It’s kind of a shitty time to be having Ada Lovelace Day, what with the continuing #gamergate bullshit and Kathy Sierra’s recent departure from twitter. Every time I check for news updates online–which is getting to be less and less often–someone is getting death threats, someone is leaving her career, and the internet is continuing on exactly as it was. So today I think it’s appropriate to celebrate the contribution of women who’ve left online life or the technology field as a whole.
Reading Kathy Sierra’s post about leaving twitter made me intensely angry. That someone like weev is given the power to chase someone like Ms. Sierra away from anything is infuriating. Sierra has been contributing to the betterment of technology and the internet for decades. She’s helped who-knows-how-many people, and in doing so had a hand in giving us better tools, standards, and techniques. Weev has done jack shit, and in addition to being useless, he’s a piece of human garbage. People like Sierra create a platform and people like weev use it to drive them away.
But that’s what the internet is. If you’re not a member of the dominant demographic, you exist here at its pleasure. Knowing you have just as much right to be here–more right, in the cases of Sierra and so many other people in minority groups who were important contributors and have been chased away–doesn’t change shit. This is their internet and it always has been.
When I was a teenager, leading the volunteers for a GeoCities neighborhood, there was a guy in his twenties I’d chat with. He started out as a volunteer in my neighborhood and the chatting was professional, but he started flirting with me and at some point sent me a mixtape in the mail. I was interested in the mixtape and in talking about music, but he wanted things to get sexy and I wasn’t into it. At some point I told him to stop. He responded by moving his site to a different neighborhood (note: I know how silly all this sounds in the context of GeoCities and cybersex, but this was the 90s and the whole internet was pretty cheesy). Eventually he became leader of the volunteer efforts there, and started saying silly things about how his was the cool music neighborhood and the one I worked on/had my site on was lame or something, but mine remained the more desirable music neighborhood because it had originally been the only one.
I didn’t think much of any of this. I’d been online for less than a year at this point, and GeoCities was only my second online community. I expected that the whole internet would be mostly reading weird stuff, sitting in chatrooms with other teenagers, doing HTML, and helping other people do theirs. I’d been leading the volunteer group a few months when this dude, in a meeting of volunteer leaders, told the GeoCities employees who oversaw us that I shouldn’t be in charge because I was just a teenager. He had no seniority over me, no paid role in the company, and no justification for the relevance of my age; they replaced me with him immediately.
Things like that happened a few more times before a clear picture emerged: white men run the internet, white men run technology, and whatever place you imagine your work has earned you in either, white men can snap their fingers and take it away.
The internet is much more diverse than it was in the nineties, of course. But though the original white, male shitbags make up less of it, they retain their supremacy, and the unspoken reality is that it’s still their internet. Why does 4chan still exist? Because it’s theirs. Any challenge to its “right” to exist will be met with cries of censorship. And censorship on the internet is a far worse crime than hate speech, death threats, or nearly anything else, because the latter set rarely targets those same original white, male shitbags.
What troubles me is that it isn’t only white men. It takes an internet of billions to hold us back. There is currently no way to participate online without being complicit. We hate what happened to Ms. Sierra but we don’t want the government spying on us, so we have to back the EFF even though they back weev. We hate rape but we like WikiLeaks, so we have to back Julian Assange. We hate labor abuses but we need our toilet paper delivered next-day without having to leave the house, so we have to back Amazon. We hate institutionalized income inequality but we like Node, so we have to back Walmart. We hate the environmental impact of electronics planned to be obsolete after a year, but we can’t do our work without the latest version of OSX, so we have to back Apple. I could go on for fucking weeks. Even if we directly support none of these things, they can use our open source work. They can learn from our blog posts and conference talks.
I’ve seen direct and implied statements to the tune of “We are all Kathy Sierra,” meaning we all lose when a troll wins. While I agree we all lose, I think we have ourselves to blame. While we support the systems that support him, we are all weev.
But so. It’s Ada Lovelace Day and we’re supposed to talk about the women in technology who’ve inspired us. The women who inspire me are those who’ve taken the frightening step of lessening their culpability by decreasing their participation. While it’s courageous to remain in tech/on the internet and try to make it a better place, you can’t get around the compromise in doing so. By remaining in those systems, we award them importance. The more we say we must stay and fight to exist in these systems, the more we imply that we can’t exist without them, that they are ultimately good and necessary. And they aren’t. What is good and necessary in them exists because the shitbags allow it to, and is a side-effect.
My decades-long, non-scientific survey of the internet says that little of what we’re getting from technology is vital, let alone doing objective good in the world. The internet is mostly entertainment, shopping, and marketing. Most of the shopping isn’t done by people with limited mobility. Most of the entertainment isn’t educational. The trade-off for this wealth of pornography, shoes, gadgets, and cat pictures is ascribing necessity to a system wherein people like weev have inordinate power. That is: giving too much importance to a mostly-useless thing provides a place for mostly-useless people to flourish. Can it also give power to the powerless? Sure. For instance, many of us are better informed about Ferguson than we’d be otherwise. But also look at how the people of Ferguson remain under attack despite twitter’s attention, while on other parts of twitter death threats are driving individual female gamers from their homes. When the real world comes to the internet for help, it doesn’t provide much. On the other hand, for an abstract thing, the internet excels at causing fear, suicide, and violence in the real world. Whatever our good intentions about our technology work, this is what it enables.
To leave these worlds behind is to chip away at the source of their power: our belief in their power. We don’t need the startup industry to create technology. We don’t need to be on twitter to talk to our friends. I hold out hope that we’ll eventually have a second technology industry, maybe even a second internet, one where ethics go beyond babywords like “be nice” and are fully-formed and at the core of our participation. The ones we have now, however, are fucked, dangerous, and a waste of everyone’s time. I think Ada Lovelace would be pissed to see her work lead to a place where shitbags like weev are respected and exalted, and I think it’s time for more of us to be pissed at what our participation is enabling, as well.