The 'sympathetic male' and his discontents
Submitted by bastubis on Wed, 30/04/2008 - 17:14
I went to an academic 'do' recently in the Hallowed Halls of Oxbridge. Amongs much mutual congratulation and male bonhomie, Britain's principal authority on e-democracy divested himself of a policy recommendation that there should be a "Civic Commons" constituted as a coalition of governmental, media and civil organisations. Its function would be to bridge digital exclusion and address the crisis in democratic participation. The second respondent was a woman of clear analysis and compelling articulation—the only woman who spoke. The issue of gender was not raised by anyone at any point. The discussion revolved around whether the powers-that-be are likely to take the smallest notice of participants in such e-democracy schemes or whether these would become disconnected and marginalised talking shops for the disaffected. (I sat down in a vacant seat next to a pair of high-end civil servants who looked at me like thoroughbreds taking exception to a scruffy rodent when I smiled pleasantly at them—lending colour to a pessimistic reading.) Wine-and-weird-stuff-on-toast ensued with jolly chitchat about e-democracy. I fell into a chance discussion with a PhD student working on, of course, e-democracy. When asked what I was doing, I replied that, besides the inevitable e-democracy project, I was researching a piece on gendered discourse and homosociality in FLOSS. You'd think I'd disclosed a plot to assassinate the pope! Like a good postgrad, he launched himself manfully at my methodology. Baulked of an easy victory here, he moved onto the sure-fire charge of theoretical "essentialism", cos everyone knows that feminism is essentialist—women, being products of the natural spere are, of course, extremely essential. I reminded him that I had just told him my method was cultural-materialist—a rigorously anti-essentialist school of thought originating at Sussex—our mutual alma mater, I might add. The rapidity with which he dropped this line of attack rather confirmed that he was just fielding a one-size-fits-all critique of feminism. Next, he tried the opposite tack—I lacked a materialist analysis (moving me from empiricism to idealism). I pointed out the historicist commitment of cultural materialism. Abandoning academic modes of dissuasion, he suggested that women would be best served, instead, by building a "feminine" Linux distro so that women would feel less intimidated by technology—the current DfES party line, which is that women are equal-but-different and need to be provided with feminised technology. I pointed out that there weren't enough female kernel hackers in the world to produce a complete distro anytime this century. OK, he said, then we should ask "sensitive" men to build, say, something like a "feminine" Word for Windows. I pointed out that women use MS Word better than men do by and large, and no two women would agree on what constituted a "feminine" distro/package anyway. All the evidence suggests that women are natively a little more able around ICT tools than men. It's not the tools guys—heh, well not the ICT tools anyway ;-) I put it to him that it was actually the homosocial modes of discourse constituting the social sphere of ICT which caused women to be effectively invisible and unheard there and not some property of women themselves. By now, I could see the whites of his eyes. Horrified, he pointed out to me that publicising this analysis would "damage Linux". And why would I pick on Linux instead of proprietary software development? Well, you know, FLOSS purports to be open, community-based and non-discriminatory and I'd like to see it put its money where its mouth is. Much of what one might say about FLOSS's gender constitution would hold for the proprietary world and I would be happy to make this clear at the outset—and to compare and contrast the specificities of gendered discourse in the two fields. Why didn't I look at other forms of exclusion instead? Smiling quietly to myself at his probable reaction if I announced I would analyse middle-class exclusionary discourse instead of the gendered kind. Of course, it hadn't occured to him that the reason for social exclusion of any kind might not lie in the nature of the excluded but the tactics of the excluder. I said, disingenously: "Really, you believe any effort to make Linux develpment and usage genuinely inclusive would damage it?". He gave me a plaintive stare and implied that I would surely not want to damage my own career. I should be better off turning my attention to enhancing my publication record? Then he thought of another place he needed to be. Well, you know, my interlocutor was an open source fan who thinks RMS is "a lunatic" and so I imagine the "damage" he had in mind was of a marketing nature—that is, that it would damage the reputation of open source software in its corporate/public-sector marketplaces by re-invoking the very politicisation the open source movement sought to distance itself from and, worse, the taint of women in this hallowed haunt of wizards and gods and Masters of the Universe. Actually, I think he's right—but there's more to it than mere reputation. There have been a number of attempts to theorise what holds FLOSS' army of volunteers together and what makes them donate their valuable time. The role of homosociality in this has barely been acknowledged as such in discussion of 'reputation' and 'community' etc. Challenging this homosociality might have unpredictable effects on the very glue of FLOSS communities—and damaging FLOSS, the importance of which I strongly believe in, is very definitely not something I would wish to do. And, yet, this nettle needs to be grasped. Anyone who reads the bulletin boards and e-lists of women in ICT with their sorry litanies of bullying and exclusion will be sceptical that barbie computers are the answer. If FLOSS —and more widely ICT development itself—truly depends on the exclusion of women, given that ICT increasingly constitutes an important sphere of social involvement and knowledge, are we [women] expected to stand aside and accept it for the "public good" (or the sake of our individual careers)? Are women not constituent of 'the public'? Or has the backlash finally painted us back into the dripping cave of the classic liberal 'private' sphere?