Closed Network

Technology may be redefining our intellectual life, but some things never change especially for women. A response to Henry Farrell.

By Jillian C. York

Tagged Feminismtechnology

The public intellectual is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. In today’s world, the stature of the public intellectual has been boosted by the rise of social media, and as Henry Farrell recently noted [“The Tech Intellectuals,” Issue #30], nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of technology. The modern “technology intellectual” is often a public intellectual in true form, eschewing the slow pace of academia for the urgency of online debate.

The rate of developments in the field all but requires a set of commentators unconstrained by the tempo of academic publishing. To take one example, the quality of the debate around last summer’s blockbuster topic—the revelations of the National Security Agency’s surveillance apparatus—was greatly enhanced by the tech intellectuals who took part in it. Activists and pundits focused their commentary on the immediate news cycle and near future; intellectuals like Bruce Schneier and Zeynep Tufekci took a broader view and investigated the long-term impact of surveillance on societies. While other fields are slowly taking to online media for debate, these spaces have served the technology community for more than a decade, making the tech intellectual in some ways a pioneer.

As Farrell so aptly argues, however, technology intellectualism runs the risk of becoming a cramped echo chamber. He notes that “[m]ost technology intellectuals agree on most things,” citing (for one) their general consensus that large corporations deserve their dominant role in the governance of online spaces. But while Farrell ably and comprehensively criticizes the echo chamber in which technology debates take place, he does so from inside that chamber, prominently displaying his own blind spot. If all you had to go by was Farrell’s piece, your image of the tech intellectual would be of a mid-to-late-career male, likely occupying the world of academia, with one foot deep in Silicon Valley. Farrell’s essay is conspicuously missing tech intellectuals of a certain stripe—namely, women. Apart from Rebecca MacKinnon, whose work is revered but whose profile was already prominent due to her prior career in journalism, Farrell fails to recognize the valuable and often-dissenting contributions made by women technology intellectuals. That oversight, from even someone as enlightened as Farrell, says a lot about the state of twenty-first-century intelligentsia.

Farrell suggests that tech culture privileges certain views and topics. Perhaps one reason for the absence of women in these discussions is that they tend to be the ones who cover and study the less popular precincts of the tech world. Take Larisa Mann, who focuses on remix cultures in places like Jamaica. Or danah boyd, whose work centers around the use of technology by teenagers. Their work and profiles fit the bill of the tech intellectual, but because their subject matter is of less interest to the media, they are left out of mainstream discussion.

But even in areas where both men and women have something to say, men somehow crowd out the women in the popular discourse. In his piece, Farrell looks beyond pop-culture tech intellectualism and into the spaces where the dark side of technology is being debated. Evgeny Morozov is surely the best-known voice on the subject (and Farrell spends a lot of time on him). Meanwhile, only a fraction of the publicity goes to prominent women like MacKinnon (whom he mentions but doesn’t discuss) as well as emerging voices such as lawyers Marcia Hofmann and Jennifer Granick, academic Biella Coleman, and journalist Quinn Norton who offer a look at the digital threats facing the world today. When it comes to the intersection of technology and policy—the space inhabited by Larry Lessig—women like Pamela Samuelson, Susan Crawford, Latanya Sweeney, and Kate Crawford provide valuable insights through their public speaking and writing. And in the mainstream media, women like The New York Times’s Jenna Wortham, The Wall Street Journal’s Julia Angwin, and Forbes’s Kashmir Hill assume the role of public intellectual when, for example, they dissect the surveillance state or the ways in which large tech corporations track their customers. And yet when one thinks of a tech intellectual, a white male is invariably the image that comes to mind.

The marginalization of women in the world of tech intellectuals is, of course, in keeping with the marginalization of women in broader intellectual discourse over the decades. The way in which these women are systematically overlooked is no different from what happened to Mary McCarthy or Diana Trilling. The byline count of women writers on op-ed pages in major publications ranges from 10 to 20 percent, even worse than the percentage of women publishing scholarly articles (a recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece put that number at 22 percent). The reason for these low numbers varies. Some opinion-page editors cite low submission rates from women, while others state that efforts to solicit articles from prominent women often fail.

There have been signs of improvement. Plenty of women are publishing on blogs and in scholarly and quasi-scholarly publications. On some mainstream media platforms, gender parity is a built-in feature: Al Jazeera English’s opinion page, for example, has tried multiple ways of ensuring equality, including having a recent two-month period when the editors aimed to have 80 percent of published pieces written by women. Similarly, The New York Times aims for balance in its “Room for Debate” op-ed section, which often features forums with technology intellectuals.

For women in the world of tech intellectuals, getting published is just the first obstacle. After publication comes promotion, and in an age of diminishing capacity at publishing houses and media outlets, that task often falls to the individual. Incessant self-promotion is the result. Jeff Jarvis, much maligned in Farrell’s article, promotes his own work heavily on social media and through speaking engagements. Some commentators—they’ll remain unnamed—send around unsolicited emails alerting recipients of articles they have just published. And even the humbler technology intellectuals, such as Ethan Zuckerman, heighten their profiles by signing up with speakers bureaus. Perhaps more than in other fields, the tech-intellectual world demands that participants be willing and eager to engage in self-promotion and to maintain a comprehensive Web presence. No longer is a mere blog or website enough; today’s public intellectual gives talks that are uploaded to YouTube, engages in debate on Twitter, and participates in Google Hangouts.

For some, these spaces are daunting, and for women, even more so. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg has posited that the dearth of women leaders is in part a result of women’s failure to “lean in,” or speak up, and that, to solve the problem, women must take “a seat at the table.” Translated to the modern world of the public intellectual, this often means joining debates on social media or other online platforms, spaces notoriously hostile to women. As journalist Laurie Penny once put it, “a woman’s opinion is the short skirt of the Internet,” describing the threats she receives on social media after publishing political pieces. Liz Heron, a tech journalist with The Wall Street Journal, has said that her social-media accounts are filled with comments about her appearance, rather than about her ideas. While the comments women receive range from the seemingly harmless to threats of physical harm, misogyny is an all too common experience and reports of women leaving social media abound.

Self-promotion on social media sometimes goes beyond the act of mere marketing and toward trolling for public arguments, a behavior some tech intellectuals, such as Morozov, are known for and adept at. But this argumentative style comes much more easily to the white, male technology intellectual, according to Tufekci, the aforementioned participant in the NSA surveillance debates who also examines the sociological elements of our online spaces. “It’s much harder and rarer,” Tufekci writes, “for [minorities and women] to either aggressively self-promote or to troll….[B]oth behaviors would make you ‘unattractive’ in that world.”

Sarah Kendzior, a writer who researches digital media in authoritarian states and is an emerging technology intellectual herself, agrees that self-promotion is a thorny issue, but believes that another element of the problem is the reception that women receive when they do engage in public debate. “[There’s] a perception that what men have to say on technology issues is inherently more informed than women,” she writes. “This perspective is reiterated by the lists and articles that only or overwhelmingly cite men as experts.”

Indeed, those “must follow” lists published by the likes of Foreign Policy, Slate, and Wired have recognized the value of the technology intellectual, but often fail to include women. In multiple categories in Wired’s must-follow list, women are excluded or tokenized. Says Kendzior: “Tokenism is considered adequate representation in the tech world. If you have one woman, that’s enough, because the perception is that there are simply fewer women writing on tech.”

In many ways, the gender bias that exists in this space is reflective of the wider gender gap in technology. Only 3 percent of California companies that got seed funding in 2010 were founded by all-women teams, while 8 percent were formed by mixed-gender groups. Twitter recently made headlines for its all-male board of directors, but it’s far from the only company to exclude women from the boardroom. Until recently, Sheryl Sandberg was the sole woman on Facebook’s board, and the existence of websites like Stop Tech Feminism demonstrates the depth of the problem, inside Silicon Valley and out.

Catherine Bracy, an emerging tech intellectual who directs programs at Code for America, gave a talk on the subject at the 2013 Personal Democracy Forum in which she noted that women in Silicon Valley make 49 cents for every dollar that men take home. Bracy has also written about the echo chamber of the Valley, remarking that the absence of diversity can lead to narrow-minded policies. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has famously defended his company’s “real name” policy by arguing that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”—a stance that all but dismisses the interests of abuse survivors, dissidents, and many others who benefit from online anonymity. Similarly, as a recent campaign by feminist groups demonstrated, the company has handled hate speech inconsistently, banning racist and homophobic organizations but failing to apply the same standards to groups whose content is abusive to women.

The first step toward solving this problem is to ensure that those in the world of tech intellectuals broaden their perspectives. This means not only including women in their reading lists, but looking outside their often-narrow worldviews toward the more critical—but perhaps less-promoted—tech intellectuals of all genders and backgrounds. There is also work to be done at the editorial level. While myriad publishing opportunities for women technology intellectuals exist, editors at tech publications are still responsible for seeking gender parity.

But the issue goes beyond mere gender parity. Homogeneity is an antecedent to groupthink. In a world where Silicon Valley and its satellites play such a large role in global governance, it is no longer acceptable to mark off these spaces as boys’ clubs. By increasing diversity in the spaces where technology is debated, we take a step toward diversifying the spaces in which it is created.

Read more about Feminismtechnology

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist who currently serves as Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus