Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Lesson of a Rosetta Scientist's Shirt

The New York Times just wrote a fair piece on Matt Taylor, the British Scientist from the Rosetta Mission team who showed up on the big day with the wrong shirt.

It's a heart warming story, truly. A dear friend hand-makes a fun, bold bowling shirt, for their scientist friend. The scientist decides to honor the gift by wearing it on the glorious day when their mission makes humanity's first ever landing on a comet. Wow! Hurrah for science! Hurrah for breaking down stupid stereotypes of lab coat scientists and injecting some personality in the day!

Except there is just one thing: the shirt shows, among other things, sexist images of women.

The debate is on. What exactly is wrong with the shirt? And what should be done about it?

Let's break down its many layers.

Layer #1-- Taken literally and absent of any social dynamic, the illustration on the shirt is sharply unpleasant to look at for many women. That's on a purely aesthetic basis.

Layer #2-- The shirt exists in a cultural context in which many women nurse old wounds of objectification and sexual aggression. To them, the illustration is a reminder (or an outright trigger, the case may be), which piles on the unpleasantness of Layer #1.

Layer #3-- Absent of any intent, the shirt is a reliable signal that the wearer is at least unaware of its impact on many women. Knowing that at least one man in the organization lacks that awareness suggests the place does not value developing in its members the kind of understanding of other people's perspective that's needed to work well as a diverse team. That always makes things hard when you are the underdog.

Layer #4-- The shirt opens the possibly that the wearer does in actuality love the shirt, at least in part, because it displays a woman entirely "as a heterosexual man sees her", removed from any depiction of her own agency. Granted, it's not a given that the person is an avowed misogynist. Granted, it's not at all a given that the shirt is used as a kind of twisted awareness campaign supporting objectification, let alone supporting rape culture --this shirt is not as grossly unambiguous as the ones that read "no means yes, yes means anal". But the possibility is open all the same, and that's uncomfortable.

Layer #5-- Once the possibility is open, stereotype threat kicks in. Stereotype threat can easily kill 60% of someone's performance in a controlled environment. In an organization, this means many great women will leave for an environment where the whole 100% of their creativity can express itself.

These five layers are active regardless of the wearer's intent. Here, morals of intent and morals of impact split. What exactly should we do with a very negative impact done by someone with no ill intent?

One of the best attitudes I know is Hacker School's: "[once your impact is pointed out to you], apologize, reflect for a second, and move on."

Unfortunately, Matt Taylor's case doesn't make that possible. He participated in a major cultural event, at the very same time two other large misogyny conversations are burning all over the internet: (1) gamergate and the associated terrorizing of outspoken women in the game industry. (2) the exiling of women out of computer science, out of the Valley, and in particular Uber being outed in a big way this week. It's unavoidable then that Matt would become a symbol of a greater problem. Strictly speaking, that's unfair to the individual involved. Still, when history knocks at your door, isn't it one's duty to answer it with greatness?

Friday, April 4, 2014

On Mozilla's new CEO Brendan Eich stepping down

Recall, Mozilla is not a technology company. It is a civil right organization that works in the technology space. It believes that freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and notably freedom from being spied by upon for political gain by powerful people, can only be guaranteed so long as the technologies that make up the internet remains free, open and controlled by the people -- not by corporations and not by governments.

That is its reason for existence. Everybody within Mozilla powerfully resonates with that mission, else they wouldn't be there.

When we discover that the NSA makes secret deals with private companies to insert spying code into commercial software, which is then used to spy on international leaders during world trade negotiations, the Mozilla foundation redouble its effort to construct a spying-proof browser. Call it applied technological civil right activism.

Civil rights, in essence, means defending the powerless against bullying by the powerful. Defending the poor against class war from the rich. Defending the minority against imposition by the majority.

Thus for the Mozilla Foundation and its supporting community, is it unavoidable that its leadership must be judged by the excellence of their judgement in matters of civil right. Eich failed in two ways. First by taking the heteronormative position, he participated in harming a minority (He has since apologized for that harm.) Second, by using his wealth to bend the democratic process, he participated in corrupting the one-person-per-vote principle that is so important in protecting the voice of the people against moneyed interests.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Quick personality quiz for libertarians: are you a Free Marketeer?, or a Pro-Capitalist?

A free marketeer is someone who believes that through the free flow of information, free choice and free exchanges, we will see arise a healthy, prosperous and fair society.

A pro-capitalist is someone who believes that society will, on the whole, be better-off if important decisions about society's efforts and production potential are made by the people who control a lot of monetary capital.

Both attitudes are currently flying under the banner of "Libertarianism". Yet they are very different and distinct. What's more, both claim Adam Smith for their camp, when he clearly repudiated one of them.

We can tell the two apart with the following litmus test.

Over the last eight years, 37 technology companies have come together and agreed to never hire each other's employees, since the waves of hire-rehire were raising salaries and eating into their profits. The agreement was made in secret through verbal communication between CEOs and kept off the record as much as they could manage.

Should this be illegal? And if so, how severe should the punishment be?

Under free marketeering, this is called collusion by market-controlling players to fix the free prices of the market. It amounts to wage theft and the punishment should be at least as severe as if the company had stolen the money directly from their employees' bank accounts and called it "profit."

Under pro-capitalism, the CEOs' judgement is de facto authoritative, following a conviction that if these CEOs have made this much money, certainly this is a proof of good judgement, and their calls have no need to be second-guessed. This is the view the Adam Smith abhorred.

Investigative reporter Mark Ames at Pando has been writing track of the legal action taken against the companies:

In the comments, many individuals are defending the CEOs along pro-capitalist lines. I suspect -- I worry -- that these folks think of themselves as Adam Smith-style libertarians, when they are no such thing. Perhaps they have not actually read him.

Reading "The Wealth of Nations" I found myself learning a whole lot more about the price variations of wheat and of tariffs in the 18th century than I thought I ever would. I also learned about the rampant misery and poverty then. Adam Smith largely blamed this sad affair on market collusion by heavy actors, often through cartelling to fix the free market, alternatively through lobbying and corrupting the government.

Needless to say, it was eye-opening to see the distance between the fantasy made of Adam Smith's position by the pro-capitalists with the writing of the man himself.

I would urge the honest free-marketing libertarians to speak up loudly in these cases when their ideals are being co-opted by the pro-capitalists.