Sometimes I have the sense that several problems are bearing down on me simultaneously, and that behind the chaotic proliferation of themes and concepts there is something diagrammatic and knot-like waiting to be drawn out and exhibited. Possibly not everybody thinks this way about their own thinking — as a style of metacognition it has something in common with the tendency of people undergoing Lacanian analysis to have Lacanian dreams, to start organising their representation of unconscious processes in a way that expresses the goal of confirming what the analyst is supposed to know. I dignify my confusion with a narrative in which it is the surface tumult of a hidden process of ratiocination, which promises to deliver a result with which the other will eventually be satisfied.
First among the questions currently preoccupying me is the question of subculture. In thinking about the way the tech industry resists diversification, there’s a tendency to moralise the issue, to make it about the personal attitudes of people working within the industry, which need to be reformed through a kind of managerial pedagogy. This framing of the problem sets the stage for what we might call “privilege theatre”, that familiar set of routines through which individual privilege is identified, challenged, acknowledged, and made the subject of an exhortation to set aside the pretence of mastery and adopt a position of epistemic humility. The moral of the story is always that the addressee should suspend the authority of his own worldview, which is experientially narrow and occluded by hubris (an emotional state which indicates that we have vested interests, which get in the way of seeing clearly), and recognise the authority of the worldview of the other, which is experientally grounded and validated by sincerity (an emotional state which indicates that we have skin in the game, and are therefore closer to the truth of the situation).
There are two problems with this pedagogy. The first is that a person’s worldview is generated and constantly reinforced by the social relations in which they participate, so that while they may pay lip-service to the necessity of giving up their privileged viewpoint, in reality this viewpoint is not simply produced, and cannot simply be voluntarily set aside, by their own consciousness; rather, their consciousness is itself determined by the conditions which their worldview reflects. The most likely outcome is therefore hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance, which is typically managed by proselytising towards others. (The reason male feminists, for example, have such an atrocious reputation is that they are often proselytisers in this vein, eager to convey to all around them the paramount importance of women’s truth, but not notably proficient at valuing women as peers and comrades). The second problem is that belief in the epistemic authority of the other cannot long survive candid engagement with the other in person. What we know about ourselves, if we know ourselves at all, is that we do not wholly understand our own experience, and our worldview is a sort of confabulation which largely serves to prevent this fact from continually embarrassing us. We rely on others to show to us, through their own apparent disposition towards us, what our social identity is and what it means, and we are continually renegotiating this sense of ourselves with others around us. The demand that we treat another’s projected identity as authoritative, as representing a position of complete knowledge about who they are and what they stand for, is a demand that we treat them as oracles, rather than as shiftless and fallible social actors like ourselves. It is, finally, a sort of violence towards others to place them in a position where they have to articulate themselves as oracles in order to be seen as worthy of recognition in our eyes.
The position I think people should be taking is one of epistemic pluralism, which does not mean engaging in the pretence that you have been enlightened into abandoning your own worldview and deferring, as a matter of moral principle, to the worldview of the other. If the bad news is that this moral principle is unsustainable, the good news is that we don’t need it. What we need is to be critical of the incentive structures which bear upon us, properly curious about the incentive structures which bear upon other people, and engaged in redressing the conditions which give rise to the defects of our consciousness. In the tech industry, one of the things this means is that we need to consider our own subculture as a product of history: not the spontaneous and inevitable expression of our consciousness as hackers, but something which has formed the way all subcultures form, through a lengthy process of individuation from the surrounding cultural milieu. What has individuated itself in this way is in our case, amongst other things, a defensive crystallisation of subaltern masculinity. (I’m using “subaltern” here to mean “of diminished status”, rather than “in a position of complete exclusion from the power structure”). The resulting subculture has an intrinsic, self-reinforcing tendency to push intruders out, and to identify as intruders anybody who cannot pronounce its shibboleths or comport themselves according to its (often tacit, and sometimes strategically opaque) norms. In particular, a wide range of social competencies coded as feminine are typified as alien to it, and as evidence that the bearer of those competencies does not belong. If we see this as an artefact of our history, rather than an expression of the personality type that distinguishes a good hacker, then we have scope to reconsider: suppose for example we had instead taken the path of certain gay subcultures in which feminine-coded competencies are prized and cultivated? The point here is not to idealise the other subculture (which might harbour its own misogynies, or tacit status hierarchies), but simply to recognise that its very existence provides constructive proof that things could usefully be otherwise for us.
What I’m also suggesting, therefore, is that instead of moral pedagogy — exhortative, and focused on personal moral reform — we should practice a critical pedagogy which enables everyone in tech to look at their own history, to understand it as a history, and to evaluate their subculture comparatively, as a collection of norms and folkways and ingrained habits of perception and practice. For example: go back and re-read Jon Katz’s Voices from the Hellmouth posts, and accompanying comment threads, from the Slashdot of 1999. What cultural energies were summoned and bound in that moment? How were young programmers (such as myself, at the time) teaching each other to see themselves through such outpourings, through sharing and identifying with such an accumulation of repeated narratives of harrassment and alienation? (What, especially, were young programmers in the UK doing with these narratives, which originated within the bowels of the US high school system?). Who were we telling ourselves we were, when we produced and consumed these narratives? I’m convinced that the “hellmouth” moment cast a long shadow over tech culture, for both good (some real, shared grievances were articulated) and ill (I think it hardened a certain revanchist and triumphalist mindset, and made it easier to be callous about the impact of our “success” on the wider society). What other things have formed us, as a subculture? How essential and inevitable is it that we go on being formed by them?