Friday, March 29, 2013

Welcome to Neverland, Inc.

Last week at a convention for Python programmers in Santa Clara, California, where I live and teach, an attendee named Adria Richards posted a tweet complaining about the "not cool" jokes being made by the men sitting behind her (something about sexualized forks and dongles, which I am the wrong kind of nerdy to get). Her tweet included a photo, presumably of the offending man, which soon led his employer to fire him. Since then, Richards herself has been fired, as well as becoming the sadly predictable object of misogynist venom. Welcome to Silicon Valley's high-tech business culture.

Those who find excessive Richards' decisions to tweet the guy's photo and to complain to convention organizers about his comments should read her full account of the experience before embracing that conclusion. There she explains "this wasn't the first time that day I had to address this issue around harassment and gender" and wonders "How many times do I have to deal with this?" Her decisions were prompted in part by the image of a girl on the stage designed to encourage young coders, at a convention that prided itself for having the shockingly high female attendance rate of 20%. Indeed, if there is one really telling feature of the tweeted photo of the room of attendees, it's not the men who appear in it but the utter absence of women from it.

I only walked onto the Apple campus in Cupertino--otherwise known as the "Mothership"--for the first time a few weeks ago, to have lunch with my spouse, who has been serially (un)employed by the volatile Silicon Valley high-tech industry for over 15 years. I was so dazzled by the designer luxury of the campus and the deliciousness of the catered food that I compared it at the time to Oz or the Capitol of Panem. But if I'd taken a photo of the cafeteria, it would have looked just like Richards', since the population was around 85% men. Thinking about it now, it's probably more accurate to describe the campus as Neverland, the perpetual playground imagined in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, where boys never have to grow up.

It's easy to forget that Barrie's Neverland fantasy is sustained by excluding girls from it--or, in the case of the Silicon Valley version, by sustaining a boys' culture that makes women (like Adria Richards) feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. Lean In, the controversial book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (a kind of Wendy figure with privileged access to the island), suggests instead that the relative absence of women is the result of their choice not to work hard enough to reach high-powered positions: they "lean out," in her language. If you read Kate Losse's compelling feminist takedown of Sandberg's argument (based on her own five-year experience working for Facebook, eventually as Zuckerberg's ghostwriter--the Tinkerbell to his Peter Pan), you start to wonder if women aren't leaning out so much as they're simply abandoning the island, leaving the mothership, because they've finally heard one too many stupid dongle jokes.

Losse rightly calls out Sandberg's vision as a kind of business feminism that doesn't look much different from regular boys' business for girls; as she says, Lean In "teaches women more about how to serve their companies than it teaches companies about how to be fairer places for women to work." Losse seems to be holding out for something closer to a feminist business. But there may be an even bigger problem than this, since Silicon Valley's tech industry isn't just Neverland--it's Neverland, Inc., a place where Peter Pan CEOs carry out corporate-centered policies and politics that are bad for all workers.

According to Losse, here is a thing that Mark Zuckerberg actually said: "the best thing to do now, if you want to change the world, is to start a company. It’s the best model for getting things done and bringing your vision to the world." And what vision might Zuckerberg want to bring to the world with his company? According to a report that circulated only days after the Santa Clara Python convention, he'd like to start a SuperPAC, led by hardcore Republican strategists Jon Lerner and Rob Jesmer, to influence federal policy on issues such as immigration. The commenters on the SFGate story recognize what the article itself does not: this is almost certainly about easing up on H-1B visas to allow more cheap tech workers into the area from abroad, a move that would reduce labor costs and thus create conditions for greater company profits.

Joanna Biggs, who reviewed both Sandberg's and Losse's books for the LRB, describes Zuckerberg's company-as-country model:
Private companies don’t need to worry about getting elected or breaking laws like old-fashioned, unwieldy nation states do. Facebook’s unencumbered, efficient, agile, hackerish style is to make everything seem ‘easy’ – and when you need, in one of Zuckerberg’s favourite phrases, to ‘move fast and break things’, you just shrug. You just shrug when you change the site’s privacy settings overnight to capture lucrative personal information and make Facebook’s IPO one of the biggest in Silicon Valley.
And you just shrug when you lay off workers to replace them with offshore or newly imported counterparts brought in to reduce costs. These are the econo-politics, concealed behind the presence of volleyball courts and fine fusion cuisine in the campus cafeteria, that Sandberg is asking women to lean in to. Instead of leaning in, shouldn't we be pushing back, pressing against this logic and vision? Guys like Zuckerberg--including his prototype Steve Jobs and his predecessor Larry Page--are characters of fascination and adulation in Silicon Valley even when they're openly ridiculed and despised. And the companies they've created are likewise imagined as corporate utopias filled with free food, bicycles, and the dress code of a boys' birthday party at Laser Quest. But the politics hiding behind these supposed corporate utopias are both anti-feminist and anti-worker. Maybe what we really need aren't just feminist businesses, but a feminist economy, before Zuckerberg and other boy oligarchs (think Bill Gates mansplaining education to teachers) turn us into the United States of Neverland.

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