Thursday, March 8, 2012

Slashdot Posters and Social Justice

This may be the most frustrating and personal post I have yet to put up on this little blog of mine. By the time I post it, I will have agonized over it for days, figuring out what to say and how to say it. There's a good chance it might not even see the light of day at all.

Already this is taking so long that I actually have to, like, stoke the fires of rage and get myself hyped up to rant about this. That's how important I think this issue is: I am intentionally working myself into a rage just so I have the energy to finish writing this post. It's a balancing act, though: enough rage to keep myself going, but not so much that I go into a table-flipping rage and start spewing vitriolic (if heartfelt) ad hominem attacks about classist neckbearded scum-sucking privileged white techie males.

(╯°□°)╯︵ ʇopɥsɐןs

Okay, got that out of my system. Cranking it down a couple hundred notches:

I'm a geek. And a nerd. Naturally I subscribe to a few appropriate news sources, most notably Slashdot. Every morning I get a digest of stories about video games, computers, Star Trek, technology, Linux, and anything else that may interest me. Sometimes the comments are even more entertaining and informative than the article.

Other times, though, the comments are a one-way ticket to Feminist Liberal Arts Student Freak-Out Land.

Unlike, say, about 70% of the most vocal posters on Slashdot, my academic background is firmly grounded in the liberal arts. Philosophy and English [Creative Writing], if you wanted to know. It's a field that is, to put it diplomatically, often misunderstand by the vast majority of the aforementioned Slashdot posters. In their view, they are doing something productive, useful, and actively contributing to society. They design websites, write programs, manage networks, and keep servers up and running. There is a tangible result of the work they do, and there is a direct link between their work and things like office productivity.

Not so with liberal arts kids. What we do mainly seems to consist of reading books, or otherwise consuming some sort of media, and writing about it. Or we read essays other liberal arts kids have written, and then write essays explaining either why they're right or why they're wrong. The usefulness and utility of such practices isn't exactly readily apparent, and arguably there's not really any use at all. The disorderly mix of post-graduate occupations you see among liberal arts majors, if nothing else, is indicative of the initial aimlessness and confusion of the typical liberal arts grad.

I mean, after I graduated, I continued to work in retail/tourism until I found a job teaching in South Korea, and after that I'm emigrating to Sweden to either continue teaching or (knock wood) finagle a position in the study abroad program I attended myself as an undergraduate—all while continuing to work on my jewelry, of course! There's nothing you can point to in my undergraduate career and say: "This is where Kokoba learned how to do this thing she's currently doing now in her job."

To a lot of the science and engineering types who populate Slashdot, this educational model is broken and suggests that we are a clueless and uninformed bunch of space cadets. What could we possibly have to contribute? If we can't even run our own lives, then how the hell can we know anything useful, or ever be right about anything?

As it turns out, we have a lot to contribute and we know lots of things. The things techies know improve our efficiency, our technology, our material things. The things we liberal arts kids know improve much less intangible things: our relationships to others, to our communities, and to our selves. Unfortunately, that gets maligned because we can't touch it or quantify it. It gets written off as frou-frou hippie feel-good bullshit. Too often techies are quick to paint people as simply unenlightened: if someone explained the logical solution to them, they would suddenly understand why SOPA is bad or why Ron Paul is the best available presidential candidate or whatever else.

Yet try to logically explain to these most vocal of Slashdot readers why there aren't more women in tech, or why racism still exists and still needs to be talked about, or why poor people have poor dietary choices, and you hit a giant wall of white male privilege.

"It's obvious that most women just aren't interested in tech."

"Barack Obama is president now, racism is over."

"Can't afford fresh fruit? Go to school and get a better job."

I wish these were exaggerations.

Techies, you're great at technology. Really, you're super smart at what you do. But what you do has really little relevance to any sense of social literacy. What I mean is: just because you know Perl doesn't mean you know about racism. Or feminism. Or classism. You know all of those hours you've spent tinkering with your computer or coding until the wee hours of the dawn? Liberal arts kids spent reading about colonialism, body policing, and the Other. The downside is that we can't use that knowledge to then build a tangible thing with immediate use and benefit to society.

Someone needs to write a book or design a course that's something like "Privilege for Techies," and then make it required reading (or a mandatory class) at every tech school in the country. Hubris, you guys: it's not just for the Greeks! Who knows, maybe some day I'll write that book. The closest I can think of is Stephen Jay Gould's The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox, which is more about bridging the gap between humanities and the "older" sciences (biology, chemistry, etc) than the "newer" ones, but still relevant. Go, read it, and have a think over it.


  1. Oh this reminds me of a great post i read on "male privilege" - the biggest male privilege is not realizing how privileged they are! Adding that book to my must-read list!

    1. People argue that it suffers from lack of editing (the last full-length book he wrote before passing away too early), but I think it's a great read. It's frustrating that Gould's two most unifying and conciliatory books (this one and Rocks of Ages) are the ones that people like to poo-poo the most. I suppose controversy and taking sides appeals to people more than making up and playing nice!

  2. On a day, (hopefully soon) when I am not totally stressing (while still stuck at work deving websites) about needing to finish up a Regency gown and accoutrements for a TV appearance tomorrow about a historically-influenced/researched quilt I made, I’ll come up with a longer, in-depth supportive comment for you.

    Especially since I have a liberal art’s school’s BA in Computer Science (why, again?)… talk about not fitting in with the /. crowd.

    For now, I must simply say "hear her, hear her!"

    1. … and with that extraneous apostrophe, I demonstrate why I wasn’t an English major instead. *Liberal arts school’s


      But really, if RPI goes to the trouble having "professional development" classes (to teach geeks how to talk to people without weirding them out), then it seems to me they shouldn't have a problem implementing a similar program about privilege. Considering their president is, uh, a black woman...

      Hope all goes well with the magic talking box! Courage!!