Diversity and the hacker scene

No matter how you slice it, the hacker scene is not a terrible diverse one. And yes, there are a few hackerspaces that are outliers. By and large there are a few certainties when walking into a hackerspace:

  • LEDs, lots of LEDs
  • Defunct 3D-printers
  • Upper-middle-class white males

Is that a problem? Yes it is, according to the hacker ethic. To quote Richard M. Stallman:

The hacker ethic refers to the feelings of right and wrong, to the ethical ideas this community of people had — that knowledge should be shared with other people who can benefit from it, and that important resources should be utilized rather than wasted.

Unless you define “other people” as upper-middle-class white dudes and the rest of  humanity as non-people, hackerspaces and hacker events clearly fail this ethic merely by their lack of diversity.  Since I am a white upper-middle-class dude myself, I am not terribly likely to figure out the fix for this since I’m quite likely to be part of the problem. Nonetheless this is about sharing a bunch of half-baked, slightly-assorted thoughts on contributing factors to the problem.

The wider IT industry

The IT industry, from which most people in the scene come from, is predominantly white and male. It certainly does not reflect the make-up of wider society. As such, this explanation falls short because the hacker scene is even less diverse than the IT industry. Which is quite an achievement in itself, albeit a rather dubious one. Strangely enough, while the IT industry is brimming with people that have finished a college degree or some other form of higher education, the hacker scene is full of people who never fit in sufficiently well with the education systems they were supposed to fit in to actually achieve this.

Technology and Western society

Western society somehow manages to turn off women from technically inclined studies and interests. If you look at the proportion of female engineering students in India, not really a bastion of gender equality, then you will notice that it is substantially higher than in Western Europe or the United States. Likewise in Latin America or the Middle East. You’ll find a higher proportion of female engineering students at an engineering school in Tehran or Ankara than in Scandinavia. If you look closer, you will notice that Southern Europe, where they invented the word machismo, already has a way higher proportion of women in engineering than North-Western Europe. But again, this does not explain why the hacker scene is way less diverse than its immediate social environment. What does amplify the already existing lack of diversity so much?

Hierarchy by confrontation

Contrary to many professed claims to equality, the hacker scene is actually rather hierarchic. And the hierarchy is mostly defined by him or her (mostly him) who does the coolest things and has the loudest mouth about it. The conversation manners are extremely confrontational. Linus Torvalds is famous for his harsh critiques on the Linux Kernel mailing list. And the higher up on the totem pole you are, the more you get away with this. Exhibit A.: hacker celebrity Jacob Appelbaum taking on some speakers at 28C3 (jump to the 57th minute):

A few observations here:

  • The two presenters are to French academics here that describe an academic analysis of (potential) weaknesses of the Tor-network;
  • Their analysis is not entirely novel in that it builds on earlier work and is to a large extent a further exploration of existing ideas;
  • Which may or may not have academic merit.

They are also outsiders of the hacker scene. Neither are they native English speakers. Jacob is an insider with an impressive resumé, both technically and politically. He is also one of the figureheads of the Tor project. He is also a native English speaker. A rather eloquent one, one must add. Pay attention to the way he invokes his authority in these matters. So there are several subtle mechanisms going on here. First we have the vehicle of meritocracy. The merits of this specific piece of research are put in doubt. Actually, it is publicly doubted that this lecture was worth having at a CCC conference in the first place. Which may, or may not be true. Doing so by confronting the lecturers publicly during their Q&A however has several decidedly un-meritocratic side-effects. Imagine for example an aspiring hacker watching this live on the internet (it was streamed) from his hacker den someplace in South-East Asia. Or closer to home, a second generation immigrant in Europe whose parents came from South-East Asia and has been raised with many of the values of that region. Including the necessity of not having to lose face. Will that person be attracted or repelled to a scene which deals with its differences of opinion in such a confrontational manner, even if lesser levels of escalation are available?

I am using this example because a video of it is easily available and as such a good illustration of the problem. We tell ourselves that we’re meritocratic, but both the way we interact with each other reveals that we have created our own little totem poles in which you may challenge authority, but be prepared for the conversation taking a nastier turn if you do so. If we apparently are fine with borderline harassing ways of dealing with differences of opinion, we probably should revisit our hacker ethic. It may just be Stallman’s ethic, not that of the wider hacker community.

Harassment or more precisely it being tolerated

Which gets me to harassment in a more nefarious form: sexual harassment. It probably is less prevalent in the hacker scene than elsewhere. For example hospital nurses are in a profession that is probably most often the victim of sexual harassment. Lower prevalence is however not good enough. If you want to be a safe zone for people, you have to walk the walk and not talk the talk. And that means socially policing behaviour that can be perceived as threatening by others. And yes, that is bloody difficult. One’s clumsiness is another one’s creepiness. Been there, done that myself. However, if you have the same dude repeatedly making female visitors of your hackerspace feel uncomfortable to such an extent that they stop visiting, it probably is time to ditch that dude. And there really are hackerspaces that don’t. Because the fellow can always be relied on when volunteers are needed. Or otherwise chips in beyond duty. It is the looking away when something goes structurally wrong that is toxic. Incidents happen. Patterns are not there to be tolerated.

Hacking as a monastic luxury and therefore privilege

Hacking in the sense of transgressive use and create of technology is by its very nature a luxury and therefore privilege. It requires not only an above average level of education, but only time and money to spend on nifty tools and getting acquainted to their use. If you serve as the conduit to a bewildering post-industrial post-modern society for your functionally illiterate parents who come from an agrarian, mostly feudal and decidedly patriarchal society, you are a lot less likely to end up tinkering with Arduinos than if you are from a suburban, upper-middle-class background. But there may be another thing to it. As I noted before, a lot of people in the hacker community, despite working in the IT industry, are university drop-outs. It could very well be the case that, despite their technical skills, being part of the hacker scene is dropping out of society in a way not unlike the medieval monks were dropping out of society. Often in pursuit of knowledge. For the monks there was the safety of the monastery. For the hackers there is the economic safety of the IT industry. Withdrawing yourself in your spare time in a hackerspace among like-minded white upper-middle-class drop-out males is just a nice way of opting out of an increasingly complex society that is having all sorts of friction caused by inequality. You withdraw into a comfortably homogeneous environment and you don’t have to deal with all that. You just hack, don’t you? And so what if there is a scarcity of females around, if those broads had the smarts to be white male upper-middle-class university dropout dudes, they’d be more than welcome, wouldn’t they?



2 thoughts on “Diversity and the hacker scene”

  1. I edited you post to fix the youtube embed. It was ridiculously large and out of format. Now it fits. There are spelling and grammar errors in there still though. You should probably draft and get another person to help edit / review before posting in the future. Cheers.

    Several concerns I personally have with your proposed argument:

    1 ) Regarding the Hacker ‘Ethic’

    I don’t think anyone gets to claim what hacker ethics are. Or what is ethical at all. There are as many schools of ethics as there are people on the planet. Probably more than that even. We’re going to come to loggerheads on what is and is not ethical because frankly we are going to disagree and no one happens to be right or wrong about what they think is good and bad. We have laws for the very reason of smoothing over our incompatible ethical views. So I think whether you want to appeal to RMS as an authority on all things hacker or not, ethics is a realm we each can agree to respect each others position on.

    2 ) Regarding Jacob Applebaum and public criticism at hacker conferences

    While I am loathe to defend Jacob Applebaum from anything, I will say this. The reason historically ( of which you may not be aware ) at least in the US, that our conferences have tended to err on the side of heavily critical is that there are a large number of people who have taken to podiums at our events to either take advantage of our technology, our community, or anything else they could for selfish reasons. From charlatans to some hacktivists and anarchists, there have been more than a few folks to stand up at a conference and try to take advantage. A war on charlatanism was famously launched by the old school attrition.org group. And there were many many people exposed, stealing work and presenting it as their own, or simply making shit up. Infosec became profitable as an emerging market and scumbags saw a chance to rip people off and make us all look like criminals in the process. So yes, our community tends to hold people to something of a high bar when presenting and with some pretty severe consequences. But the goal was to scare off charlatans not new hackers. I am not making a judgement call one way or the other. Maybe things can be handled better now. What I am saying is you are presenting a one sided argument and ignoring the historical reasons for a system in place and that’s pretty uncool.

    3 ) Sexual Harassment

    Sexual Harassment is real. No jokes about that. There are some nasty people out there in the world. And some of them do show up at our conferences and events. In fact, at Defcon you can be almost certain to find a few simply because it’s in vegas. But here’s the issue I take with addressing the concern. Of all the people who have risen to champion the cause. None have done so by doing anything more than making impassioned arguments and suggestions solutions to a problem they never quantified. Now I get that the hacker mentality predisposes us to building systems and seeing what they do because hell it’s fun and it does promote innovation FAST. But we’re messing with live systems ( these conferences and communities ). Show some responsibility and do your research first. If you are going to say we have a problem we need to address, bring numbers to the table. Talk to conference organizers. Setup reporting and surveys of communities and attendees. We can’t address a problem in an engineered fashion ( IE responsibly and safely ) without first figuring out the exact nature and scope of the problem. So, yay for you for believing in something and standing up and shouting it from the mountain tops. But how about instead of doing that you actually work towards a solution from the nitty gritty boring bottom of the problem. Figure out how many people are being harassed. Where. What is the nature of the harassment. I get some folks don’t report things… so reach out to people via surveys. At least do sampling. And I don’t mean this is sally she has a sob story. Pulling on heart strings isn’t going to buy you much with hackers or engineers. We’re pretty focused on getting shit done and ignoring all the fluff ( or bullshit ) between us and the issue. Putting this in terms a nerd can understand. You want a feature request to be approved. But, you’ve filed no bug reports, no incident reports, and you’ve tied back to none at all. Our change control review board is likely to be very unhappy with you.

    4) Your conclusion

    It’s offensive, ridiculous, supposition filled, and frankly I’d delete it from your post as it debases everything else you’ve written.

    “You withdraw into a comfortably homogeneous environment and you don’t have to deal with all that. You just hack, don’t you? And so what if there is a scarcity of females around, if those broads had the smarts to be white male upper-middle-class university dropout dudes, they’d be more than welcome, wouldn’t they?”

    seriously? are you fucking kidding me?

  2. Regarding grammar mistakes, I’d be grateful for any reports of those. Especially as a non-native speaker. As for spelling errors, I ran it through a spell-checker again and it caught exactly one that I hadn’t seen before. Also, since none bothers to blog here anymore, there’s little expectation of help in that respect.

    Regarding the hacker ethic: you can hand-wave it away by retreating in full-on moral relativism. That doesn’t take away a single iota of its value to many in the scene. There is such a thing as the hacker ethic, even though its edges may be nebulous and poorly defined. My point is not even what it should be, only that if people claim to aspire to live by it that they might walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

    Regarding a history of debunking charlatans in hacker conferences: history is bunk in this. History is not a valid excuse for hostility towards outsiders. There are graceful ways of dealing with possible charlatans and ungraceful ones. This particular example is just that: an example of a less graceful way of dealing with it and causing collateral damage in the process. It is not about Appelbaum, even though he is a scammer/liar and a user of other hackers research while taking credit.

    Demanding qualitative measurement of harassment: good call. Anything above zero is still too much though. But we indeed don’t have much in the way of data. We do know however is that the prism of DefCon is not particular helpful for the European cons. And vice versa probably. And you’re partially answering the question yourself, doing measurements in a social context is incredibly hard. That’s why the social sciences deserve way more credit than they get.

    The conclusion: oh my, did I touch a nerve there? Your response reinforces my belief that a lot of us need to be pulled out of their comfort zone. Hard.

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