the agency of digital amplifiers
A friend of mine has a calm, concise, and well-contextualized overview of the latest besuffixed pseudocontroversy in the ongoing Internet sexism wars. Coming into this not from the programmer or even gamer culture but from amidst the -ism schism within the secular/atheist/skeptic communities, i see only a couple of opportunities to weigh in.
1. I think that it’s important to recognize that Richards’ tweet fell squarely into “the appropriate channels” for dealing with disruptive behavior (and, if it didn’t, that’s news to me)—not to shield it from criticism on the basis that it did but, to the contrary, to emphasize independently that it would still have been completely appropriate had it not.
That’s not to say that the conference organizers would be wrong to include a provision against “public shaming” in their code of conduct (though i’m not fully convinced that they would not), provided there still exist well-publicized channels through which infractions are to be referred. However, there is something sinister about this provision, explicitly directed as it is not toward offenders but toward their accusers. It seems premised on the model of online hate campaigns as a structural constraint that must be optimized against, rather than as a (largely internal) attitude problem to be collectively overcome.
2. We use phrases like “the Internet exploded” to capture (very well) the sensation of thousands of highly opinionated and minimally reflective people spilling their immediate reactions to an episode onto the same set of public forums set up to discuss it, with the overflow seeping into a host of others. No problem there. But we have a tendency to push this metaphor further, to deify the Internet as a retributive agent, and in the process to ignore the agency of the individuals who are directly responsible for the phenomenon.
In this respect such deification is similar to the attitude of resignation toward the misogyny, racism, transphobia, and other vile behavior that surfaces on such platforms as Reddit. While there is very much to be said for the limitations of agency in the context of widely shared beliefs, cognitive biases, and intellectual malnourishment, there is quite a difference between a destructive meteorological event and a destructive sociological one. There are, for example, social solutions.
So, while there is shame to be levied on the brogrammers who instigated this episode, there is plenty more due the hatemongers who have been perpetuating it. If we’re to adopt religious metaphors, let’s think of the Internet not as a deity but as a seance: It channels us, in perhaps unexpected but still faithful ways, and we can and should expect more of ourselves.