May 10, 2010

Means and Ends Must Match (and it is already limited btw)

Category: Academic,Conferences,Gender — Biella @ 5:17 pm

Would you hit it? (by which I mean would you go to this conference?). The title is Limiting Knowledge in a Democracy and check out the list of speakers. Wait a minute, are there just 2 Women listed out of 27 (7.4%)?

The conference boldly states and asks:

There is no question that the free access to knowledge and information are the bedrock of all democratic societies, yet no democratic society can function without limits on what can be known, what ought to be kept confidential and what must remain secret. The tension among these competing ends is ever present and continuously raises questions about the legitimacy of limits. What limits are necessary to safe guard and protect a democratic polity? What limits undermine it?

An answer (in the form of action) is simple. Form must meet function, means must match ends or else these questions strike me as terribly hollow. Start at the start and then ask some questions.

April 20, 2010

On Internet Punditry and Engendering Change

Category: Academic,Digital Media,Gender — Biella @ 7:22 am

One day a very well known Internet theorist writes a rant on women. The rant generates controversy, controversy lands theorist on WYNC on the media , despite the fact the he does not really work on the politics of gender. If this is so, why then give him more air time and focus on the NPR show? There are three lessons that precipitate from this social fact that are worth highlighting:

1.The fact that NPR chose him to pontificate and not… a woman nullifies Shirky’s thesis that behavior is one of the most important factors in keeping women behind, unless of course NPR asked a bunch of women but they were too meek to be on the air (not likely). If they wanted to keep the star power that is Shirky, the very least they could have done is had a woman respond. The solutions to get more women in the limelight are so easy to implement but they do require some thoughtfulness and foresight.

2.So what I am saying, it is about networks and Shirky, isn’t he a theorist of networks and behavior? It seems to be to more controversial, he really did not address how important networks are for the politics of visibility, instead he focused on individual behavior. If famous highly networked folks, most of them men, don’t highlight women in their blog posts, their twitter feeds, and don’t invite them to conferences, it is going to make very little difffernce whether a woman is meek or confident. So if there are more guys that are visible, which is certainly the case, it is as much their job to help engender change, not so much by pontificating but acting.

3. I realized that though I first thought his rant was a reflection of his personality (at least his public persona, I am sure he is a nice guy), in fact the rant is valuable to an anthropologist interested in digital media because it is an auto-ethnographic snapshot of web 2.0 punditry culture. It often comes across as smarmy and snarky, which is due in part, to how difficult it is to get your message heard in the sea of many voices. Just like there is an aesthetic of audaciousness in a lot of Internet memeology, for example, the pundits too must often act in extreme ways to get attention–which might inf fact be one of the reasons why they are reluctant to share the stage once they have worked hard to get there.

March 10, 2010

A Cultural Alibi of Sorts

Category: Academic,F/OSS,Geek,Gender,Politics — Biella @ 7:08 am

There is an interesting conversation over at about the “nature” of peer production, and “crowd” based production over at PBS. Thankfully folks right off the bat noted that the types of activities they are addressing—that range from 4chan to open source—are so freaken distinct that perhaps it is not all that useful to use one moniker for them.

The comments I am most fascinated by are danah’s who notes:

“”We” assume that the collective voice will be populist and, more importantly, that it will reflect the diversity of the populous. Yet, as we’ve seen time and time again, certain values and attitudes and voices are over-represented in crowd-sourced activities. Who is looking out for those who aren’t represented? In what ways are we reinforcing structural inequalities? What are the implications of this?”

And then Clay’s response:

So, to re-ask your question in a non-rhetorical way, under what
circumstances would we want to make the population of Deviant Art,
say, less white, or Linux less male, and if we wanted to do so, what
would need to happen?

What I find interesting about this discussion (and will be talking about this topic here, next week) is there not enough recognition of two related things: 1) the efforts are there (more on this soon) 2) that perhaps hacking and F/OSS in particular are not fully accessible to all and everyone because they are full-fledged, full-bodied, cultural worlds —and all cultural worlds—are to some degree not fully accessible and transparent for there are built on particularities, often invisible and unarticulated, forms of value. That is, just as some norms and values of Indo-Guyanese to take one random example, are not of my world, so too is hacking partially inaccessible for the fact that it is culturally configured.

But I am starting to suspect that the “culture-ness” of these domains are often overlooked because they are overwhelmingly white, male, and chock full of computers (and so economically lucrative). All three, I suspect are (incorrectly) seen as lacking culture, as domains of rationality. (I stand rightly corrected and also forget this very fact, though I know it well from all the Brazil/Latin America Debconfs, as this diversity gets a bit lost from a pure US-European perspective, which I was assuming).

Other historical factors have also produced certain distortions that don’t allow us to see (easily at least) these worlds as culture-full. First is the fact that so many folks—outside of this world—lobbed onto F/OSS for being radical (and this is partially right in so far as its challenge to intellectual property can be seen as radical). But the portrayal or mere suggestion of these worlds as uber-democratic and populist, made people expect these groups to behave as radical egalitarian collectives. For the most part, they don’t and yet never portrayed their own politics and forms of organization as such (openness comes in the form of code and technical merit).

But this vision stuck and when some folks realized that larger projects, for example are very organized (which many people addressed only very late), have hierarchies (which are flexible and also allow them to function, which is I think is a good thing), and are not as diverse, there was deep disappointment that they did not conform to the sense that there was something extremely radical going on as opposed to a cultural group really into producing free software.

But if I am offering a cultural alibi of sorts—in which barriers to participation are to some degree a function of culture, one of the great things about the norms, values, ideas that compose culture is that there are dynamic and changing. They are alive and historical. They are pushed and pulled upon by insiders and outsiders based on wider social values.

And there is an answer to these questions about diversity for there has been a dramatic, noticeable, and noteworthy push within this world, one that really started to coalesce I would say in the last year or so, to address these issues and it ranges from Python’s mammoth efforts at addressing diversity (and I have been told that there was a great speech on the topic at Pycon recently), the geek feminism wiki, and smaller but increasingly common efforts such as Libre Planet’s women’s caucus and their funding of women to participate.

So while I do think that culture goes at least part of the way to explain why these worlds are not fully open—for culture limits—this very domain has grown dissatisfied with its representational make-up and are leading some efforts for cultural change.

December 5, 2009

Be Counted

Category: Academic,Computers,Gender,Wholesome — Biella @ 1:59 pm

To count means that you/it/whatever counts matters. If one counts the number of females in many tech/media conference, the number of women is dreadfully low, giving off the meaning and feeling they don’t always count, even if they are very well received.

There is a new project spearheaded by the efforts of Annina Rüst that will help us count women at conferences. The project is cleverly called Be Counted and it allows you to input information about gender representation in conferences. Here is a little more about the project and I urge you to check it out and contribute:

The project aims to collect a stream of user-contributed data on gender diversity in technology environments in the form of Gender Ratio Reports (GRRs). The longterm aim of the project is to not just collect but also provide tools for retrieving and visualizing the data in order to encourage others to collectively analyze the patterns behind the numbers.

October 19, 2009

Improving Code: a moral tale

Category: Geek,Gender,Politics — Biella @ 5:00 pm

Sweet and Clever. Almost makes the existence of Mike USA worth it.

September 1, 2009

Hello Ladies (aka learning from the lady geeks)

Category: Academic,Debian,Geek,Gender,Politics — Biella @ 6:48 am


Whenever I attend Debconf, the first day is always a bit disorienting due to the confluence of jet lag with the sea of male programmers swarming at the venue. I am not sure I should be admitting this but one of the first things that pops to mind is the very cheesy one hit wonder whose video is filled with many bikini clad men, Its raining men.

So for a few hours, maybe a day, I sometimes feel out of place but this this first wave of discomfort usually gives way to comfort. This is not only because I connect with friends but because Debconf as well as many other hacker events—and this sits in marked contrast to professional academic conferences—are remarkably accepting of diversity and difference, at least that has been my personal experience. Most notably, people could care less about how you look, disabilities are consistently accommodated, and some things, like gender changing, which would raise serious eyebrows for instance in most academic conferences, is accepted with next to no gossip.

I raise this because this is how I personally have experienced the world of Free Software: overwhelming male but overwhelming accepting of difference as well. So even while I think it is key to confront the problems of discrimination in this world, it is not a simple story, for again, it is an environment that is also accommodates difference and quirkiness to some notable degree.

The question of gender in F/OSS is complicated one and here I am not going to ruminate on sources of gender bias except to say that I am sure there are some in operation (as there are in most domains)–some of which are internal to Free Software and other’s external to Free Software. But what I have been struck by, especially over the course of the summer, is the explosion of sites, blogs, and debates that have confronted gender in Free Software. It has been nothing short of astounding and a really positive turn.

The most notable example is this AWEEEEEEEEEEESOME pair: a wiki and a blog that confront gender head on. These are notable because the wiki, for example, catalogs all sorts of controversial events, comments on them, leaving a very visible trace of debate, one that is necessary to change the gender make-up and dynamic within Free Software project.

Along with these, the FSF is finally hosting a min-summit, which is great (less great is that participation seems invite only but perhaps they have some good reasons for doing so). And today I just learned of this diversity page coming out the Python project.

These are perfect examples of the recursive public in action raised in Chris Kelty’s work. And I have long been impressed with the dialogue that has followed from some controversial events in the world of Free Software, including those related to gender and this summer seems to be a watershed of sorts and I look forward to their developments over time.

Indeed and this may be controversial as well, but I think my academic field—of media, law, and culture –has something to learn from these gender politics for there are some very real, though probably unintentional forms of discrimination that are not under that much active discussion.

The most glaring problem is the underwhelming presence of female scholars during conferences (and as we know, conferences are exceedingly important for one’s professional development and career). What I find most striking about this trend is the number of female scholars is significant. That is, when it comes to scholars and this seems different from the world of tech, there is a sizable community of women scholars and activists so when there is a 5% female participation , as for example, with this event, one has to wonder why is it raining men at these conferences?

It also seems that while the debate exists, it is not as vibrant as with what is going on right now in F/OSS. Take for example, this recent mailing list post which unapologetically highlighted the lack of female presence in the up and coming Free Culture event at the Berkman Center.

While the post generated a handful of thoughtful responses, including this supremely classic, biting, and quite clever response from Georgetown professor Julie Cohen, the debate did not linger on (however short, the posts and discussion were quite fruitful).

What to do? Frankly, blame and finger pointing are pretty counterproductive, mostly because the “discrimination” is quite unintentional and I believe change can be brought about via more constructive paths. More important is we need to make the issue visible, identify some possible sources, and then create projects that can remedy the problem. Along with Elizabeth Stark, who has also been keen to note and change the gender problems, I am currently whipping together a wiki with a list of female scholars, leaders, and technologists as a resource for folks organizing conferences. We already have a base list (with a remarkably long list of folks) and will hopefully in the course of the next month throwing it up on the wiki. I don’t think it will ever be as cool as the Geek Feminism Wiki but it will hopefully do some good!

July 15, 2009

Coder Girl

Category: Geek,Geekitude,Gender — Biella @ 4:23 am

I seem to be on a musical/video roll, so here is another one that I am pretty sure will make most smile.
via mike r

June 6, 2009

Commemorating Alice Ramsey!!

Category: Alice Ramsey,Events,Gender — Biella @ 8:24 am

Alice’s Drive from Bengt Anderson on Vimeo.

My partner Micah is pretty good with his hands, well, so long as they are attached to a computer. Otherwise, he is a bit lost. His father, however, is a master craftsman, rebuilding old cars, making his own houses, you know, the sort of stuff that really puts me in awe.

Thanks to his efforts, his family, notably his sister Emily Anderson, are about to kick off and commemorate Alice Ramsey who in 1909, did the unconventional, which is somewhat an understatement, and drove across the United States in what then was called a horseless carriage. Apparently, she loved to race cars and took that love to trek across what were really gnarly roads and earned the distinction as the first woman to do so.

Using the same model (Maxwell Model DA) that Alice drove, one that Emily’s Dad, Richard, restored (and it is the very last one in existence!), she will be starting off the drive in just a few days.

The whole family is pretty involved, so Bengt Anderson is making a film (short clip featured above), Micah has helped with the website side of things, and the ‘rents will be in the trailer (especially since Emily just had a baby).

Anyhow, more to write about cars and this trip but thought some folks might be interested in following her across the US. I am super bummed I am not in NYC to watch her go, but I will be watching with a lot of excitement from the Internets!

May 27, 2009

Liberated and..

Category: Gender — Biella @ 10:49 am

With more vacation time, longer (paid) maternity leave, and decent and affordable child care, I am sure this scenario would be different.

April 17, 2009

Need to do some gender tracking?

Category: Gender — Biella @ 8:10 am

Here is the tool for you.