Archive for October, 2012

angelina jolie

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

Happy Ada Lovelace Day! If you live under a rock, on Ada Lovelace Day you’re supposed to blog about women who’ve inspired you in STEM careers. And so you might be asking yourself, why the fuck are we talking about Angelina Jolie?

The answer, of course, is the seminal American film Hackers. Angelina Jolie plays Acid Burn, a 1337 h4x0r living in New York City. It was the first movie I’d ever seen Ms. Jolie in and thus, for me, she ever since has remained Acid Burn. I felt scared for Acid Burn when she was in the mental institution, and I was like fuck yeah when Acid Burn had to fight those mummies or whatever, and when Acid Burn settled down and stopped marrying strange men and became a UN ambassador and started adopting kids as a single mom cause fuck it, she wasn’t gonna wait around for some dude to help her live her life, I was like clearly this is what cool hacker chicks grow up to do. Not really. But kind of. Angelina Jolie’s career or life choices is not what I want to talk about, though. I just want to talk about that one role.

Here’s the thing about Acid Burn: she’s different than the female geeks we normally get in these movies. The first thing her character does in the movie is meet the nominal protagonist on a server they’ve both hacked into and completely pwn his shit. Ergo, she is the better hacker. But does that mean she’s some delicate little wallflower in a lab coat? Fuck no. She’s socially outgoing, an opinionated feminist, effortlessly cool, and (obviously) totally bangin’. She’s the type of high school girl who dates older dudes with motorcycles and throws killer parties in her mom’s apartment where she’s torn between wanting to make out with her dude and wanting to show her nerd friends her crispy-in-the-dark new laptop. Which is to say, a type of high school girl who has probably never existed, but the great thing is that as a high school girl watching the movie, you would not be aware of that.

The first rule Acid Burn breaks is being the smartest. The group of hackers featured aren’t even in the same league. Zero Cool, the protagonist, is ok, but he’s rusty, and he’s a total baby where Acid Burn is a grown-ass woman. In other geek classics, The Girl might be smart, but she’s never playing on the same field as the male protagonist. She’s at technical college, but she knits sweaters. She wears a lab coat, but she’s a psychologist who works with fuzzy bunnies. Not Acid Burn. She plays the same game and does it better.

The second rule she breaks is not being a victim. At the end, when the time comes to hack the Gibson, she’s right there with her nerdbros in her phonebooth. She is not the helpless executive with the easily-guessed password. She is not the foolish n00b who attracts the attention of the FBI. And, in contrast to Zero Cool, she didn’t spend her childhood banned from using a modem cause of some arrogant bullshit. She’s fully fucking profesh and she comes to the rescue of others, not the other way around.

The third rule is the most problematic, to use the vernacular, but is also central to the success of this character as a role model: she’s desirable. In Real Genius the hero is after some science groupie. In Revenge of the Nerds we’re supposed to root for the dude who tricks a hot cheerleader into having sex in a bouncy castle. If a nerd girl is going to be sexy, she has to fully realize the hot librarian stereotype, take off the glasses, shake out the updo, and shockingly reveal herself as physically beautiful. Acid Burn doesn’t get a makeover. She puts on a dress for some dude, but goddamn if he is not going to be subject to the same uncomfortable outfit. I think this is huge. Not only is she good enough the way she is, but she gets to be smart and capable and mature and the hottest girl in school. Teenage girls are full of little hormones. Telling teenage girls that to be a badass hacker you have to sacrifice your chance to get with Johnny Lee Miller loses you at least 85% of your potential audience, by my scientific estimation.

Is it shitty that we ask girls to consider their desirability before any of those other traits? Yep. But we can’t override years of social conditioning with a reasonable argument about a teenage girl’s inherent value as a person and right to respect herself. I think anyone who’s ever been a teenage girl, even one with a subscription to Sassy, can verify that for you. It sucks that the difference between Acid Burn and all those other nerd girls in those other movies is just that Angelina Jolie is gorgeous, and that it reinforces the idea that only beautiful women can do what they want. Ultimately, though, I’ll take one beautiful woman doing what she wants over lots of ordinary women being mostly ignored. And, frankly, the insinuations of the latter about women’s value is no less problematic.

The fourth rule Acid Burn breaks is being flawed. Though teenage girls might want to date someone in college, we in the audience all know it’s a mistake for Acid Burn to be with some motorcycle-riding douchenozzle who merely sees her as his little cheerleader when she could be hittin’ it with Zero Cool, who thinks she hung the damn moon. She’s the best hacker in the school, true, but she’s also pretty fucking cocky. And throwing parties while your mom’s out of town might make you feel cool for that evening, but come on. Those kids aren’t your real friends. She’s not the main character, but she still gets a real human personality, and even though the character is played by an adult, the mistakes she makes are ones a lot of kids could easily recognize as their own (although seeing them as actual mistakes might require the benefit of hindsight).

So those things. I was 14 and sitting in a small-town movie theater with a creepy older guy seeing those things and thinking to myself, I want to be this woman. Learning computer science will make me cool and boys will like me. It will give me some control over the world around me. If I become a 1337 h4x0r I will, in effect, become Angelina Jolie. At 14 I didn’t have any of the real, awesome role models I do now. I didn’t know one other girl who was into computers. I only started considering it many years later, but Acid Burn, in all her flagrant ridiculousness, was crucial in helping me envision a place for myself in this world.

These posts are, I think, supposed to be about real women, balancing real lives with often unglamorous work. I think I’m supposed to say that someone inspired me to find a noble purpose for myself and my talents (or, as I’d put it, my proclivity for breaking things down into sets of instructions). So this may be a little more real than I’m supposed to be, and it is not the most progressive thing I’ve ever written. But it’s honest. There are real women who did hard, under-appreciated work who instilled in me a belief that computer science was noble and beautiful and that I could be a part of it. They came later, though. I found them only because of an absurd fantasy of a female programmer. One that, at 14, I very much needed. She seemed like the right place to start. I’d like to thank Angelina Jolie for not portraying her as a passive sex kitten or a helpless wallflower, but as a Bitch Who Runs Shit. It’s legitimately possible that I wouldn’t be here without her.

you keep using that word

Monday, October 15th, 2012

I keep seeing the word “meritocracy” pop up, mostly in discussions that seem to have stemmed from Faruk AteĊŸ’ “A primer on sexism in the tech industry”. Do yourself a favor, don’t go googling. It’s the same shit:
“Sexism isn’t real because I’m a woman and no one did the sexism to me!”
“Women resent being treated as women instead of being evaluated solely on their capabilities!”
“You’re a sexist moron!”
“Some people called me a sexist moron after my moronic sexist blog post and it hurt my little feelings and I’m leaving the internet!”
“You GUYS, remember this is supposed to be a meritocracy.”

Except no. No it fucking isn’t. Because a meritocracy is not a real thing. It is a joke.

The word meritocracy comes from a political satire. It was never meant to be something we should aspire to. It was the opposite, actually, a warning about how we rationalize what we believe we’ve “earned”. If that sentence doesn’t seem to you applicable to the tech industry and our cyclical discussions about sexism, racism, and even occasionally classism, go get yourself another cup of coffee.

There’s some dumb bullshit in one of the current crop of reaction posts waxing poetic about “hacker culture,” and its freedom of speech and lack of PC dogma. Hacker culture was a bunch of white dudes. Hacker culture is a great example of a meritocracy. Some of the most privileged of the privileged got together and formed a community around the idea that they were smarter than everyone else. They created an arbitrary set of metrics for membership and according to their metrics, they triumphed. This was the first time in the history of the world white men had experienced the elation of peer recognition.

A meritocracy is not a system for locating and rewarding the best of the best. If it were, the “best of the best” in almost every goddamned industry or group on the planet would not be a clump of white men. I’m having trouble finding good stats on this, but white men are something like 8% of the world’s population. When you go to a fucking conference and you look around at all the white dudes, do you really honestly think, “Wow! What a bizarre fucking statistical anomaly it is that basically everyone with the special magic gift of computer programming happened to be born into a teeny tiny little demographic sliver of the population”? Of course you don’t. You don’t think about it. You focus on telling yourself that you’re supposed to be there, because you’re so fucking smart, and if other people were as smart or, if you prefer, they were “technically inclined,” they could be there just as easily.

A meritocracy is a system for centralizing authority in the hands of those who already have it, and ensuring that authority is only distributed to others like them or those who aren’t but are willing to play by their rules.

Somebody on twitter told me that when the computer industry was overwhelmingly female, it was due to merit. I think that makes a really good counterpoint to this meritocracy bullshit. Because no, it was not due to merit. Merit didn’t fucking enter into it. Most of those women had no experience in the industry and – even if we accept the lol-worthy premise that merit can be objectively measured – there was no way to evaluate their merit as computer scientists. That’s not to say we shouldn’t use that as a template. We absolutely should. Those women had jobs and were happy to have them. They worked hard. Those who stood out did so because they had demonstrated that their work was good (through their work, not through their savvy) and because standing out and advancing the field was necessary to their work. I would rather work with a roomful of those women than with the arrogant, privileged brats our industry too often recognizes “merit” in these days.

If we met the utopian ideal we toss around in blog posts, we’d still have lots of middle-aged women in this field. We’d have black people. We’d have Asian people – not a smattering, but a majority, cause the world is mostly Asian people. We’d have an even ratio of men and women. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned after sixteen years in this career, it’s that if a middle-class white boy who literally never had a job before getting a sweet internship at some cutting edge technology company can eventually, through practice, become a passable computer programmer, anyone can do it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned after thirty-three years of being alive, it’s that if you see middle-class white boys flocking in droves to a particular career path, it’s a pretty fucking easy job and you should try and get yourself one like that.

I guess that’s a little mean. Sorry, middle-class white boys. I’m not calling you dumb. I’m calling you soft. I’m calling myself soft, also, and everyone else who works in this field. What a meritocracy really protects us from is challenge. If we don’t even allow most people through the gates, we don’t have to worry that we might pale in comparison to them (pun intended). There will always be a place for us in an industry we keep others out of. That’s why we should seek out diversity – because the lack of it makes us weak.

If you give a shit about this industry’s goals beyond making yourself look smart and cool, for fuck’s sake, stop calling it a meritocracy.