Politics is a taboo word in some tech circles. I’m out of my base here, but in some camps politics led to a meltdown after some gems of privileged men in power. But we are social animals. Politics is everywhere because is about everything we do. As simple as a Wikipedia definition can be, politics “is the set of activities that are associated with deciding in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status”. And I will talk direct with you, my fellow men.
Even if you cannot see there’s a context, a structural web of power relations codified in the public speech, gender norms, cultural products and in the market itself that are a byproduct of several instances of decision making that made the world what it is. Sexist. Racist. Abusive. And I know, is difficult to see, exactly because of that. It embedded us in it. Because, my friends, this is water.
This video, from the late writer David Foster Wallace, starts with a humorous parable:
There are two young fish swimming along who meet an older fish. The older fish nods at them and says:
‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’
The two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks:
‘What the hell is water?’
It is easy to not see the environment structures, we are immersed and shaped every aspect of our existence. Structural racism, gender norms. We come out to this world and this doesn’t look like the “natural way of this”. This is water.
We must embrace other perspectives, understand our immersion and bias. We must listen. As David Foster Wallace, understand this has nothing to do with knowledge, that we developers are so proud of, but with “how to think”, and he says: “The alternative is unconsciousness. The gnawing sense of having lost some infinite thing”. Maybe because a highly respected white guy said this, more people can understand and immerse in this call for empathy and think in our context, give gravitas. Do not consider only the lobster. Consider people with disabilities. Consider people of color. Consider people of all genders.
“Even prior to the term “computer” being a name given to a machine, it had been the name given to job. Originally, a computer was a person—almost always a young woman—who computed complex equations with the help of pen and paper or a desktop accounting machine. A common misperception is that women got into computing during World War II simply because men were at the front, but the gendering of computing work existed before the war, and before computers were electronic. The feminization of this work continued through and after the war, with women returning to the civilian workforce to perform computing work with electromechanical and later electronic systems—everything from programming and operation, to systems analysis, to hardware assembly.”
And if you are a man, you don’t feel personally responsible for any of that. Right? You did nothing wrong. We mean, well, except maybe that time or that time. Was a grey area wasn’t? But this is water.
“If you are white in a white supremacist society, you are racist. If you are male in a patriarchy, you are sexist.” — Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race
Since we are existing in this planet if you is identified with a specific set of characteristics you are, signed or not for this, benefiting from this. What to do?
Mike Monteiro wrote Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It. This book talks about our roles in creating – or ruined - the world. Monteiro calls the responsibility in the hands of the designers of digital products, meaning everyone involved in the process to plan, mock, code, ship and support digital products. In one moment of the book he recalls a grim conversation he had in Copenhagen:
[…] the topic of “being good allies” came up. To which my new Danish friend shouted that men our age had committed too many sins and done too many things wrong to ever be good allies in any sense of the world. And the best thing we could to for the planet was to die.
I still think a lot on it. As Monteiro points out:
As uncomfortable as it is to admit, I am both those things. And if you are reading this and you look like me, you are too. Regardless of how well you’ve lived your life, regardless of how good your intentions were, you benefited from a stacked deck. And yet, even with the deck stacked in our favor, we couldn’t do the job. So yes, the best thing we can do for the planet is to die.
I think a lot about this. But I don’t know if suggest you to die would be useful. All human beings are entitled to live. You are entitled to pursue your happiness, but we should be aware of the water.
I’m a male cisgender Brazilian. I doubt that any American or person in Europe would call me “White”—I think this should be a common issue with Latinxs in their homelands. And we even talked about intersectionality. If you are a person of color, the accents (if I was talking to you right now, maybe you would be biased by my way of talk since English is my second language). But my skin falls in the spectrum of whiteness here in Brazil and I have many of the benefits of it. Even having a lot of miscegenation on my family. I rise from a poor family to be a technology director at a small, but innovative, company in São Paulo, our biggest city. I could be the poster child of “meritocracy”. But this is bullshit. Meritocracy appeared first as a parody. There is no such thing as meritocracy.
It was not entirely but design, but at certain time, I was the only male developer on my team. Which is rare in a market in which woman occupy 25% of the roles, and this research included support and QA, areas that we like or not are considered “less” than others. Brillant engineers I have the opportunity to look and simply didn’t get a change in the workplace.
Why hello, patriarchy! Let's dig in on this tweet, where one of the kings of Silicon Valley gives the the game away: pic.twitter.com/qVJgdZxOsk— William Pietri (@williampietri) May 14, 2021
Worst yet if you to be a founder. To automate the work of Paul Graham as VC we would not even need Machine Learning. A few if and else’s would do the job. White. Male. Dropout, but of an Ivy League College. Looks like Mark Zuckerberg.
“As our technological systems become increasingly destructive to our professed social and political ideals, we can no longer afford to collectively fail to understand the layers and decades of intentional decisions that have led to these supposedly unforeseen consequences. The current situation shows us clearly how, as large computing and telecommunications systems have scaled, the power imbalances they foster have altered all of our social institutions, including our political process”
Still, what to do? So many things in so many areas.
Hire women. Promote women. If you see a woman being interrupted, ask for her input right after the interruption. If someone makes a “joke”, ask why that person thinks that is funny. See something weird, ask her if she feels safe. Raise your voice to speak with her if needed. Do not be complacent. Instead of trying to be “10x Developer”, why not first try to be at least 1x human? Do something. Act. Because only posts will not do much. Only actions will mean a thing for the person you helped. Use your power. Yes, you have. You born with this, asking or not for it. With great power comes great responsibility. Is up to us. Do not just reproduce structural sexism. What are you, an android? Are you just programmed? Chances are you are. We are born this way. We must fight it every minute. Keep afloat. Do not get drowned in the abyss of the deep water. The alternative is unconsciousness. The gnawing sense of having lost some infinite thing.