It seems to me that, at least in the United States, the degree to which males, whites and to some extent Asians are overrepresented demographically among software developers, savvy application and web power-users, and website administrators is tantamount to an apartheid system, with the attendant political and economic effects on those groups who are excluded.
Perhaps “apartheid system” is a little unfair. I believe that more than any sort of conscious plot to secure exclusive privilege, this inequity is an insidious (as in gradual) organic outgrowth of our larger, rigged system of power and opportunity for some and suppression of others.
And it is insidious (as in treacherous) because the phenomenon is just so damned deniable. “If nobody intentionally takes action to discriminate, then nobody is responsible for causing the situation, nor for fixing it. Or maybe cultural reinforcements are causing people to simply self-select themselves out of the field. Since we can see no evident mechanism of discrimination, discrimination doesn’t exist. Right?”
Given that “this is nobody’s fault” (“especially not mine”), and given that (as previously discussed in this blog) the public school system — rather than developing the true talents of every individual learner, and rather than encouraging and preparing the next generation to step up to the plate and change our world — is designed to maintain the status quo and to produce workers useful to the plutocracy, it will be up to change-makers on the grassroots level (and possibly some convivial better-funded NGOs) to address the disparities.
For this situation to change, women and people of color who break into the ranks of the digtally-savvy will need to turn right around and teach, in workshops and community-run afterschool programs, in libraries and in living rooms. And to teach not just how to use Microsoft Office effectively, but to teach the use of digital media for self-expression, political discourse, grassroots organizing, and civic engagement. To teach how these tools work, under the hood. Teach how to create and modify them. How to manage your own web server. Explain about surveillance, about the silent intrusion into our privacy that is a regular, every-day practice of our government, and the ways we can minimize our exposure to the digital means of control and suppression that are well-disguised as digital means of freedom.
Why does any of this matter?
And what does it have to do with civic engagement?
Of course, in-depth knowledge of how to create and use software and web applications does open up career-path opportunity. But the importance of these abilities runs much deeper.
Software and web designers and developers create the tools we use (and “power users” leverage them most effectively) to access, categorize, retrieve, and make sense of information and, just as important, to influence and inform and facilitate discourse and action among others. Further, as pointed out by Douglas Rushkoff in his book Program or Be Programmed, in the course of our widespread use of the internet and digital media, we are alarmingly unaware of the ways in which our consumption of content, the choices we make online, and our social network interactions are influenced, shepherded, and even controlled by the code that drives all those sites we visit. And the way that code works on us is dictated not only by the programmers who build websites, but at a higher level by the oligarchy whose interests those websites are designed to serve.
In order for communities engaged in the struggle to improve their own lot, to right the wrongs of society, to effect changes the world needs for the planet and humanity itself to survive, they must strive to become equal players in the digital field. They must take the reins and become strong partners in the design and use of that huge collective brain we call the internet. And they must maintain awareness of the ways their actions in the virtual realm might be tracked and used against them.
I first noticed the racial disparity …
…when I attended a FileMaker Developers Conference in 1999. This was my first personal encounter with a group (a large group) of developers. My immediate impression upon walking into the hotel in San Diego was that the crowd was awfully white. Having lived for such a long time in a city that boast such a rich mixture of races, I felt very uncomfortable. It seemed unnatural, and embarrassing, to be part of a gathering that drew attendees from all parts of this country (a country whose population at that time was over 12% Black and 9% Hispanic) where of a thousand faces probably 990 of them were non-Hispanic white folk.
Probably because FileMaker Pro (particularly back in those days) is marketed as an end-user tool to be purchased by companies who want their “knowledge workers” to create their own databases, and by solo business owners who wish to “roll their own” application, women are quite well represented in the world of FileMaker developers. Although I was among only two or three women who at that time had gained a sort of “guru” status amongst our peers, overall the population of women at the conference was perhaps 30 percent.
So, as a woman I did not feel odd at that San Diego hotel in 1999. But as a member of the human race, I experienced a sort of shock at the racial demographics in the opening keynote auditorium. And, over the ensuing years I was to find out, as my awareness of the broader tech universe grew, how pitifully underrepresented women actually are.
My “research” of the demographics
The gender and racial demographics of developers has remained a continuing fascination of mine. Statistics are a bit hard to come by, at least via the instant-gratification web-search channels I admittedly have pursued. But over the past couple of years, I have become a sort of collector of images of the development teams who create applications I use or evaluate:
This series of video stills shows the staff at Mozilla, from a promotional video for Firefox. The video shows an expanding community of developers and other staff involved in the creation of this very important open-source browser:
Some statistics about women in tech from HerCode magazine:
The development teams of a couple of example recent start-ups …
Here’s the IFTTT team, located in San Francisco where I believe they do have some Blacks, Latinos and even some women:
And the Missouri-based team that recently launched a somewhat similar new tool, Zapier:
The all important hacktivists
My favorite example in my visual collection of White Guys Who Do Tech is from a Washington Post slideshow entitled, so tellingly, “The rise of a new political elite”. The first slide says it all — we are not only talking about the homogeneity of some old guys who have reached a tech career pinnacle, we are talking about the upcoming generation of developers and hackers.
This first slide in the series is captioned: “It has been argued that, when it comes to political power, money is king. But the impact of white-hat and black-hat hacktivism is growing, and the language of this new movement is computer code.”
And who are these hacktivists? Just have a look at this room full of up-and-comings.
Some people are trying to even the playing field
Efforts are underway, both out on the ‘net and in local communities. There are some great examples and some not-so-great examples of attempts to open up learning opportunities and to examine and/or redress inequities in the tech world. While specific resources will be listed in a future post, I would not like to close this post with no mention that there are some people who are doing something about the situation.
What you can do…
In no particular order …
- Teach or seek out and attend free/cheap classes.
- Buddy up with a friend and teach or learn coding, web server management, or even just how to be a wise and powerful user of software and the Web.
- Are you running for office? Starting a business? Insist that your web developer work with a young intern who can learn from the exposure to the design and development process.
- Ask your nearby settlement house, grange, your church, and other community groups to create learning resources for programming and multimedia self-publication, not just for learning to use business software.
- Start a blog to be designed and maintained by a revolving group of learners.
- Seek funding from likely foundations to create a program teaching digital literacy and programming.
- Start a website that curates resources for learning to program, and info on the ins & outs of our digital world.
- Learn and teach how to build, repair and upgrade your own computer.
- Learn and teach about internet security and also risk-management protocols (such as having fresh backups of everything!).
- Don’t just volunteer to create a website and communications resources for your favorite local group — conscript a young person to shadow everything you do, and explain out loud what you are doing and why, and get them excited about the process, not just the results.
- Contribute not only to the code of open-source applications and frameworks, but also to the documentation. Is it intelligible to the average mere mortal? Can you create a “For people just starting out…” page?
- Bleeding edge techno-geek? Find the right person to receive your donation of the used but not-obsolete equipment and software you are replacing. Help that person get oriented. Make yourself available to him or her for ongoing “support calls”.
- [and feel free to add more ideas in the comments below…]