I am a Cranky, White, Male Feminist

Today, I was re-reading an linux.com article from 2014 by Leslie Hawthorne which had been reshared by the Linux Foundation Facebook account yesterday in honor of #GirlDay2017 (which I was regrettably unaware of until it was over). It wasn’t so much the specific content of the article that got me thinking, but instead the level of discourse that it “inspired” on the Facebook thread that pointed me there (I will not link to it as it is unpleasant and reflects poorly on The Linux Foundation, an organization which is in most circumstances largely benevolent).

In the article, Hawthorne describes the difficulties that she faced as a woman in getting involved in technology (including being dissuaded by her own family out of fear for her future social interactions). While in her case, she ultimately ended up involved in the open-source community (albeit through a roundabout journey), she explained the sexism that plagued this entire process, both casual and explicit.

What caught my attention (and drew my ire) was the response to this article. This included such thoughtful responses as “Come to my place baby, I’ll show you my computer” as well as completely tone-deaf assertions that if women really wanted to be involved in tech, they’d stick it out.

Seriously, what is wrong with some people? What could possibly compel you to “well, actually” a post about a person’s own personal experience? That part is bad enough, but to turn the conversation into a deeply creepy sexual innuendo is simply disgusting.

Let me be clear about something: I am a grey-haired, cis-gendered male of Eastern European descent. As Patrick Stewart famously said:

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I am also the parent of two young girls, one of whom is celebrating her sixth birthday today. The fact of the timing is part of what has set me off. You see, this daughter of mine is deeply interested in technology and has been since a very early age. She’s a huge fan of Star Wars, LEGOs and point-and-click adventure games. She is going to have a very different experience from Ms. Hawthorne’s growing up, because her family is far more supportive of her interests in “nerdy” pursuits.

But still I worry. No matter how supportive her family is: Will this world be willing to accept her when she’s ready to join it? How much pressure is the world at large going to put on her to follow “traditional” female roles. (By “traditional” I basically mean the set of things that were decided on in the 1940s and 1950s and suddenly became the whole history of womanhood…)

So let me make my position perfectly clear.  I am a grey-haired, cis-gendered male of Eastern European descent. I am a feminist, an ally and a human-rights advocate. If I see bigotry, sexism, racism, ageism or any other “-ism” that isn’t humanism in my workplace, around town, on social media or in the news, I will take a stand against it, I will fight it in whatever way is in my power and I will do whatever I can to make a place for women (and any other marginalized group) in the technology world.

Also, let me be absolutely clear about something: if I am interviewing two candidates for a job (any job, at my current employer or otherwise) of similar levels of suitability, I will fall on the side of hiring the woman, ethnic minority or non-cis-gendered person over a Caucasian man. No, this is not “reverse racism” or whatever privileged BS you think it is. Simply put: this is a set of people who have had to work at least twice as hard to get to the same point as their privileged Caucasion male counterpart and I am damned sure that I’m going to hire the person with that determination.

As my last point (and I honestly considered not addressing it), I want to call out the ignorant jerks who claim, quote “Computer science isn’t a social process at all, it’s a completely logical process. People interested in comp. sci. will pursue it in spite of people, not because of it. If you value building relationships more than logical systems, then clearly computer science isn’t for you.” When you say this, you are saying that this business should only permit socially-inept males into the club. So let me use some of your “completely logical process” to counter this – and I use the term extremely liberally – argument.

In computer science, we have an expression: “garbage in, garbage out”. What it essentially means is that when you write a function or program that processes data, if you feed it bad data in, you generally get bad (or worthless… or harmful…) data back out. This is however not limited to code. It is true of any complex system, which includes social and corporate culture. If the only input you have into your system design is that of egocentric, anti-social men, then the only things you can ever produce are those things that can be thought of by egocentric, anti-social men. If you want instead to have a unique, innovative idea, then you have to be willing to listen to ideas that do not fit into the narrow worldview that is currently available to you.

Pushing people away and then making assertions that “if people were pushed away so easily, then they didn’t really belong here” is the most deplorable ego-wank I can think of. You’re simultaneously disregarding someone’s potential new idea while helping to remove all of their future contributions from the available pool while at the same time making yourself feel superior because you think you’re “stronger” than they are.

To those who are reading this and might still feel that way, let me remind you of something: chances are, you were bullied as a child (I know I was). There are two kinds of people who come away from that environment. One is the type who remembers what it was like and tries their best to shield others from similar fates. The other is the type that finds a pond where they can be the big fish and then gets their “revenge” by being a bully themselves to someone else.

If you’re one of those “big fish”, let me be clear: I intend to be an osprey.

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Why not change the world?

I have always been interested in science, technology and (most of all) computers. These are things that I always loved, even though they were sometimes difficult. I loved math and science class in school; I read science-fiction and fantasy novels in all of my spare time. I was the nerdy kid at school that was bullied and mocked. It would have been so easy to just give in and be “like everyone else”. I could have stopped reading. I could have played more sports.

But I didn’t. I knew what it was that I loved. I knew that what I wanted was more important than what they wanted. Most of all, I wanted to change the world.

No one in history has ever changed the world by being what others wanted them to be. They have changed the world by daring to laugh at conventional wisdom and try something new. They have changed the world by standing up and defying that “might makes right” or that “going along to get along” is the right course of action.

This is the sentiment that drove me into my open source career. I chose this path in my life because I see it as a way to effect real change in the world. This is a change really has happened in my lifetime and continues to do so. It flies in the face of the history of business.

At its heart, the open source movement is an extension of science. Sir Isaac Newton wrote “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”. One of the greatest minds in history acknowledged that his contributions to our greater understanding came not from his sole vision but from the fact that thousands of great and lesser minds had worked together to create a world into which his particular spark could ignite change.

The philosophy of open source is the same. It is a mechanism for enabling thousands of people to work together for a common goal. Classic software development has always occurred in closed environments that jealously protect their secrets. Essentially, it has operated on the same philosophies as invention and manufacturing has over the years. It is a difficult habit to break, especially when it seems like you’re giving something up.

That is the core piece that most people have trouble grasping, in my experience. While you are giving up exclusive control, you are gaining something much more valuable: you’re expanding the base level. You are feeding those giants so that you and others can see further and strive higher still. Where once you were an inventor standing on one giant’s shoulders, now you look down and can see the truth for what it is: that giant is standing on other, bigger giants. And on it goes, all the way (“It’s giants all the way down”, to borrow from a popular joke).

Once that realization is made, things become more clear. When you stand taller and can see further, you realize that your efforts can have greater impact than you once believed. Instead of the miserly hoarding of knowledge, you can share it with the world and see what they will do with it too. It won’t always be pretty and it won’t always match your original intentions, but it will always be greater than the sum of its parts. And in a small way, you will have changed the world.

One thing that gets forgotten a lot of the time when folks talk about changing the world is that they talk about massive shifts in direction. They talk about those moments in history where you can look back and say, “There! That’s the moment when everything changed!”. There will always be a few such moments every few centuries, but the truth is that most change happens glacially.

Open source is one of those glacial changes. I don’t use that term to suggest that it moves too slowly. Rather, I chose it to evoke the immensity, inevitability, and incredible moving inertia that drives it. A glacier may take decades, centuries or millenia to move across the land, but nothing can truly stand against that oncoming tide. This is the legacy of open source: the tide of progress.

Over the last twenty-two years of Linux, we’ve seen a great many strides made in the march of progress. When people ask what I work on and I say “Linux” or “open source”, they often give me a blank look. I usually follow up with the following sentence: “Do you have a device with an on-switch that doesn’t start with the letter I? Chances are, it’s running Linux or at least some open source code”. Every time I say this, I boggle at the magnanimity of it. All those years of hard work from so many talented individuals has paid off to such a degree that open source technologies are now the default, rather than the challenger or also-ran. Moreover, it has become so ubiquitous that the public at large is using it without ever caring or needing to know about it.

In a very real way, the open source community has changed the world. It continues to do so every day. I get to be a part of that, and I won’t pretend that the idea doesn’t make me a little heady and giddy.

I started this blog entry up with the question “Why not change the world?”, but that was a little bit misleading. We’ve already succeeded. The real question has to be “How will you change it next?“.