Gabriella Coleman

Tyranny of Structurelessness?

So for those who are not in the hacker world, there has been a series of bombshell accusations of sexual assault made against a prominent hacker. I am writing this post as I have seen others here (here being Facebook but I have also taken my response off Facebook) blaming the tyranny of structureless for the assaults, and/or for the fact that action was not taken immediately.

From my vantage point, it was precisely because an organization, Tor, did something about it that laudable action was taken, leading to a host of other groups and organizations in the hacker world to take a stand. While there are, to be sure, major and rather particular issues with gender and diversity in the hacker world, this case, in my estimation is worth learning a bit about because the outcome has been thus far admirable. The swift outcome sits in contrast with many universities who refuse to take any action with their serial harassers. I am posting a longish response (which has many links to the case/and victim stories) which offers some thoughts on what has happened in the last few weeks:
I am going to start this post with two quotes from the victims:

“Lastly, I would like to say that I’ve never been prouder to work for The Tor Project, as their recent actions to stand against abuse have set nothing short of an exemplary model for other organisations.” Isis Agora Lovecruft

“Shari’s response, and the response of other leaders and members of our community, has been fair and appropriate. I am proud that our community confronted a difficult problem honestly and with strength.” Alison Macrina

I’ve opened with just to emphasize that Tor did deal with it. Tor is an organization, so I am not sure how the tyranny of structureless applies. There are so many hacker organizations from the Chaos Computer Club to conferences, to free and open source software projects that—despite the entrenched stereotypes to the contrary, which I can’t seem to dislodge no matter how hard I try—are structured.

And it is precisely because they are stable organizations that action was taken in this case and in fact, many projects in the last five years have (finally) issued long overdue strongly worded codes of conduct with zero tolerance for this sort of bull shit, awful behavior.

Sadly some of the most salient aspects of this case don’t strike me as unique to hackers but have to do with the toxicity and power of celebrity figures and the cowardice of institutions to take a stand against them.

Let’s take the very disturbing case, that of Jian Ghomeshi–a famous radio personality well known to every Canadian because he was CBC’s star host. Now, it was well known there was a problem with harassment and assault. There was a CBC employee who complained and CBC did JACK FUCKING SHIT. It took a major story in the Toronto Star for the CBC to give him the boot.

The minor point here I am trying to make is that many (perhaps not all but many) of these dynamics are in no way unique to hackers. It is fucking hard to take a stand against a powerful, manipulative, and celebrity figure whether he is a journalist, a hacker, politician, or an academic.

What I find fascinating about this case is how, once the complaints were finally levied in Tor, action was taken relatively swiftly by Shari Steele, Tor’s current executive director. Obviously the most important decision was for the women speak up and share their stories. I can only imagine how hard it was to take that first step.

But let’s not discount the role of Tor acting: This decision was pivotal as well. It is well known that various universities refuse to do anything with professors who are serial harasses. Administrators quietly reprimand the accused professor and life goes on to the detriment of all. One of the most prominent feminist professors, Sara Ahmed, recently resigned from her post at Goldsmith’s to protest her universities cowardly refusal to act in the face of countless credible accusations.

Just when I finished writing this, I stumbled on this article Hundreds Of Professors Sign Letter Condemning Yale Philosopher, which is a good example of Yale’s refusal to do much of anything against an ethics (yes . . . ethics) philosophy professor who preyed on young undergraduates, most of them minority students. But at least the philosophy profs refused to stay silent on this matter and perhaps issuing this denouncement just might force the university to do something.

In contrast we have a case where the action was relatively swift and decisive once it became widely known.

It is why the victims, Isis and Alison, quoted above, praised Tor and stood by what Tor did for them, links to their stories below.

Once he was forced to resign, it signaled to people less familiar with the situation that unacceptable infractions had transpired and this sort of behavior would not be tolerated. This came in conjunction with powerful, first hand anonymous accounts also published at the same time.

And then what happened?

Well there were all sorts of responses, as you would expect. There were accusations of character smearing. Some people on Twitter bemoaned the “lack” of due process and sadly were unable to stand by the anonymous accounts. Conspiracy theories mushroomed (please read Alison’s and Isis accounts as they address this fallacy of due process really, really well).

But rather swiftly numerous organizations and groups, notably the Cult of the Dead Cow and not long after the hacker space Noisebridge kicked Jacob out. CDC took action when the accusations were still largely anonymous. Two of the most important hacker groups acted very very quickly.

Then Leigh Honeywell wrote a powerful piece with her name. It was followed by Alison’s and then Isis’ powerful first person accounts.

These accounts were also game changers. After these pieces were published the CCC tweeted that Jacob had been dis-invited to their events.Not long after, And Debian also gave him the boot. Another vivid, first person account was published by Violet Blue.

Sure, I was not thrilled that people had to de-anonymize themselves to be believed and said so but I am still proud that these groups took a stand and they should be commended for it.

Just to circle back to my earlier point, I don’t see this as a issue of the tyranny of structureless (and again there were, thankfully structured projects that booted him out, which relayed to the wider community that something was amiss) but a deep and entrenched problem with sexual assault and predators and manipulation. If anything, I think the larger issue may have to do with a toxic combination of tolerating celebrity/asshole behavior, along with perhaps personality disorder issues and manipulation (but I am not going to speak to this now, especially since I am not a medical professional but I do know something about them and they are awfully destructive).

It is not easy and was not easy for the women to speak up. I have known Jacob for 10 + years and it was only when the woman came forward in the Tor project that I had ever heard these specific sexual assault accusations. The problem of how to speak up against your assailant is as tough as it comes. Many were intimidated. From the sounds it there were a small circle of people who had shared stories for years but by and large, it was contained.

Once the specific stories were published—I was heartened that many people and groups chose to support the victims.

I also want to make clear that I am not writing to put the hacker community on some pedestal. My understanding is that when the very first revelations were made to Tor, there were many bumps and bruises and some collateral damage. Tor’s first blog post on JA’s resignation was anemic and tepid and they were forced, thankfully, to write something more substantial. I am not privy to everything that happened behind the scenes. Most glaringly problematic behavior was tolerated for way too long. I am sure things could have been handled differently, earlier, and better. And perhaps those closest to these events might eventually offer us some valuable insights about what could have been done differently.

Still, in the aftermath it has been great to all the support and see posts like this amazingly detailed and insightful piece, No more rock stars: how to stop abuse in tech communities, by Leigh Honeywell, Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora, which provides a pragmatic guide for how to empower communities so as to help prevent this scenario from manifesting in the future.

Honestly when the news broke, I braced myself for the worst. But by and large the community has responded in ways that I am quite proud of. The hacker scene is a far flung, diverse, international network composed of stable groups, projects, and ad hoc and informal associations and many many countless individuals. Of course, there is going to be some degree of structureless because it is a movement, a scene. There is no center of gravity. Not everything can be solved via an institutional process. But what this case has shown is that when people dare speak up, when people dare to support the victims, and when institutions dare take a stand, some degree of positive change can be catalyzed.

I hope others will learn from what this case (and the many responses/reflection to the case) have to offer.