Alienating Atmosphere
February 11, 2014 11:43 PM   Subscribe

"I can't choose whether someone is offended by my actions. I can choose whether to care.. . . While I cannot be responsible for what my ancestors did, I can take responsibility to play what small part I can in cleaning up their mess." By Martin Fowler, author of many books on foundational concepts of modern software engineering.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus (18 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
thank you for finding and sharing this article
posted by infini at 2:16 AM on February 12, 2014

Clear-headed and open-hearted. I likes it.
posted by Drexen at 2:41 AM on February 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

These things matter so much. I'm willing to take risks with my hobbies that I'm not willing to take with my ability to earn a living. Belonging matters so much more in that context, because you don't get jobs, promotions, raises if you don't fit in. It can be a terrifying prospect.
posted by Sequence at 3:36 AM on February 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

This was really well-stated, and many of the people who really need to hear this won't listen to women, it's good to have men saying it.
posted by NoraReed at 4:40 AM on February 12, 2014

I breathe a little sigh of relief every time I find out that someone who's work I admire is also a decent human being.
posted by Harald74 at 5:07 AM on February 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

I value people with good ideas and don't consider the thickness of their skin. Anyone driven away from expressing innovation or writing excellent code is a loss to all of us, however unoffended we think they should be.
Hear, hear. We act like toughness in the face of unreasonable criticism or outright abuse is some kind of intrinsically valuable job skill in STEM, and it's not. It's only a requirement because of the sick culture we're perpetuating. We're driving away talented people who can't—or simply won't—tolerate such treatment.
posted by BrashTech at 5:10 AM on February 12, 2014 [13 favorites]

I was just rereading his article about dependency injection the other day. I didn't know he wrote about social patterns as well! And with diagrams no less. Great to hear as big a voice as this speak out. Excellent find!
posted by ignignokt at 5:45 AM on February 12, 2014

I am a prick and can be an intimidating bastard who always makes sure his point is heard in a technical meeting. The one thing I was truly proud of back when I worked with other people was that I would use that bullying to make sure women in the room were heard. It was stunning to me how a group of generally nice and intelligent guys could simply pave over any attempts by a woman to speak in a technical meeting. It wasn't like they were choosing to do so, it was just an atmosphere that suited them because it meant their voice was more likely to be heard. Which is why
"If you have any doubt about how ugly this can get, just peruse the comments on a blog or news entry whenever this kind of thing comes up. The bile that falls on people who criticize alienating incidents is both vile and sadly predictable."
drives me nuts. These guys who immediately rise up and start hissing are so frustrating because they are probably part of the problem and don't even know it. They think of themselves as individuals, think, "Well I'm just a worker drone with no authority and hardly anyone listens to me and management is always glad-handing me so I have it just as bad as any woman" and don't realize it's not them as individuals that are the problem, it's clumps of them, the mobs that grind down women in technical fields and then wonder what the hell her problem was.

It's doubly frustrating because I can't think of an industry that needs different viewpoints more than programming. There are only so many ways to dig a ditch*, but the six zillion shitty pieces of software you've had to fight with in your life are clear evidence there are better ways of building programs than dumping the requirements on screen as a giant form and table of data and telling the user, "Here asshole, you figure it out."

* Of course, if you were to grab a half dozen programmers in their twenties they'd have a range war about the best tooling, approach to digging and dirt removal** process without getting anything done, then take lunch.

** "Oh sure, but does it scale?"

posted by yerfatma at 5:50 AM on February 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

* Of course, if you were to grab a half dozen programmers in their twenties they'd have a range war about the best tooling, approach to digging and dirt removal** process without getting anything done, then take lunch.

Then, when it collapsed in, they'd say that was an edge case and they'll see about digging that out again in the next iteration, but maybe the user didn't want the ditch there.
posted by eriko at 6:45 AM on February 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Social justice with Entity Relationship diagrams and User Stories!

"Let's see, CBigot is a base class for CRacist, and we'll implement DoesTrolling as a mix-in ...."
posted by benito.strauss at 8:23 AM on February 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

As a bit of an aside from the HDAs described in the article, something still really resonated with me... Something I unfortunately did not discover until a few years ago:

The concept of "You have a right to feel how you feel"

I cannot even fathom the amount of times in over three decades of life that I became furious for someone being hurt/angry/upset due to something I did/said/intimated where I did not agree with why they were upset.

Even the admission of "You have a right to..." still smacks of some weird, egocentric "allowance" that I grant to people, as if they need my permission to feel a certain way, even if it's completely off base.

I cannot say, however, how important this is, especially in my relationship with my wife. She has days, just like I do, where she is dead set on being upset about something, and whether or not I necessarily agree with how upset she is, or even the fact that she is upset, she has every right to be upset, and the only two things I can do is: A) Try to understand why she is upset or B) Eliminate any judgement, and leave her alone for a while.

With regards to the article, however, I think it should be mentioned how incredibly hard it can be sometimes to think of anyone but oneself and how I am being affected by whatever is going on. Sure, I have moral and philosophical convictions, of being fair, honest, compassionate, loyal, loving, responsible, etc. etc., but the difficulty in removing myself from any equation that involves me (however negligible) can be incredibly difficult. By no means will I ever stop trying, but whether it's biological/instinctual, learned, or societal, my default is selfishness and self-centeredness.

Without fail, every time I read an article about HDAs and the privileged class, my hackles immediately start to rise. "What about me?" I think, "Why should I have to make some special exception for someone, or to fight for a change that won't even affect me? My life is hard--vet bills, kids, family, rent, career struggles, life struggles, health issues, I could increase the list ad nauseum. What's my motivation in doing anything to further equality?"

Change is hard, it doesn't matter what it is, and usually, the majority of people clamoring for change are those who will directly benefit from a change. It's not saying change isn't good or necessary, like climate change or true equality, but necessity is the mother of invention, and it's really hard to engage or motivate all but the most forward thinkers of a privileged class to do anything but have some "wishful thinking" about how the world would just be a better place if this change occurred.

The "What's in it for me?" argument can be indubitably narrow-minded and selfish, but I believe it's a fundamental part of making change. I believe that as a human being, we simply do not do things, especially unpleasant things, unless there is a concrete reward.

Having tried to live life along a different set of principles, I have felt what is in it for me. I have (although infrequently) been blessed with a sense of harmony, peace, and serenity when I spend my time thinking more about you than I do about me. When I do things for people and neither expect nor want nothing in return. But it wasn't something that I was going to voluntarily do. I had to have my hand forced, and even now, it is something I struggle with daily.

"Selfishness, self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt."
posted by Debaser626 at 9:00 AM on February 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

Having tried to live life along a different set of principles, I have felt what is in it for me. I have (although infrequently) been blessed with a sense of harmony, peace, and serenity when I spend my time thinking more about you than I do about me. When I do things for people and neither expect nor want nothing in return. But it wasn't something that I was going to voluntarily do. I had to have my hand forced, and even now, it is something I struggle with daily.

Those are good reasons. You could also make the case to yourself that you'd rather live in a world where people aren't arbitrarily oppressed on the basis of sex/gender/ethnicity/etc., because it's a more fun, more interesting, world.

In addition, if women and other "HDAs" had been allowed to learn, lead and succeed along with men from the beginning, we might have cured cancer, or colonized space, by now. Suppressing half the human race for thousands of years (more than half if you count racial suppression) has to have been an enormous drag on human achievement. That's a massive loss of intellectual and creative capital for extremely stupid and cruel reasons.

So basically; if you want your Star Trek future, then you are going to get there faster if you allow as many minds as possible to work on the problems we need to solve.
posted by emjaybee at 9:24 AM on February 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

As a white, heterosexual, university-educated son of reasonably well-off Christian parents who grew up speaking the local language, I’ve always been part of the dominant group in my hometown. I’m a software guy and have only recently finished undergrad, but I’ve already got a fair bit of relevant work experience (at two universities, a hospital and three companies in the private sector). Up until four months ago I had always found enjoyment from my tasks, but felt meh about the people around me every time – we were basically demographically identical and while I always liked a few individual coworkers, I was never really excited about the group as a whole. While I’ve never been a victim of this alienating atmosphere that Martin Fowler describes, I’ve definitely noticed that there’s something weird about the air.

Three months ago I started to work in the research and engineering department of a local producer of medical devices, as one of about 1000 employees. On one of my first days I joined a company tour and the lady who showed us around kept talking about how she liked the place so much because it really “lives diversity”. Having heard this sort of corporate talk before, I didn’t really buy it… but bloody hell was she right. The native languages spoken by the people on my team are Guajarati, Spanish, Basque, German and English; I’ve had direct contact with coworkers from Turkey, Italy, Mexico, Australia, Germany, Russia, the Czech Republic, Iran, India, Brazil, the UK, Pakistan and, of course but at a surprisingly low rate, Austria. (Maybe this sort of work environment sounds utterly normal to Americans; it definitely isn’t in this conservative part of a conservative country.) And while there are still more men than women in this part of the company, the ratio is not nearly as one-sided as it could be. The three women chatting about electrodes in the hallway are pretty much statistically inevitable. The fact that the founder and CEO is a woman could have something to do with it.

It’s absolutely brilliant not to be part of the majority simply because there is no majority. It’s so much fun to find out from the calendar in my office that it’s Otsaila, to trade recipes for dal and Kasnocken in the kitchen at lunchtime, or to see a guy standing in the middle of the electronics lab, waiting for one of the four women engineers to leave her work station. Everyone gets to feel special because they are; the alienating atmosphere simply isn’t there. I’m the only one on my team who grew up here, and I’ve never felt so comfortable. I haven’t heard a single person complain about the diversity either, and it clearly makes people more sensitive to the issue. Just this morning, a coworker complained about the objectification of women at trade fairs for electrical engineering, adding that he had never consciously realised this before he started to work here. People also don’t seem to stereotype except for some sarcasm about the places they call home (Basque man: “It says ‘terrorist’ in my passport.”; Scottish woman: “I’ve brought something special from back home!” — Scottish man: “Oooh, is it deep-fried?”).

It’s seriously the closest I’ve been to my personal utopia, if only IT didn’t block every single place on the web I visit on a regular basis. Seeing how everyone is so happy and so nice to each other, I’m now pretty sure that the only people who could ever work against diversity (even if just by deciding not to care) are those who have never had the opportunity to be part of it.
posted by wachhundfisch at 9:31 AM on February 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

I read wachhundfisch and Debaser626's comments with a leap of my heart, the ideal world I dreamed of when I first discovered the internet back in late 1995. Ah, at last, it wouldn't matter what language you spoke, your accent or your melanin content or where your passport was from because here was a place that stripped all that out of these words we write as we share our thoughts and ideas. Finally, there would be greater peace and harmony as McLuhan's global village slowly emerged to form our reality.

Then I have days where I weep with frustration at my brown skin and female form, my accent and my obvious outsider status, no matter where I wander.

I hope I am alive to see teh children play.
posted by infini at 9:40 AM on February 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think it was Blasdelb who made the comment here a year ago or so that really radically altered my understandings of why this kind of poisonous institutional discrimination is so terrible (not THAT it is terrible, but why and how it is terrible); that in order to solve the problems that are before us, we need ALL our scientists. We can't afford to turn more than half of them away. It's a loss not just to those scientists who are denied or discouraged from a seat at the table because of their gender, their race, their national origin, or their culture; it's a loss to science, and therefore to humanity.
posted by KathrynT at 10:07 AM on February 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

[A couple comments removed, maybe not so much with the veering off into "yeah but this tangentially-related person is an asshole" stuff.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:56 AM on February 12, 2014

This encapsulates narrative/criticism of this dynamic of taking criticism very personally and being unable to move forward very well from my perspective.

I work in geek industry and I see this happen with folks both from my industry and from personal life (usually when confronted by dissent from me).

From personal experience, I agree that it is incredibly difficult to move on and divorce oneself from the argument, from the dynamic, even if the point you'd be divorcing yourself would be ephemeral, tiny, insignificant. It feels like it's a lot easier to take it personally and lash out. But if you can get away from it, it feels like an epiphany to be able to be so beyond it and safe from entanglement.

I wish it were easier to communicate this experience and to communicate how good it feels to get out of the way and not be part of the problem.

I am a very community oriented guy, very touch-feely, very much a kind of person who enjoys positive feedback. But when I get out of the way of social justice, or even better when I enable and encourage it, I don't feel like I need to seek validation. I KNOW it feels good and I know why, and that's more than enough for me.

Thanks also to Debaser626 and wachhundfisch for such well presented personal stories.
posted by kalessin at 1:23 PM on February 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Good piece. Thanks, cybercoitus interruptus.
posted by homunculus at 1:07 AM on February 13, 2014

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