After having checked our privilege, how shall we continue?

I’ve been privileged enough to go to a number of development conferences last year (2018). I know that I’m privileged because almost every conference had a talk or many talks making clear my privilege in attending them.

I have a job where attending conferences makes sense as part of my work and I make enough money to be able to buy my own tickets and pay for my travel and accommodation. I’m often able to combine attending a conference with catching up with friends and family. I have the ability to choose which conferences I attend based on whether they allow me to achieve other things I value in my life.

I’m lucky and well-placed in life, and if I was unaware of that then fortunately every conference will have a speaker willing to point that out to me. Sometimes for as long as an hour.

An hour that I’m not unaware that I have paid a lot of money for, an hour that I have chosen to spend listening to this talk instead of doing something that I might enjoy instead.

Often these conferences talks have no particular point they want to make beside how privileged people in tech are and how little we understand people outside our tech bubble. They have no clear or sensible strategy as to how to change what they regard as disagreeable.

Often they feel very unclear about what exactly is wrong with the privilege enjoyed by their audience. Perhaps eliminating it a worthy goal in itself.

Its certainly not clear what audience the speakers would be happy to address about the topics that might be related to the notional agenda of subject of the conference they are speaking at.

The vagaries of conference programming committee means that there will often be another talk taking about how difficult it is to be a programmer: how prone to stress and burnout we are and how we need to prioritise self-care.

We are self-absorbed and toxic, while also being fragile and in need of nurture. No talk has addressed this contradiction.

Topics such as privilege and the self-absorption of tech are potentially worthy subjects but at the end of a year, having heard variations of these talks many, many times I want to stop.

I’m happy to nurture my privilege checking and think about the technology needs of the emerging world while taking steps to create an inclusive workforce.

In return, what I would like from the conferences that I pay to attend is some attempt to deliver a programme that reflects the prospectus that is laid out when you buy a ticket to say a Javascript conference or a Python conference.

The minimum I would like to have is that in every timetable slot there is a strong technology talk that will be relevant to my work and interests, preferably something informative and provided by a technology practitioner.

If this can happen then I’ll feel as if attending the conference was a good thing in itself rather than the peg on which to hang the chance to visit places and people.


Authenticity and appropriation

I know I’m not a hacker, I don’t describe myself that way and I know its not what I do. I may indulge in hacks of both programming and other kinds but hacks do not make the hacker.

“Hack” and its derivatives are very popular though. “Hackdays”, prototypes getting described as “hacks”, and people self-identifying as “hackers”. Learning something in 24 hours is old hat now, why not just “hack” it instead.

This kind of wholesale appropriation of sub-culture is nothing new. Look at punk, hip-hop or skateboarding. In a way this theft of technologist’s jargon is a backhanded complement, a validation of its worth and validity.

Appropriation brings with it the question of authenticity. Authenticity brings with it the whole field of identity politics. It is a cascade of events that brings us to point where arguments erupt as to who is capable of determining who is truly a “hacker”.

Until recently I didn’t feel this argument has effected me very much. Since I have an instinct for people who meet the archetype of the hacker (by trade) and I don’t seek the title for myself it has felt like a fight I don’t have a dog in.

The latest wave of hacker appropriation renders a useful concept useless. As a good post-modernist I don’t weep for the hacker. The thing about all appropriated sub-cultures is that if they are going to thrive they are going to evolve; change, renew and protect themselves. Witness the rise of the “brogrammer” as way of delineating those inside and outside the tent.

However when I hear the accusation that authenticity in technology is a matter of white male privilege rather than an attempt for a community to express and recognise an identity, I think we have an argument that seems to serve no-one very well.

I’m not saying that technology communities aren’t sexist or male-dominated. They self-evidently are. Unlike a lot of communities, though, technology is something where a meritocracy can function. While meritocracies are clearly shaped by peer pressure and conventional wisdom the simple fact is that a programmer is going to evaluate the utility of a piece of code entirely on how well it serves their own needs and not the gender of the person who wrote it. In fact in an internet world of handles and shared code the real identity of the person you collaborate with is often unknown to you, an irrelevance.

“Good code” is a cultural artefact, shaped by the constitution of the community. Useful code is not.

Appropriating hacking may seem a good idea. But when you do it, dismissing criticism of the authenticity of the result is self-defeating. Anything appropriated is devalued.

Attempting to liberate or seize control of the language of technologists might seem a good idea in the name of a diverse community. But anything done without consent will result in resistance.

Let’s tackle sexism and exclusion by all means, particularly in user groups and conferences where identity is concrete.

But let’s not think that cultural politics can substitute for code contributed to and valued by the community. Let the work speak for the individual, let’s value utility, humility and modesty more than any one disputed signifier.