Brooklyn Beta vs. Afro-Futurism
Is ‘authenticity’ another word for exclusion? The tech and design industries, like Portlandia, are worryingly minority-free.
I attended Brooklyn Beta not too long ago, its fifth and final incarnation, a love-fest shindig with all the Cool Web People you undoubtedly know at least by reputation if you work on the Internet. Everyone is pretty unfailingly nice and pleasant to talk to, and you meet people you wouldn’t have met otherwise, and everyone’s really keen to share what they’ve learned. I love that about the web and the people who make it: there’s no secret formulas, we all want each other to be able to do better work.
The talks themselves were far more inspirational than technical:
- Jane ni Dhulchaointigh, endearingly warm, smart and creative, talked about accidentally inventing Sugru, that magic goo that lets you hack and repair anything physical.
- Rookie publisher/editor/actress Tavi Gevinson, insanely smart and articulate, who just graduated from high school and is now on Broadway, was interviewed by Longform editor Max Linsky.
- Welsh jeans idea man Dave Hieatt talked about putting a town of 400 people back to work with good design.
- The Internet Archive’s Jason Scott did a barnburning talk on the work they do as guerrilla digital preservationists, saving roughly 3 petabytes of recent Web history in a converted church, rescuing people’s memories when digital platforms and services get acquired, merged or shut down. (You can Bittorrent all of GeoCities from The Pirate Bay, thanks to their work.)
All wonderful, wildly praiseworthy people who do heroic work.
Yet something about it all made me feel uneasy.
If you browse the Attendees list, you’ll see how overwhelmingly white the audience was, though the organizers titled it “a melting pot.” All the presenters were white; most of the volunteers were; all of the organizers were. There were a smattering of East and South Asian attendees, some Latin names, but only about five black people including Baratunde Thurston, who I personally didn’t see at any events.
This, even though Brooklyn itself is something like 33% African-American and/or Afro-Latino depending on which stats you read, and 20% Hispanic. That’s weird.
I’m not going to blame the organizers for this; they have no control over who bought tickets. But at $300 a pop that’s a lot of money for a self-employed person or someone just starting their career; not to mention having the freedom to take time off to attend conferences.
There is an undercurrent of that gentle, white, well-meaning hipster colonialism at many of these types of conferences, underwritten by corporations like Adobe, Github, Shopify, and Squarespace, some of whom have been known to have diversity issues, and some of whom are working to get better.
There is the issue of middle-class white people borrowing the cachet of working-class, gritty, multiracial neighborhoods as launching pads for their creative dreams and businesses. Artists, and coders, as shock troops of gentrification.
The trope of the starving artist with the urban pied-a-terre is such an undercurrent in popular culture that it informs our mass desires; Jane ni Dhulchaointigh specifically mentioned being inspired by Demi Moore living in a loft in NYC in the movie Ghost, when she herself was an art student with dreams of making it big.
In a related side event, Portland architect Jeff Kovel noted, in reference to what made his city a hard-working creative hub, the trope of “people crafting things with their hands, like their pioneer ancestors.” This invokes the white middle-class dream of escaping the inauthentic life of office drudgery, shuffling paper and pixels, and going back to the land to be Real People Doing Real Things.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, it seemed like there was an entire movie genre of Dissatisfied White Dudes blowing up their lives in search of this authenticity: Falling Down, American Beauty, and Fight Club, even as the latter is a clever subversion and satire of the very idea.
This idea of “back to the land” needs further examination in the context of history. Black people worked the land unwillingly for generations and didn’t see a dime; they’re still fighting to get to that point that white people complain about, sitting in an office, shuffling paper and pixels, accruing respectability and power, essentially, defining normality.
The poor, of all races, don’t have the luxury of thinking of backbreaking, stultifyingly dull rural life as some sort of Martha Stewart lifestyle choice. Minorities—illegals and otherwise—are responsible for agriculture, and Americans resent their presence because it reminds them of their dependence on an underclass.
But to return to Brooklyn, the nostalgic working-class aesthetic has a strong pull. White hipsters with farmer-plaid shirts, 1930s haircuts, retro glasses and lumberjack beards were present en masse, verging on self-parody; this has been true of nearly every web-tech event I’ve been to in the past few years. Even graphic design, that most effete of black-turtlenecked professions, is machoed up with trucker caps, denim, navy tattoos and gratuitous swearing.
Portlandia neatly skewered ‘lumbersexualism’ in The Dream of the 1890s ; it manifests as hipster bands donning Henley shirts and homespun 1940s dresses, picking up banjos, ukeleles (always the goddamn ukeleles), fiddles, accordions, washtub basses; you might hear demure, wispy white-girl vocals with a tinge of Southern in them, even if she’s from Connecticut.
Some white friends I know have displayed violent allergic reactions to artists of color like Nicki Minaj, M.I.A and Kanye West, all of whose performances, personas and art are decidedly futuristic. “That’s not music! How is Nicki Minaj even popular??” To someone raised on prog-rock, it’s challenging stuff, I guess.
From the wild colours and textures in their clothes, to machine-generated sounds you haven’t heard before, to glitchy music videos, it’s pushing the envelope away from the mainstream of what we know and are comfortable with, and dosed with an unapologetically forward sense of ego and sexuality.
In my mind, a large part of the white-hipster concept of “authenticity” feels like a polite way of being reactionary and exclusionary; it’s class prerogative by consumerist means.
In their retro aesthetic and occasional outbursts of complaint about the present — a common gripe I’ve seen is sniping about ‘too much social justice protest’ on Twitter — I read a fear of the future; particularly, a future where they aren’t asked for their opinion, where their aesthetic and discourse and even economic clout are no longer normative and dominant. (Arguably, GamerGate is the expression of a parallel sentiment in a different sphere.)
To acknowledge the problems of others means empathizing with the other, stopping the process of othering to begin with; but a culture rooted in exclusion cannot do that. I think we need to get away from coolhunting curation and navel-gazing nostalgia, and be willing to reflect and be challenged. It’s not easy.
I still think Brooklyn Beta was a valuable experience. I have nothing but praise for the organizers and the speakers. But as the last event in a year of mostly-white, mostly-male tech conferences, it’s a reminder that it’s incumbent upon the tech and design industries and the educational pipeline to open up opportunities for people who are not already white and/or well-off to get into the business, and to actively invite people of different backgrounds, paths, histories.
It means outreach. Bushwick Gamma and New Orleans Delta and Ferguson Epsilon.
It means bringing the cost of access to design and tech professions, in time and money, down to an affordable level. Getting a degree in design or user experience from a recognized school like Carnegie Mellon — and the doors it opens — literally costs a house. The MFA in Interaction Design at the School for Visual Arts isn’t cheap either, if you can even afford to live in NYC to do it. The newly-minted Center Centre / Unicorn Institute in Chattanooga costs $60K for a 2-year program, though they do throw in a lot of nice stuff.
It’s insanely hard even for middle-class white people to get the required (over)education you need to get a foot in the door, so imagine how hard it is when you don’t have money, credit, or the free time to pursue it, and when there are systemic barriers and prejudices working against you.
Or even semi-organized prejudice, in the case of startup advisors who tell white Stanford trust-fund bros to hire more people like themselves.
And for what payoff? According to a recent study published in USA Today, Hispanics make $16,353 less than equally skilled white colleagues; Asians make $8,146 less; blacks, $3,656 less.
Hispanic women in tech make the least of all, and women asking for raises are much more likely to be rejected vs. men.
For art directors and agency people, breaking these patterns means expanding your aesthetic palette. It means actively expanding your circle of contacts to include more women and minorities. In hiring, it means seeking out diversity (in age as well as ethnicity, but that’s a post for another day). It means being willing to find trainable people, not shopping for a laundry list of improbable skills.
Where do we go from here? As a famous rat once said, “Hopefully, forward.”