tech punditry: stage-managed gobbledygook with an undercurrent of sexism
November 4, 2014 2:23 PM   Subscribe

The Dads of Tech – by Astra Taylor and Joanne McNeil, The Baffler
"The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house," Audre Lorde famously said, but let Clay Shirky mansplain. It "always struck me as a strange observation — even the metaphor isn't true," the tech consultant and bestselling author said at the New Yorker Festival last autumn in a debate with the novelist Jonathan Franzen. "Get ahold of the master’s hammer," and you can dismantle anything. Just consider all the people "flipping on the 'I'm gay' light on Facebook" to signal their support for marriage equality — there, Shirky declared, is a prime example of the master’s tools put to good use.

"Shirky invented the Internet and Franzen wants to shut it down," panel moderator Henry Finder mused with an air of sophisticated hyperbole. Finder said he was merely paraphrasing a festival attendee he'd overheard outside — and joked that for once in his New Yorker editing career, he didn't need fact-checkers to determine whether the story was true. He then announced with a wink that it was "maybe a little true." Heh.

via Georgina Voss's tweet via Anil Dash.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (40 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
Arguing for an opinion, in a debate where you have been invited as an expert, is not "mansplaining".
posted by thelonius at 2:34 PM on November 4, 2014 [11 favorites]


Eh, not necessarily. Remember that all male panel at that women in tech conference a month or so ago? They were invited experts, and yet, they did a ton of mansplaining.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:44 PM on November 4, 2014 [9 favorites]


In reality, the master's tools are kept off limits to women, who, in myriad ways, are discouraged and penalized for picking them up. The master has many tricks up his sleeve to prevent the dismantling of his domain, including planting seeds of self-doubt (If you don't know how to whittle and forge a hammer, how can you talk about the effect of nailing things?), contending that women are actually holding the wrong tool (That's not a hammer, it's a hair curler!), or declaring women's work inferior even when presented with a row of perfectly hammered nails (Let me show you how hammering is done, little lady!). Even the master's rhetorical tools are off limits, and this is what Shirky fails to comprehend: that a woman who follows his counsel and asserts herself or behaves arrogantly will be labeled pushy and punished for being a bitch. Shirky can cheekily call his post a "rant," but women who argue emphatically risk being dismissed as overly emotional, as proven by the perennial disparagement of women as hapless, hysterical ranters—as unreliable and melodramatic no matter how accurate and rational they actually are.
Yes, this. We think men who speak forcefully are bold and brave, we refer to their tone using words like "deeply engaged" and "passionate," and above all, we believe they are telling god's own truth. We think women who speak with similar force are unbalanced and unable to control themselves, we refer to their tone using words like "whiny," "crazy," and "shrill," and above all, we believe they're usually lying at least a little bit, even when they're just talking about their own lives. ESPECIALLY when they're talking about their own lives.

I wanted to pullquote basically the entire essay (especially the pair of paragraphs that start with "Like other disadvantaged groups..."), but this part really stuck in my craw. How beautifully clear, how cogent, and how undeniably, infuriatingly, seemingly unavoidably true. Thanks for posting, jcifa.
posted by divined by radio at 2:47 PM on November 4, 2014 [30 favorites]


We think women who speak with similar force are unbalanced and unable to control themselves, we refer to their tone using words like "whiny," "crazy," and "shrill," and above all, we believe they're usually lying at least a little bit, even when they're just talking about their own lives. ESPECIALLY when they're talking about their own lives.

Well I think she overstates how much people respect Shirky's opinion. That he speaks so loudly and so often has no connection to how much anyone listens to him. Because this describes Shirky reasonably well.

We think men who speak forcefully are bold and brave, we refer to their tone using words like "deeply engaged" and "passionate," and above all, we believe they are telling god's own truth.

Only if I don't have any way to know any better I guess. But I can only speak for myself.
posted by GuyZero at 2:54 PM on November 4, 2014


Remember that all male panel at that women in tech conference a month or so ago? They were invited experts, and yet, they did a ton of mansplaining

I did not know about that panel. What was the point of it supposed to be?
posted by thelonius at 2:55 PM on November 4, 2014


There is a lot of good stuff in this piece--thanks for posting it.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 3:25 PM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


What he said does seem to me to be a non sequiter, but "let Clay Shirky mansplain" seems to me to dilute a very useful and descriptive and recent coinage into kind of a general purpose pejorative. Is any stupid thing that a man says "mansplaining" now? Or am I missing some context here?
posted by thelonius at 3:32 PM on November 4, 2014 [9 favorites]


Arguing for an opinion, in a debate where you have been invited as an expert, is not "mansplaining".

When it's Clay Shirky and the "opinion" is the one dissected in this article? Absolutely it is. Even when it's not about his farcical gender politics, Shirky is more or less a professional mansplainer: an expert in nothing, who somehow is able to make enough expert-like noises that people treat him as if he knew things. And that the world acquiesces and grants him the role of the Provocateur Futurist Intellectual — despite his being only the first two, and not the last — is, yes, a deeply gendered phenomenon.
posted by RogerB at 3:33 PM on November 4, 2014 [11 favorites]


"In our hands, the master's tools have become ammunition in the dismantling of his house, as we set about adding an extra room or two. We have taken his tools and with them made tools that fit our individual hands, as each of us sets out to do the work we have to do....[W]e'll realize that those tools didn't belong to the master, after all. Well, they didn't belong to him all by himself. And that is one way that we gain agency, by adapting the tools we have rather than by reinventing the wheel; although the wheel is reinvented aong the way." - Mary Loving Blanchard, "Poets, Lovers, and the Master's Tools: A Conversation with Audre Lorde"
posted by Bwithh at 3:36 PM on November 4, 2014 [9 favorites]


Mmmm, yes. Pundits will often try to preserve the problem on which they proffer solutions.
posted by boo_radley at 3:42 PM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Eh, I was looking forward to reading a precision polemic, but this article's arguments are very scattershot.

Also: "for the record, tech-god Steve Jobs himself did not code"... written as if it's some shocking hidden truth when it's really well-known and celebrated. It's been widely accepted for a long time that you don't need to know how to code to help make major contributions to innovation in the tech industry. The authors are conflating a gender imbalance/male hegemony crisis in computer science and engineering with the tech industry as a whole. They're related of course but not the same thing.

I'd love to see a precise article on gender imbalance/male hegemony in the non-programming/engineering areas of the tech industry.
posted by Bwithh at 3:46 PM on November 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


thelonius: "I did not know about that panel. What was the point of it supposed to be?"

It was the Male Allies Plenary Panel at the Grace Hopper Celebration. The tone-deafness of this panel was probably overshadowed by Satya Nadella's comments at that conference. If the quotes in the linked ReadWrite article are anywhere near accurate, it seems like it was awash in mansplaining.
posted by mhum at 3:48 PM on November 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


I fully agree with Taylor and McNeil about the all difficulties when women try to use the "tools" of men.

But I agree with Shirky that I have no idea what real-world master and tools are being referred to by the aphorism "The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House." That metaphor doesn't make any sense to me.
posted by straight at 3:55 PM on November 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


Also: "for the record, tech-god Steve Jobs himself did not code"... written as if it's some shocking hidden truth when it's really well-known and celebrated.

No, she's asserting that a woman in that position would have been hassled about not being a coder in ways that Jobs never was.
posted by straight at 3:57 PM on November 4, 2014 [9 favorites]


#notallmetaphors
#notyourTool
#Mastergate
posted by the quidnunc kid at 4:01 PM on November 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


Yep, mhum has the one I meant.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:04 PM on November 4, 2014


but "let Clay Shirky mansplain" seems to me to dilute a very useful and descriptive and recent coinage into kind of a general purpose pejorative.

That boat has done sailed.
posted by localroger at 4:05 PM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Here are links to the actual New Yorker videos:

Is Technology Good For Culture? (Edited) (9 min 48 sec)
Is Technology Good For Culture? (Full) (1 hr 28 min)
posted by mhum at 4:11 PM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'd love to see a precise article on gender imbalance/male hegemony in the non-programming/engineering areas of the tech industry.

Absolutely, it's a very different issue. At my company, we have an active program seeking out female engineers. As hard as is to find engineers of any gender to hire, preferring female engineers cranks the difficulty level to 11. There just aren't that many of them.
posted by the jam at 4:20 PM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


mhum: "Is Technology Good For Culture? (Edited)"

The edited version does not have the "master's tools" commentary. Not sure I have the endurance to slog through an hour and a half of Shirky/Franzen chit-chat to find out how it actually cropped up.
posted by mhum at 4:23 PM on November 4, 2014


The piece hits notes like Ezra Klein, Nate Silver, mansplaining, "manic pixie" x, and yet almost no women technologists or technology commentators are even mentioned by name. It feels like that world of axe-grinding internet media stuff, failing to actually point to anything outside of itself. So...

Who are some women technologists with interesting views on this stuff? Sherry Turkle and Jane McGonigal come to mind as techno-pessimist/optimist commentators respectively, with whom the Shirky/Franzen debate might be restaged. Who else?
posted by batfish at 4:31 PM on November 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


And that’s tech punditry for you: simplification with an undercurrent of sexism.

I've read that lede ten times and I honestly, truly have absolutely no idea where the hell this is coming from. Like, I'm not saying that I disagree (or agree) with the notion that Shirky may be representative of a gender issue. But I see literally nothing to that effect in the preceding sentences.

Is this just eponysterical writing, or is there some context I'm missing here?
posted by graphnerd at 4:35 PM on November 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


It's true enough that:
* some tools aren't available to the marginalized
* the marginalized are often challenged when using those tools in the way the advantaged aren't
* certain tools, once they're in hand, tend to mediate the experience of those who would wield them to the point where wielders start to think like established interests (Lean In, ladies!)

But it also seems correct to say that the literal side of Lorde's metaphor has some problems, and there are examples of tools used to serve established interests that turn out to be wieldable in other ways. Shirky may be overoptimistic about the ease with which some can wield his favorite tools to talk about, but he's not strictly wrong.

Also, as far as I can tell, "the master" is, by nature, interested in all the tools, even those the subversives or counterculturalists might come think of as theirs (Dove: Real Beauty!). If the thesis embodied by Lorde's statement is strictly true, it's just another way of saying there are no tools for tearing down the house.
posted by weston at 4:38 PM on November 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


Yes, but one dreams of tools that the Master could not use without ceasing to be the Master.
posted by straight at 4:45 PM on November 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Everything is co-optable.
posted by Leon at 4:49 PM on November 4, 2014


But I agree with Shirky that I have no idea what real-world master and tools are being referred to by the aphorism "The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House." That metaphor doesn't make any sense to me.

I hadn't heard this before either. The origin seems to be this.
posted by thelonius at 5:09 PM on November 4, 2014


"Burns's love has no thorns, and she is not pollinated by insects! This metaphor doesn't make any sense."
posted by RogerB at 5:13 PM on November 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


After some skipping around, I think I found the section where the "master's tools" comment comes up. At around the 1hr, 10 min there's a question from the audience. It's one of those questions that's barely even a question and is more like an extended comment that always comes up in these Q&As. It's directed at Jonathan Franzen and I think it's about how technology is giving visibility and power to previously powerless groups, specifically in an American context aside from stuff like the Arab Spring (which the panelists were talking about earlier). The questioner doesn't mention exactly what American context he's talking about but it looks like Franzen infers that he's talking about Occupy Wall Street. Franzen goes on to mention something about how if you take the Kraussian (?) view and posit that technology is coupled with consumerism and industrial capitalism, then even though you can express more or less whatever you want within that system, by using the system you're still confirming the system. Or something, I'm not 100% sure. At this point, Franzen stumbles a bit trying to organize his thoughts. Shirky jumps in with his "master's tools" comment, which leads into some stuff about gay marriage and people on Facebook changing their statuses and all that. In context, this seems to me to be a bit off-base considering that it's general societal oppression not technology which is (was?) the main tool of the "masters" who oppose same-sex marriage. And, while I think it was off-base, I'm not sure I would characterize Shirky's comment as "mansplaining" even if the original "master's house" referred to by Audre Lorde was the patriarchy (and also racism, I think?).
posted by mhum at 5:15 PM on November 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


Audre Lorde, The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master's House [PDF] , Sister Outsider [PDF]
As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.
Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women;
those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference -- those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older -- know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support.
...
Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educated men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master's concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women -- in the face of tremendous resistance -- as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival.
This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:33 PM on November 4, 2014 [11 favorites]


Excellent article; thanks for linking to it! Lots of really great stuff in there.

(and i confess to being boggled that lorde's point is not completely self-evident, and that it's not just as obvious how chockful of mansplain shirkey is here. my hunch is that he's never actually reflected on what lorde actually meant.)
posted by skye.dancer at 7:07 PM on November 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


all champion a numbers-driven model that does not allow for qualification or uncertainty

not really a shot at the article, but referring to statistical analysis as "not allowing for uncertainty" makes me giggle a little bit. it's not really a shot at the article because the actual point I think is that a lot of people who read or cite statistics don't understand how they work either. but it seems a little unfair to people like Nate Silver and what they're actually trying to do
posted by atoxyl at 10:24 PM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


"Burns's love has no thorns, and she is not pollinated by insects! This metaphor doesn't make any sense."

Except my complaint was that this metaphor was like Burns saying his love was beautiful, like a pile of dung. "Women can't just act the same way as men and expect to be treated equally." Agreed. "That would be like trying to take a house apart with the same tools used to build it." Huh?
posted by straight at 11:31 PM on November 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


Huh?

The arresting paradox is precisely what makes the metaphor so rhetorically powerful. When you read the whole passage where it appears, it makes sense.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:58 PM on November 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


the jam: "Absolutely, it's a very different issue. At my company, we have an active program seeking out female engineers. As hard as is to find engineers of any gender to hire, preferring female engineers cranks the difficulty level to 11. There just aren't that many of them."

I have a fairly unusual job in that I do web-tech type things inside a university that isn't really 'research' per se, or directly related to university administration. We are acutely tied to the 'pipeline' of talent, as we generally cannot hire non-students.

Recruiting non-tech women is way easier than engineering students. I think women compromise our entire marketing team at this point, because hiring staff writers and graphic designers pulls from majors that aren't so imbalanced, and possibly counter-balanced. Plus it appears that all the men enrolled in marketing are falling over themselves to get into sports marketing, which we are not.

We hire women engineers when we can find them, but there's a variety of factors conspiring against us:

* undergraduate women in CS is not terribly high, maybe 20 percent of the population
* affirmative action scholarships are usually tied to GPA, and whatever net monetary and resume building gains from working for us come at the risk of losing said scholarships
* a CS curriculum that appears focused on robotics and embedded, with little emphasis on web
* operations roles that we find are best staffed from people in community college technical schools, with even worse gender ratios
posted by pwnguin at 12:39 AM on November 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


Ah, ok, folks, the master's hammer is a bunch of dudes in full armor carrying AR-15s on the back of an APC as they storm a black neighborhood.

That hammer? You ain't gettin' to use it, citizen. The Internet is not a hammer. It's a cage.
posted by spitbull at 2:59 AM on November 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


Tech pundits aren't part of the tech industry any more than war correspondents are members of the military. They're journalists. This is a sexism-in-journalism story more than a sexism-in-tech story.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 4:59 AM on November 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


I don't know. There is a cadre of tech pundits/futurologsts which for the most part I find utterly ignorable (while being jealous of their success and fame - don't overlook the more unpleasant motives in my scorn). They are mostly male, but then so's most of tech and tech journalism: I can't really detect anything special going on here. If you can produce media-friendly easy-to-swallow stuff about the future of tech, then you'll get alone fine - no matter if it's obvious, ridiculous or so defocused that it's not even wrong. Even here, I know that places like the BBC is very aware of the male dominance of its pool of punditry, but you can't book 'em if they aren't there.

The odd thing, I think, is that in the related-but-reality-based fields of anthropology and usability, there is less gender imbalance. Someone like Genevieve Bell at Intel does a lot of things that look superficially quite similar to the activities of the roving troupes of pundits (although I think her work is far more substantial and useful), but if you have a proper academic rigour and discipline to what you're prepared to talk about you're going to be less able to spout attractive bollocks.
posted by Devonian at 5:43 AM on November 5, 2014 [4 favorites]


A lot of this reads like they're reaching for agency and intent in technology where it doesn't necessarily exist. It's hard to pin down exactly (as I mentioned above, I find the piece to be vague and hard-to-follow), but it strikes me reductive to say that the techno-utopian strain of culture is a result of the related industries being male-dominated.

Is Yahoo! any more sensitive to privacy concerns with Marissa Mayer at the helm than it otherwise would be? Is Facebook less prone to delusions of false meritocracy with Sheryl Sandberg? Or even if we extend the conversation beyond simply gender, what about Apple and Tim Cook?

I think that those are unfair questions to ask (for a variety of reasons) but the article begs them. It also sidesteps what IMO is a much more reasonable explanation: that the problems outlined are the results of capitalism operating in a gold rush, and that a desire for a lack of regulation and unfounded optism emanate from there being so much money there for the taking.

(Edited with an acknowledgement of the irony of calling the authors out for being reductive while differently reducing the issue myself.)
posted by graphnerd at 5:49 AM on November 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


For reference here's Apple circa 1986...count the number of women
posted by judson at 10:55 AM on November 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


Is Yahoo! any more sensitive to privacy concerns with Marissa Mayer at the helm than it otherwise would be? Is Facebook less prone to delusions of false meritocracy with Sheryl Sandberg?

No, but it's worth pointing out that both women are known for adopting the culture of the industry as a means to move ahead in it. In fact, Sandberg has gained fame for writing a book explaining why women should do exactly that.

And I don't think it's an unfair question to ask. The tech culture has some really unhealthy aspects when it comes to diversity of thought, and it's worth asking if minority members are being made to put their own thoughts at the door if they want to advance.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:27 AM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


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