Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

the geeks inherit the earth

Emily Bell recently argued that some hot new tech/journalism/etc. companies that are positioning themselves as radical alternatives to business-as-usual are, in the matter of hiring women and minorites, totally business-as-usual: a bunch of white guys with a slight scattering of women and minorities.

Nate Silver, one of those whom Bell was describing, didn't like her accusation: “The idea that we’re bro-y people just couldn’t be more off. We’re a bunch of weird nerds. We’re outsiders, basically. And so we have people who are gay, people of different backgrounds. I don’t know. I found the piece reaaaally, really frustrating. And that’s as much as I’ll say.”

Zeynep Tufecki has precisely the right response to Silver’s annoyance:

What happens when formerly excluded groups gain more power, like techies? They don’t just let go of their old forms of cultural capital. Yet they may be blind to how their old ways of identifying and accepting each other are exclusionary to others. They still interpret the world through their sense of status when they were “basically, outsiders.”

Most tech people don’t think of it this way, but the fact that most of them wear jeans all the time is just another example of cultural capital, an arbitrary marker that’s valued in their habitus, both to delineate it and to preserve it. Jeans are arbitrary, as arbitrary as ties....

How does that relate to the Silver’s charged defense that his team could not be “bro-y” people? Simple: among the mostly male, smart, geeky groups that most programmers and technical people come from, there is a way of existing that is, yes, often fairly exclusionary to women but not in ways that Silver and his friends recognize as male privilege. When they think of male privilege, they are thinking of “macho” jocks and have come to believe their own habitus as completely natural, all about merit, and also in opposition to macho culture. But if brogrammer culture opposes macho culture, it does not follow that brogrammer culture is automatically welcoming to other excluded groups, such as women.

I’m reminded here of a fantastic essay Freddie deBoer wrote a while back about the triumphs of geek culture, especially in its love of fantasy and SF:

Commercial dominance, at this point, is a given. What critical arbiters would you like? Is it a Best Picture Oscar for one of their movies? Can’t be. Return of the King won it in 2003. (And ten other Academy Awards. And four Golden Globes. And every other major award imaginable.) Recognition from the “literary establishment?” Again, I don’t know what that term could refer to; there are publishers and there are academics and there are book reviewers, but there is no such thing as a literary establishment. Even a cursory look at individual actors dedicated to literature will reveal that glory for sci-fi, fantasy, and graphic novels has already arrived. Turn of the century “best book” lists made ample room for J.R.R. Tolkien, Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and others. Serious book critics fall all over themselves to praise the graphic novels of Allison Bechdel and Art Spiegelman. Respect in the world of contemporary fiction? Michael Chabon, Lev Grossman, and other “literary fantasists” have earned rapturous reviews from the stuffiest critics. Penetration into university culture and academic literary analysis? English departments are choked with classes on sci-fi and genre fiction, in an effort to attract students. Popular academic conferences are held not just on fantasy or graphic novels but specifically on Joss Whedon and Batman. Peer-reviewed journals host special issues on cyberpunk and video game theory.

To the geeks, I promise: I’m not insulting you. I’m conceding the point that you have worked for so long to prove. Victory is yours. It has already been accomplished. It’s time to enjoy it, a little; to turn the critical facility away from the outside world and towards political and artistic problems within the world of geek culture; and if possible, maybe to defend and protect those endangered elements of high culture. They could use the help. It’s time for solidarity.

And this is what I’d also like to say to Nate Silver: Victory is yours. It has already been accomplished. Dude, you worked for the New York Times and you left it voluntarily — to work for ESPN, 80% of which is owned by Disney and the other 20% by Hearst. In 21st-century America, it is not possible to be any more inside than this. You cannot stick it to the Man — you are the Man. It’s best that you, and people in similar positions, realize that as soon as possible; and forego the illusion that you have some outsider status that exempts you from criticism like that presented by Emily Bell. Whether you agree with Bell’s argument or not, get used to it: you’re going to hear a lot more along those lines as long as you continue to be the Man.