12 9 / 2013

Over the last year, I have found a great community in geek feminist circles online. Resources like GeekFeminism.org, the Anarcha-Feminist Hacker Hive, and the upcoming SF hackerspace Double Union are forming and sustaining around theories of inclusion, safe space, and non-tolerance for sexual and gender harassment. I was, until now, among the founding membership of Double Union.

It’s been a rough year. No, decade. No, 40 years. GeekFeminism’s wiki maintains an indispensable timeline of incidents that documents and helps map incidents of sexist harassment going back to 1973. This weekend, two more battles made the list: TechCrunch Disrupt SF’s hackathon, the one where two separate teams demoed grotesque apps, and the Twitter storm when Pax Dickinson, the former CTO of BusinessInsider, turned his attention to the feminist response using the vilest of terms. (The link again.)

Hundreds of people are asking the kinds of questions that we hope will push the atmosphere at random tech events towards basic civility.

1. Shaming

Within this painfully evolving culture, though, I see several memes growing under the name of geek feminism. The idea, not the website. These are projects focused on collecting and profiling bad behavior, and on specifically researching and publishing the personal contact information of individual men who’ve said and done awful things. Not just theirs, but of those who know them, so that people close to them can be pressured too.

Two of Double Union’s other founding members are writing a list called “50 Sexistest Men in Tech.” You know, like “50 Sexiest Women in Tech”. They plan to present it at DU’s first public event, at Mozilla, next Tuesday the 17th.

I have read an early draft of this list. There’s some bad shit there. Dudes who are fixtures of the tech/startup world have done some awful things to women, including raping them, out of aggression, fear, dismissal, and plain denial that women are people. Even having acknowledged that, I still don’t want to share a stage with that project, because its message is that digging for dirt on the powerful will persuade the less powerful to treat me like a human being.

As a woman who really likes technology and wants to keep getting to make it, I am not okay with this. These projects are not my feminism. They are not how I believe anyone — NOT EVEN PERPETRATORS — not even, yes really, RAPISTS — should be brought to account.

I am against public doxxing for revenge. I am against making lists of people for presentation whose goal is to go back in time to single out and shame the men who’ve done us wrong.

I am against these actions because they don’t help. They form a brand of feminism as a reactionary sport built on vengefulness and hate.

So I’m leaving Double Union’s early membership circle, because that is not the feminism I wish to practice, and enough others do that I’m not comfortable inviting my other friends.

The 50 Sexistest Men project has some bittersweet value: it is impossible to fight a problem that is not documented or discussed. (Resources such as the Geek Feminism incident timeline are great for this.) It’s just not how I want to engage men — colleagues, former colleagues who’ve treated me exceptionally kindly, former colleagues who haven’t, even the sexual assailants who hurt me — not with the starting notion that fixating on the bad behavior of a named, top-50’d handful is the means to a healthier tech scene.

So on this we disagree.

2. Doxxing

Doxxing for revenge is a serious move. It is a form of psychological warfare. I’d like to think that an intimidation technique straight out of a CIA manual is not the first feminist tactic I’d reach for.

The people I know who advocate for doxxing, who research and publish personal contact details of the shitlord-of-the-week, do not stop with just that person. I have an email in my inbox asking for the cell phone numbers of the TechCrunch guys’ mothers. I do not believe that cultivating fear, powerlessness, and dread in the hearts of these people — who do, by the way, extremely fucked-up things to others using that same strategy — shows them the error of their ways.

Directing the same tactic against people who are guilty of association — like having attended the same hackerspace or having given birth — alienates the doxxed from the doxxer. It just hurts that much more.

3. Making Culture

As I meditated on the discussions that bring me here, I thought about a split between the nasty real world, where actual men are incredibly abusive in real life to actual women, and the world I want, where people treat each other with dignity and good intentions.

I worried that I was unrealistic to think in terms of what I want.

I got over it, because there is no split; the current world where people can be awful is the same place as the one where their thoughts can be turned towards treating each other well.

I thought about Sarah Sharp’s approach. She’s the Linux developer who called out Linus Torvalds specifically and personally for being an abusive egotist at the center of Linux core management. I think her actions were timely, productive, and 100% right on. Because she got a wide circle to understand what Torvalds was doing in particular, but she transformed it into a point about how open source development should be done right.

Sharp did not leave it at “Wow, Linus, you’re an asshole. Just look at what an asshole you are. Everyone see that? Awful.”

Her point, if I may be forgiven for paraphrasing, was “Wow, Linus, you’re being really abusive; here are all the ways the community is harmed by this, and here are some ways we should be doing things instead.” Her actual post is here.  

Two ideas rolled around in my head today, one by A.J. Muste, the other I learned from my parents. (I thought it was attributed to Jesus; Wikipedia says Leviticus 19:18. Prior art.)

1. There is no way to peace: peace is the way.

2. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Beliefs form the walls and roofs of shared spaces. I have spent several years involved in hackerspaces, startups, and maker culture, the one where we’re all really stoked that we can make things and spaces and jobs to our liking with our own hands. I see that at least three Double Union participants believe that shaming and doxxing are good ways to get men to work with, sympathize with, and value women. I dissent, and believe that culture can only really be changed with kindness.

01 5 / 2013

I sent this letter to Ronald Pritchard, the principal of Bartow High School, where Kiera Wilmot was expelled and criminally charged for doing a science experiment with household chemicals that blew the top off a closed soda bottle.

Please send your own version to Mr. Pritchard at ronald.pritchard@polk-fl.net.

Dear Mr. Pritchard,

I am writing to you because I heard of Kiera Wilmot’s expulsion following her science experiment. I ask that you reverse her expulsion and work to see that the charges against her are dropped.

I feel great empathy for Kiera Wilmot. I am originally from Delray Beach, Florida. As a child and then a high-school girl, I was encouraged to make science experiments using materials that adults understood to be safe. These scientific experiences was absolutely crucial to supporting my scientific reasoning abilities. If I had been punished and treated like my experimentations were criminal offenses, I would not have sustained my interest in science. 

More importantly, her expulsion and pending criminal charges are far overreaching. Charging her as though she created a dangerous explosive device will take this bright, scientifically inquisitive young woman and toss her to the bottom of our society for the rest of her life. They will also send a message to all young scientists that any interest in chemistry will be regarded as criminal intent.

If anyone wants to compare Kiera’s actions and those of domestic terrorists like the Boston bombers, the difference is: terrorists intend to harm, and they engineer their bombs to harm, and they cause harm. None of that applies to Kiera Wilmot.

Here’s the last point. As a woman, I am also among the small minority of female engineers, a group that President Obama has sought to encourage in the US engineering workforce. Kiera is one of us. She intended no harm and did no harm. Please don’t cut her out of a scientific and successful future. Please invite her back to school and drop the charges now.

Best,

Ari Lacenski

Engineer, [employer]

[my phone number]

18 1 / 2013

Lawrence Lessig writes about prosecution with the same eye for victimless trumped-up charges that we need to refocus on violent crime. I do not feel hopeful reading this, but forced into awareness: at least now more people [who weren’t already being personally bullied] know how it is stacked.

05 1 / 2013

I’m back from 29C3, with a couple days now between me and the CCH to think about what really happened there.

Mainly I feel disappointed. As I wrote in my last post, the event was dominated by two topics: an overcurrent about secret monitoring, wiretapping and circumvention, and  an undercurrent about sexual harassment.

There was no coup de grace this year, like Julian Assange up on stage introducing WikiLeaks. We’re mostly biding our time, attending to our work, shorting out our Arduinos, fighting the skirmishes but not the headline battles about information security within the US and Europe. 

Among the people I would like to think of as my crowd, though, the sexual harassment topic was the main story. On Christmas morning, I was delighted to see that they’d posted an anti-harassment policy. The CCC’s attention going into the event was beyond reproach.

This is my third Congress where I’ve volunteered — been an “angel”, they call us. Mostly I do crowd control, speaker introductions, and teardown work. This year they trained us on harassment intervention and gave us a special DECT phone number to call if anyone should come to us with a harassment issue. They printed a version of the policy on thousands of paper maps and schedules. They called it out during the opening session. I can’t think of something the organization did not do, at the outset, to say “Hey, we know this is an issue, and we are going to lead the community through it.”

It helps that the core volunteer staff are some intensely thoughtful and socially-aware individuals. It’s not just PR. It is my bias to believe that more of the volunteer staff are women and/or genderqueer than the CCC-going population, although there seemed to be about 10-15% more women overall than I recalled at 27C3. Women everywhere. You know, like the rest of the world.

When I turned up at CCH for angel orientation, I felt optimistic. Safe. Among friends. Over the next couple days, I think a few things happened that wore down those good intentions and desensitized the community.

If you’re reading this, you’ve heard of the creeper cards. You probably have an opinion about them. Hold onto it for a moment.

Edit, because I totally missed the point of this one: Within the first day of Congress, a bizarrely specific phenomenon that I can only describe as the German-sexual-harassment version of Something Awful showed up: popcccorn.de, which proudly featured the outline of a headless (and legless, hmm) naked woman done in the red cards. Ragni told me what popcccorn.de was actually about. I missed the point that its purpose was to document incidents, not to cheer them on. I really need to understand German better. Mea culpa. Thanks, Ragni. 

Personally, the parody red cards and the body outline offend me about as much as penis graffiti on a bathroom stall. It reveals that there is some stratum of male conference attendees whose egos are just too delicate to weather a discussion of other people’s basic rights.

I am seriously conflicted right now. As a queer female software engineer: harassment at that level has been a background fixture for my entire life. I am not intimidated, more just embarrassed for humanity. But as a feminist, I must acknowledge the environment that creates, and the degree to which it alienates people so badly that they walk away. As someone who tries to contribute to the Congress, I expressly do not want that in the world we’re trying to build.

I hoped for better, but it got worse:

1. My Twitter stream became an echo chamber. 140 characters (or down to 20, after you @-reply four people) is actually not much better for talking about Feminism 101 than it is for discussing revolutionary protest in Tunisia. Certain prolific Twitter users did a lot to fan the flames before much of anything had even happened. I really, really cannot overstate how much I wish that people would think about their public contribution to the zeitgeist of an issue (as I am doing right now!), and whether they are describing events as they are, or tossing off timely one-liners about an issue that’s barely gotten off the ground. Maybe someday we’ll wise up about this 140-character breakdown of coherent thought. 

2. Hacker Jeopardy went off the rails. I wasn’t there. I was working elsewhere in the building. So I don’t actually know what was said, but hearsay tells me that many specifically sexist and baiting jokes were included in the late-night game show that takes place in the biggest conference room. That was the first time oppressive behavior made the leap from the anonymous, locker-room sidelines to something dished out by someone with a microphone. I’m really disappointed in that, but don’t fully understand what came of it, what the conference did about it, and so on.

3. Asher Wolf’s breakup with Cryptoparty came at a particular point when the event was hyper-sensitized to any discussion of sexism or feminism. Without blaming Asher for timing her exit when she did, I think the fallout — especially after her site got owned and defaced, which is a failed political statement if ever there was one — transformed the discussion into an object lesson in victimization.

While this was all happening, at the event and in its shadow, other things were happening in the world. The Senate Intelligence Committee rammed through an extension to FISA, the act that authorizes basically limitless wiretapping and data collection on everyone who is or communicates with a US citizen. The SIC pretty much has Obama backed into a corner on that one, unless he magically does a 180˚ and refuses to sign it. That law has been on the books for four years, with no easy forms of public resistance, and we may get four more. It is precisely the kind of outrage that CCC is about. But we didn’t talk much about it, and we didn’t talk about the new Chinese policy on anonymous Internet access, because we were grappling with the novelty of women attending a tech conference without being shamed into silence.

By the end of the fourth day, I was quite fed up with the Congress. I’m one person, one woman in the crowd. I wanted the air to clear. I wanted us to lay our weapons down and remember why we came.

I got up on the stage to herald the closing event and said, tremulously, with a German translator, “Ladies — gentlemen — human beings. People of all genders, beliefs, ideas, and operating instructions. Thank you for coming to the twenty-ninth Chaos Communication Congress.” 

It wasn’t much, almost nothing at all, really. We weren’t supposed to mention any gender or sex-related issue at all. I took that at face value, so you can imagine my surprise when the man I was introducing, Frank Rieger, followed up with denouncing the creeper cards as part of the closing talk. So I, a random volunteer, got the message that the stage was the wrong place to speak up, but if one is sufficiently placed, that message goes in another direction entirely.

This is what I saw. Philip Steffan, who was also there, did an amazing job breaking down some of the symptoms

I will be at 30C3. Work here isn’t done. Part of it is just showing up.

29 12 / 2012

  1. US policies on data privacy are fucked up and bullshit. Coming here from the US, I feel compelled to apologize for a government that is quite so hostile to life. 
  2. Tor is pretty great and you should use it. 
  3. There exists a large minority of men who are really almost endearingly insecure about women being at this conference. No one’s getting groped, as far as I know. The creeper cards have done a lot to raise awareness to the point where people actually change their behavior. Volunteer training now includes a DECT phone number for sorting out harassment incidents. The gender-related Fail is mainly offensive now because it’s so clumsy, coming from an otherwise smart glob of humans. popcccorn.de is self-explanatory; your witty remark about women probably isn’t so witty; consider talking about anything else at all. The end!

17 12 / 2012

Okay, seriously?

On Sunday I stepped away from my laptop and put my phone in interesting-person mode to see my friends, talk to them, hug them, to discuss media frenzies and shootings that happened when we were in high school, and then to talk about nothing related at all. Somebody found a guitar and pulled up Simon and Garfunkel tabs on an iPad.

We were far away, in a well-privileged bubble, and not personally close to anyone in Newtown. While we were singing and drinking mimosas and quietly stepping through the distant grief cycle that we feel for strangers, corners of our country continued to churn in an angry circle. There were four more public shootings.

In the last 48 hours, the mainstream media conversation polarized itself around the topics of mental-health services and gun policy. Not much else is on the radar right now. You’ve probably seen this gutting post by Liza Long about having a mentally ill son who is literally a danger to himself and others. It’s worth reading, but its popularity has diverted a big chunk of the discussion into armchair diagnoses of mental illness. 

In a few corners of my social world, this woman is being absolutely pilloried for saying that she “is” Adam Lanza’s mother, in the empathetic sense. I disagree with that reading — I think it took enormous courage to put that out there, and it is not compassionate to vilify her for it. But I implore you to not conclude from it that Long is trying to diagnose or explain Lanza’s behavior. It is still inappropriate to reduce this whole conversation to a fight about stigmatizing mental illness. 

I’d like to pull attention back to the things that happened to human beings in the physical world while we were tweeting and trying to have a normal day. Four more public shootings. Copycat crimes, I want to call them1, but let’s talk about why.

What could possibly be on these people’s minds?

What anger and aggression are they working out by going down to the mall and firing fifty live rounds? (Sorry that’s a link to Fox News. I got it from the Atlantic. And hey, look, there’s our friend “lockdown” again.) The next person to offer a “self-defense” apologetic for gun ownership is invited to explain that one to me. I’m waiting.

What can I — you — what can we do now that speaks to the fullness of this rage?

I am pretty sure another Twitter fight won’t help.

1. I am not a criminal psychology expert. I am a software engineer. Most of my day-to-day writing is in JavaScript and Python, not English. I welcome constructive correction and education.

15 12 / 2012

Two shootings in one week is statistically improbable, but now we know: it can happen and it did. Not in Iraq or Syria or Israel, but in the US, where we’ve just come down from a presidential election that revealed a self-destructive mood in half the country, and settled back into the cheerless ramp-up to the holidays. 

News sites and media sites are fully occupied with examining two facets of the mirrored events: the shooters’ mental health histories and their access to guns. This happens every time. My side, the BoingBoing, HuffPo, New York Times set, has their script ready. My friends on Facebook started up the chant about military-strict gun regulation before the Fox and CNN-watching population could get out the first verse of “Guns Don’t Kill People.” Today has an extra-dark note provided by the Michigan legislature approving concealed carry in schools, barely a day ahead of the shootings. It is lost in the public display of mourning, in the river of photographs of stunned children and crushed adults.

There’s a point we’re all missing here. When we look at guns as nothing more than objects, and signs of mental illness as nothing more than pathology, we completely obscure what has already taken place in American culture. Plenty of us are already aware of bits and pieces and have sunk considerable time into their causes, but can we please connect the dots, now?

Our culture is a violent and paranoid one. We create gaping cracks in communities and barely pause to look up when people fall through them. People live in fear of losing their jobs and their livelihoods. Often they land in jail, and once you’re in that system, good luck leaving it. All around these people, we react with more and more militaristic shows of force. We — from the top down — have bought into a national narrative that prescribes correction by force for any social ill. We are a prison population. We are militarized.

I’m too young and not enough of a history scholar to pull data from before my time, but I can’t forget 1999. I was a freshman in high school. In February of that year, a man named Amadou Diallo was shot nineteen times in the Bronx, having frightened four officers who mistook his wallet for a gun. At the time it captured our whole attention as a picture of police brutality. Two months later we forgot all about it: Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold had just killed thirteen other people and then themselves at a high school in Colorado. After “tragedy”, the next word on everyone’s lips was “lockdown.” The relatively rich, mostly white schools that included mine had no script for mass emergencies. (We have one, now, but it didn’t work in Sandy Hook.) No one around me could say, yes, we know how to handle this. But the policy that surfaced over the next few days was an emergency reaction that specified locking all doors, ideally automatically, with the same system as used in fire suppression. Keeping classrooms separated, allowing no one out. I remember the word seeming nightmarish, in a separate kind of nightmare from the one that had just happened. In a shooting situation, the answer would be to turn the place into a temporary jail, and hope for the least collateral damage. 

Fast-forward two years, to 2001. A president has been chosen who possesses no leadership skills but some down-home folksy appeal. Planes come crashing; buildings burn; a city screams and a nation briefly falls to its knees. As we stumble through our wrecked consciousness and grope for progress, security is on everyone’s mind. The post-9/11 Congress creates the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration.

Military recruitment grows and anxiety reaches fever pitch. In March of ‘03, we invade Iraq.

Let’s get a couple years into the war, late into the shameful Bush presidency. American jails are overflowing as fast as their builders can build them. Many of these people are there on drug convictions, with or without violent crimes in tow. People are in jail over unpaid debts.  

Oh, and also the housing market is starting to collapse. In 2007, it hasn’t hit the headlines, because not enough affluent-seeming people have been evicted yet, but people on NPR are starting to make concerned noises about falsely rated home loans. Debt is now regarded as a commodity. In another year, the lenders — meaning the individuals at the top — who held the bag will be bailed out with public money that has already been paid by people who are losing their homes.

With all that as a backdrop, the financial market officially implodes in late 2008. The burden of personal debt shifts from an avoided fiction to a blank reality.  Joblessness reaches record highs, and we hear about young men in particular having an especially hard time finding work. 

The prison industry is a domestic growth leader in this decade. People travel to NYC to view an art exhibit about “million-dollar blocks”, or areas of Brooklyn, Baltimore and Philly where incarcerating its residents costs a million per city block. Horrific, wrenching images of US soldiers torturing Iraqis surface from Abu Ghraib prison. We’ve had a few years to shorten “Guantánamo Bay”, an offshore prison that no one ever leaves, into “Gitmo.” It’s not an extralegal war prison, folks, it’s just a clink.

Metal detectors have become normal at school gates. Airport security rules change every four months, but each time they involve a new form of screening and a beefier piece of new scanning equipment. “Stop-and-frisk” policies get a little time in the news once we hear that twenty percent of people of color have experienced being stopped and frisked with no apparent cause. “Zero-tolerance” policies on in-school violence, likewise: we begin to hear about four-year-olds being dragged out of class and handcuffed

This is what I saw as a white woman. For Muslims and Arab-looking people, American citizens and not, actually Arab and not, to pass through a security line is to gamble with the chance that one will be decreed a terrorist and, perhaps, disappear from that line.   

In 2011, the mood of deep and fragmented frustration coalesces into a single bubble: the Occupy movement is born. Late 2011 is in the colors of mass marches, pepper spray, and baton wounds. The protests in New York carry most of the headlines, but Oakland goes on the map for the biggest show of police force anywhere since 2001. There are riots and there are riot shields and tear gas and direct head shots. There are hundreds of arrests.

Underneath this current of violence, there are two parallel trends that interlock. One is the balloon expansion of the security industry. Building prisons, of course, is big business, but a prison isn’t just a building; it requires a whole mechanism between police and criminal prosecution to get people there. Police departments view their work as increasingly dangerous, and outfit themselves with new procedures and new kit. They dabble with new categories of “incident response”: protest kettles and rubber bullets and Tasers. 

This is not about technology. These items are human inventions, just like computers, cars, and guns. This trend is about our willingness to arm our police this way, to call it good security practice to train civilian cops to treat every situation as a crisis. The word “security” implies a gain in public safety, but what we’re actually seeing is a gain in armament. We have created a race condition between civilians’ ability to obtain guns and professional enforcers’ ability to use them. Security spending is great for business. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military awarded private defense contracts when they ran short on staff. Private companies, Blackwater and Greystone, were paid hundreds of millions of dollars to operate outside of both US and local law. Meanwhile, back in the US, it’s never been a better time to sell weapons and armor to local governments. 

So we have a major section of the economy devoted to the arts of subduing, criminalizing, and incarcerating people. We have a popular culture in thrall to its imagery. We have police whose jobs are justified on number of arrests made. We have recent veterans coming home with serious post-combat health problems, and little to catch them when they land. We have unemployment that peaked around 12%, and continues to paralyze inland cities. The same cities are turning up with meth problems. 

The security we DON’T have is the security of work, and of keeping our homes. We don’t have the security of health care for people in low-paying, dead-end jobs. We do have a “safety net” still, despite the right wing’s best efforts, but it’s in shreds, and there’s an unspeakable stigma attached to using it. 

We have a message that we play over and over and over to young men: that to be a man is to take what you want by force.

So I’d really like to stop talking about gun control, today. The problems we face that end in gun violence are not about the perpetrators’ ease of finding them. They’re about what happened in those people’s lives that led them to end it all in a shooting spree.

When we talk about gun control as an end in itself, we build a thousand new avenues to create criminals over gun-policy infractions, inducting them quicker into the prison system, while blanking out the conditions that drove them to be interested in obtaining one in the first place.

I still believe that gun control is one way to look at the problem, and that gun advocates cling to self-defense arguments in a baffling tantrum against reality. But we don’t get to a more civil society by arming the police like SWAT teams and then acting utterly shocked when desperate people manage to find guns too. 

We need to disarm. We need to break up with the prison-industrial complex, which means its wealthiest investors must not be named to any more federal agencies. We need to stop making guns available, but we also need to train police in doing police work without shooting. We need to have a public discourse that protects nonviolent protest. We must stop handcuffing children and teaching them that armed officers belong in a school. (I won’t write here about the drug war, but as a non-consumer of marijuana, I am extremely happy that a few states have stopped herding random stoners into court.) We need people to recognize their own agency, and to stop gutting the systems that might help them through hard times. We, Americans, need to lay our guns down now.

— By me, Ari Lacenski / @tensory, in response to shootings in Clackamas, Oregon and Sandy Hook, Connecticut.