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Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.


Geeks and privilege

Last night, in reaction to the BritRuby situation, I wrote a post on Facebook. People have been asking that it be placed on the public web. Well, here it is.

The reason we’re seeing such vicious anti-equality bullshit in the geek community over the BritRuby situation and other conference type stuff is because the very existence of societal inequalities (against women, racial minorities, gender/sexual minorities) threatens the whole idea that hackers got where they are because they are super-fucking-smart.

Being smart and working hard is part of it, but a lot of it is luck and privilege and getting the opportunities. A huge amount of being a good programmer is practice. My parents had the money to buy a computer when I was young. I grew up in an area where the schools had the money for computers. I’m lucky enough to have the social connections that I could learn from things like BarCamp and so on. I had the money and the motivation to get through university (and these days at £9,000 a year, I probably wouldn’t). I’m lucky enough to have had the free time to learn to code. I’m lucky that I have the social connections to find work.

Only, it’s not just luck, it’s that scary word “privilege”. Which people naturally associate with guilt. Listen, it isn’t about guilt. A lot of what we call luck boils down to us being in groups that don’t face discrimination and other problems. I don’t feel guilty about being a man but I do realise that it has certain benefits that women don’t get and certain opportunities I get that women have to fight much harder for. This doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. But denying that this is the case in order to preserve my illusions makes me an ignorant person. And, with a few modest exceptions, I generally prefer not to be ignorant.

About the privilege thing? Privilege is a weird word to use. What we’re talking about is things like not being deliberately underpaid because of your gender, or not having someone kick the shit out of you because of the gender of the person you are holding hands with, having access to a decent education… those shouldn’t really be privileges, they should be just standard, the way society is. They get called privileges precisely because not everyone actually has them even though everyone ought to have them.

The idea that the almighty brains of hackerdom aren’t where they are solely based on merit but based partly on merit and partly on luck and/or privilege threatens the fragile geek ego and challenges the “bullied-to-billionaire” (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg etc.) story the geek community likes to tell itself over and over. Again, guilt is not required. Just recognition that this is actually how the world works and having a go at actually fixing it.

If I have convinced you that terms like privilege and diversity are nothing to be scared of, you can always support the Ada Initiative who do great work in being a voice for women in technology, open source etc.