Set the wayback machine for 1986. I had just checked out a book from the school library by Steven Levy entitled, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. This book, along with the 1983 Movie Wargames were major influences on the Hacker Johnny Fusion aspired to be, being presented as they were to a young, adolescent demiboy socialized as male along with all the privilege, taught ignorance, and toxic attitudes being male in the 1980s brought.
So when I read this tome I was enamored by these heroes of the computer revolution, and the misogyny and sexism went unnoticed as it aligned with what I had been taught my entire life up to that point.
I have not given my well-worn copy a re-read in a while but a tweet I saw came across my feed, and the misogyny and sexism in this work, expressed by the personalities portrayed and editorialized by the author. Consider these two passages from the book:
You would hack, and you would live by the Hacker Ethic, and you knew that horribly inefficient and wasteful things like women burned too many cycles, occupied too much memory space. “Women, even today, are considered grossly unpredictable,” one PDP-6 hacker noted, almost two decades later. “How can a hacker tolerate such an imperfect being?”Steven Levy, 1984, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Dell Publishing
And they formed an exclusively male culture. The sad fact was that there never was a star-quality female hacker. No one knows why. There were women programmers and some of them were good, but none seemed to take hacking as a holy calling the way Greenblatt, Gosper, and the others did. Even the substantial cultural bias against women getting into serious computing does not explain the utter lack of female hackers. “Cultural things are strong, but not that strong,” Gosper would later conclude, attributing the phenomenon to genetic, or “hardware,” differences.Steven Levy, 1984, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Dell Publishing
What a load of steamy piled-on bullshit! I am sorry to say that in many hackerspaces and in the tech world, this toxic misogyny is the rule, and its absence is the exception. Women must be twice as good to be given half the credit and train themselves to speak in a lower more “masculine” register as well as other changes to typical feminine characteristics to even be taken seriously in the tech world. Not because feminine traits are not serious, but because sexism is so rampant.
In this same book, Levy often talks about the Hacker Ethic as the core value of hackers, and my young, impressionable brain soaked that up and it has guided my entire hacking career and inspired the name of this blog. I always liked Levy’s 6-bullet point encapsulation of the Ethic, even if only the first two points (The Free Flow of Information & Access to Computers) seem to be universally accepted by most hackers. Which the Jargon File defines as “The belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing open-source code and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible.”
In Levy’s six-point version, the fourth point reads, “Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.” The absence of gender as a bogus criterion is a glaring omission. But given the attitudes of the subjects in Levy’s biographical work, it is easy to see why it was omitted. Also omitted is sexual orientation. But for a book written in the 80s when queer individuals were still highly discriminated against and oppressed, It is also understandable why it was omitted. So, in good hacker fashion, I have modified and distributed the Hacker Ethic with this patch and bug fix to include them whenever I write it out.
I am a hacktivist, and it is my view that we are not free until we all are free. And this means fighting for the liberation of the most oppressed and marginalized members of our society in all the intersections of their oppression. By helping those at the bottom, we help everyone and not just ourselves. “A rising tide lifts all ships” We must patch our internal source code to eliminate the bugs of discrimination, toxicity, and oppressive attitudes, and replace them with equity and justice so that in transforming ourselves, we can then transform the world into something more just and equitable for all.
One thought on “Gender is a Bogus Criterion too”
I must say, much of this essay was informed by my close friendships with women in tech who have shared their experiences navigating the tech world as women and believing them. It is not enough to just listen to women, but we must also believe them. Too often, those socialized as males tend to dismiss women’s experiences because our own privilege blinds us to this kind of discrimination. Before I was made aware, I did see these toxic attitudes in the workplace and in hacker spaces, but did not realize the impact that they had.