— a letter from 2015 about toxic “good guy” culture in tech.
Hi, it’s July 5, 2017. I’ve been re-reading “The Fire Next Time” and the world has been learning about the weird, sexist, racist culture in venture capital funding and the terrible things that have happened in the startup culture it has made possible.
Earlier today, I was trying to write about James Baldwin’s writing on “experience” as a form of power. I was reminded that I wrote this in 2015, on the “good guys” / “Cool Guys” in UX and in design and tech more generally.
This system is broken and obsolete. Let’s build something better, so this isn’t all still true in 2 years.
Earlier this week, I went to a design research talk put on by a local UX group. It was generally great- the project was interesting, and the approach was thoughtful and practical. Then, towards the talk’s conclusion, the (male) speaker brought up a slide with this on it:
“The only intuitive interface is the nipple. After that it’s all learned”
I shuddered in my seat as the audience giggled. I’d heard this before: it’s a UX cliché that’s been floating around for 20 years. And, if you’ve ever nursed a baby, or struggled to nurse one, you’ll know that this is rarely true. Bruce Ediger, to whom this has been attributed, refuted it in 2001, writing:
I also regret to inform, that while catchy, the saying isn’t true. My wife gave birth to an infant son in January of 2001. The boy, while smart, good-looking and possessed of a dazzling personality, had to learn to breast feed. Other friends of mine say the same thing about their kids.
There is no intuitive interface, not even the nipple. It’s all learned. — Bruce Ediger, 2001
But whatever. In what world is it okay to casually compare other people’s bodies to interfaces as a joke? (I’m all in favor of critically examining the embodied and gendered aspects of interfaces, don’t get me wrong. But there’s a crucial distinction there.)
I knew that night’s speaker a bit. He is a cool guy, active and visible in the local design community, and his business partner is a generally bad-ass woman I admire. I told him after how I found that quote to be pretty objectionable: I told him what a lactation consultant was and referenced how I’d had my own frustrations with nursing my daughter.
I’ve felt uneasy since. In our society, it’s a crime to slow a cool guy’s roll.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Cool Guys. To be a Cool Guy is to exist in an unimpeachable state: he is cool, so any problem you might have with him or his actions or his associations and express in any way therefore makes you uncool. Oh, he’s not sexist, he’s a really cool guy. He’s such a cool guy! He’s really into drinking whiskey. Oh, everyone here is really chill, lots of cool guys. Cool guys are often dads, but reproductive status has nothing to do with being a cool guy!
In the design and tech worlds I live in, cool guys have the ultimate privilege. Being a cool guy means that, above all else, you uphold things being chill and in line with cool values. You avoid all manner of conflict, unless it’s in the event of someone being uncool. You pursue a homogeneity in coolness with no expense spared, and that means being into the things your friends like and being friends with the people who like the same things as you. Workplace culture revolves around the cool guy ethos: is this guy cool to work with? Hire him. Maybe not so cool? Maybe not a guy? Whoaa, I don’t know! We’ve gotta think about our culture here!
The field I work in, User Experience (or to use the cool abbreviation, UX) is in many ways a triumph of cool guy ethos. Engineers and executives never want to hear how their work is imperfect, but they take the news better when it’s delivered by a cool guy. UX is dominated by cool guys, their discourse is full of cool guy markers. UX cool guys are really good at talking about how they can make things “awesome”, posing any of their contributions as unquestionably beneficial and in everyone’s interests. How they can bring “empathy” to the development process like it’s a discrete object, like it’s a six-pack they can bring to your party.
Recently, several prominent UX cool guys told the world that they didn’t see the need for codes of conduct at conferences, because, duh, it’s uncool. This cool guy (bless his heart), explained how user research allowed him to learn about sexism and harassment. Cool guys are treated well anywhere, so why would they want to bother with thinking about how other people aren’t.
Despite the fact that “cool” is a completely ambiguous term that doesn’t stand up to any sort of critical yardstick, being a “cool guy” is still an excuse for pretty much anything and a means to write one’s own ticket. I mean, it’s been this way forever (I would make a list of cool guys who have done terrible things with very few consequences, but I would rather make myself a snack.) America is happiest when we are one nation under a cool guy: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan- they might not have a lot in common politically, but they’re unquestionably cool guys. Richard Nixon, Jimmy “Put on a Sweater” Carter? George H.W. Bush? Not so cool, man!
I would argue that Barack Obama is objectively our coolest president, but public perception disagrees with me. After all, we live in a completely racist society where the markers of cool for black men have a risky intersection with criminality. His reformed cool guy origin story has tempered his public persona: he tells us that in order to become and to be seen as a leader, he has had to present himself as a total square. He readily brings up his weed-smoking, leather jacket-wearing, Sonic Youth-listening past and but also tells us he got over it and decided to devote his life to public service. I adore this about him.
The thing about cool guys, though, is that they’re rarely all that interesting or singular in their coolness. In ethnography, there’s a tradition of “collecting stories”. People are at their most interesting when they aren’t particularly chill: when they reveal the weird and obsessive parts of themselves.
Cool Guy dynamics stand in the way of this. To paraphrase Taylor Swift, it’s a blank space. When men act like Cool Guys they aren’t vulnerable or particularly self-aware, they don’t admit their shortcomings or mistakes. This is not a particularly advantageous approach to use when trying to understand people different from yourself.
Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s op-ed from this week made a similar point: when we lazily rely on established social order for collaboration, those at the top of the social order get heard, no one disagrees with them, and thus no one actually collaborates or challenges anything. I think about facilitation and participatory design, and the issues this raises: you can’t just tell people to participate, you have to create a space in which they can do so safely.
Participatory design has long been popular in Silicon Valley, (Google Ventures has a design blog that relies heavily on participatory design techniques) but clearly, it hasn’t solved any of technology’s overarching problems with diversity in participation. Who gets to participate (and who doesn’t), is often just as much or more fraught than the dynamics of collaboration. How “participatory” is your design process when almost everyone who has input is doing so under the guise of performing as a Cool Guy?
(The sole visual from Fast Company’s article about Google Ventures’ design approach. Look at all these white guys participating!)
I understand though, what it’s like to try hard to maintain a gendered performance of cool. In 2014, we heard an awful lot about The Cool Girl. At this point, I cringe, because I am guilty as charged. I’m now entering my fourth decade what could be considered serious commitment to cool girl-ing and an impressive record of failure at it. I have tried give up this up, but my main hope at this point is aging out. I dream that by the time I’m 35, I’ll just be a middle aged lady who can just authentically like hot dogs, cars, music and sports and can stop trying to be cool about it.
After all, I have never succeeded in being a cool girl because I am decidedly uncool in my approach: studiously and fervently seeking out authoritative information on any and all cool topics. This, more than anything else, shaped my career trajectory: I started writing about music because on some level, it was a way to ascend this hierarchy (only later did I realize that critics of any sort are extremely uncool), and I fell in love with libraries and universities and computing and the promise of being able to organize and access knowledge structures — if something was cool, I reasoned, I could find out all about it.
In my teens and early 20s, revered and I hung out with a lot of boys and men with whom I really only sought knowledge and proximity: these relationships were not terrible, but perhaps not terribly honest. I got to listen to their records and absorb their acquired knowledge, they got to feel like authorities. The internet was a game changer for this: I once heard Tobi Vail say that as soon as she found out that you could find band discographies online, she realized she didn’t have to hang out with dudes she didn’t like. MP3 blogs in the early 00s changed things too: I no longer had to go to a dude’s house to hear the Cheetah Chrome Motherfuckers. I abhor technological determinism, but I like to think that teen girls today have slightly better means for pursuing their interests. Though, from what we know about online communities, being a cool guy still reigns supreme.
Besides, a woman being committed to knowing and loving something is threatening. Last year, Deadspin reprinted Jennifer Briggs’ 1992 essay from the Dallas Observer: My Life In The Locker Room: A Female Sportswriter Remembers The Dicks. Of course, as someone who came of age in 90’s Dallas it all rang true, but this bit, especially:
The dirty little secret I’ve discovered is how little men know about sports, since this is what men are supposed to know more about than women. Most of the men I’ve dated certainly don’t know about the social fraying of America or why it might be at all amusing that a guy named Fujimori is in charge of Peru, so you’d certainly hope they knew some inane facts about NFL rushers. All most know how to do is bitch about the Cowboys and Mavericks and Rangers — about their (a) record, (b) salaries, © coach or manager — and praise the “kick-butt” barbecue they make before watching 18 hours of football on Sundays. That’s before they tell me I don’t have any business in the locker room.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
(I’ve resolved not to talk to men I know professionally about sports because either a) they have such weird masculinity issues that determine whether sports are cool or not that they can’t handle casual conversation about it with a woman or b) they’ll subject me to dumb, “prove yourself” trivia of the sort Briggs details so well. NEVERMIND.)
At this point, kind of hate the words “guy” and “guys”. Too many times, I’ve been the one woman in the room and been addressed plurally as “guys”. I hate it when a man refers to another group of people as “those guys”, thus making the women he’s referencing invisible. I just don’t like the sound and connotations of it at this point. I’m refusing to be a Guy.
I will readily and enthusiastically use “dude” and “dudes” though, because as my friend Melanie Feinberg says, I reserve the right west coast cultural expression.