fixated existing inanimate objects and in need of new production (just think of the huge surge in Hollywood films based on Marvel franchises, for instance).
The gender issues of tech are only the most visible manifestation of a system that has problems valuing humans in general, much less women in particular (e.g., it would sooner automate everything than pay persons with certain responsibilities even menial wages). Making is a male-dominated tradition, sure, but it is also one that strives much more for the creation of neatly contained “solutions” than the vague betterment of people en masse. The machinations of this system are sometimes hard to discern, especially amid the calls for a better world and the self-deprecating geekiness and fandom of its community.
The things-being-made and fictional characters – and, while we’re at it, all the exaggerative, basically fictional personae that fill Instagram, Facebook, and every social network – are just so many more things. And they’re sapping the attention that could go instead toward studying and understanding human affairs so that we have a more equal society.