This is from everyone
The Web will only be for everyone when we can say that it’s from everyone too
Tim Berners-Lee famously tweeted the simple phrase “This is for Everyone” at the Olympic Games opening ceremony in my home town of London in 2012. His words were lit up throughout the entire stadium and transmitted to millions of people watching around the world.
It’s an inspirational statement, and I think its legacy will probably eclipse much of what happened at that event, the message only being really understood decades from now. By coming up with such a world-changing idea as the Web, and rather than patenting it, releasing it for anyone to use, he set in motion a series of events that have changed much of every-day life for many of us. And because it’s all free, we can all, within reason get involved.
There’s a clever play on words at the heart of the statement, dependent upon your emphasis: “This is for everyone”, as in, it’s a gift that Tim, the inventor, gave to the world; or perhaps “This is for everyone”, which implies that anyone, irrespective of how they might describe themselves, can be involved.
I think that we still have a way to go if it’s the latter.
Coding isn’t hunting
This week, I was at one of those tech meet-ups where you look around the room and realise that it is almost exclusively male. Well, exclusively male, except for the organiser’s girlfriend. I thought I’d raise the issue with him, and on reflection I should have known better. Talking about women-in-tech at a male tech meet-up is probably on par with raising the issue of your atheism at the heavily religious funeral of a relative. It didn’t go well.
I had one of those standard arguments levelled at me as to why women in the UK (and by implication globally) are under-represented in tech:
- Men are hunters
- Women are gatherers
- Coding is hunting
- So women are bad at coding and don’t go into tech
Each of these statements is false, clearly. My general response to anyone summarising 50% of the population with a blanket statement is to roll my eyes, and if we’re using “an argument from caveman times” I’ll revert to glaring. It made me angry that this viewpoint prevails even today, especially amongst relatively young people in the field.
Just to be clear—the enlightened position is that mental ability, and from that, ability to work in tech is not dependent upon birth sex. For instance, in Malaysia, the ratio of women to men on Computer Science courses is pretty much even.
Any current gender bias in technology education elsewhere in the world should be written off as an effect of culture and politics in my opinion.
So, what can I take from this encounter? Perhaps I should spend more time encouraging women to get into tech! Perhaps I should teach a woman to code! Or give a talk about how more women should do the tech thing!
No. It feels like mansplaining. It’s silly. Why on Earth should you spend time encouraging an equal to go into something, just based on their gender? Good people do good work, and digital technology is increasingly a part of that work no matter our industry. So if people want to do good work, they’d be well advised to learn a little about how to produce technological things as well as consume them.
Yet at a policy level, it’s quite obvious that the UK, like many other countries, has an issue encouraging women to go into computer science, or indeed many other STEM disciplines.
My answer to the conundrum isn’t techsplaining. I do hackdays where I team up with people from a variety of different industries and backgrounds, men and women. I talk about the process of doing things with tech. Last year I did an amazing residency on the Scottish island of Eigg that was all about thinking about culture and technology. I have interesting conversations with people and talk about hacking, and being a digital maker.
Not all of the people I influence along the way are women, and indeed that’s the point. For the people working in culture, start-ups, charities, local government or creative businesses that I’ve met over the last few years I’ve had a consistent message: anyone can be part of this.
Ungeeking the rainbow
The “geek” label that surrounds technology is, in my opinion, by far the greatest barrier to people wanting to be involved in the production, rather than consumption of technology. I had a moment yesterday, where I suggested to someone, half-jokingly that ‘there should be an app for that’, and in reply I got “oh I don’t know much about that geeky stuff”. Really, I don’t think that apps are geeky—they’re mainstream. And if they’re mainstream, then being involved in making them should be a mainstream idea.
It’s clear that if you want to make an impact on this issue, you can take the route of encouraging your peers, but you could also look much earlier than that in a person’s life. I’m on something of a mission to help my kids think that it’s perfectly normal behaviour for them too.
With kids I get to explain instead of mansplain about the internet, technology, the web, and everything that’s going to change over these next ten years. I’m trying to make sure my two boys and two girls are equally as fascinated as I am with the potential that we have available to us. I’m hoping that by being painfully gender-neutral about how I portray what’s possible for them, that I can instil the idea that I think Tim Berners-Lee was getting at.
An interest in tech starts at home
The kids came down early yesterday. I turned on the old iMac I’ve donated to them, and within a few minutes my six-year-old daughter was firing up Scratch, a program for learning how to code. Just by herself. And then she started showing my two-year-old boy what to do.
I think of their iMac, and the making room we’ve set aside for them as a hackable space. It doesn’t really matter if they break things, or make a mess. They’re learning.
We had some breakfast, and then it emerged that she’d not done her homework. So we pulled it out, and it was a kind of snakes-and-ladders maths game. Which would have been fine, except we needed a dice and there wasn’t one to hand. So, I showed her and my 4-yo son how I could code up a “dice” using Ruby on my laptop.
They were fascinated but not that surprised—I think they’re just getting used to it. By encouraging kids at a really young age that they can be webmakers, I hope I can instil in them the idea that making things with technology isn’t one of those “boy thing” / “girl thing” issues.
Maintaining the interest
But what about as the kids grow up? What happens when the inevitable day comes and “coding with dad” isn’t cool any more?
I attended Techs and the City, a women-in-tech event today, and one of the speakers was Emma Mulqueeny from Young Rewired State, an organisation that works with young people and encourages them to go into tech as a career. She talked about how you see a clear drop-off in interest in “doing coding” in girls as they hit secondary education. In response, she tries to find the kids who are coding in their spare time and offer them a social environment so that they feel included in something. It sounds like a culture hack to me, and it seems to have a positive effect.
But to maintain that interest, you have to encourage kids through demonstration. At some point we’re going to talk about role models. Something that came up at the event was that we need to expose kids (and adults) to examples of people who’ve taken technology as a path. There are many women I admire for their technical skill, their ability to write good code, researchers, hackers, scientists… I have worked with and continue to work with many. But is putting forward only examples of people who have high level, specialised technical skill in software development the best strategy. Tech is wider than that, surely?
Ourselves as examples
This is Courtney Boyd-Myers. She’s in tech and we work together at Makeshift. She might say she’s a founder, a journalist, a communicator, a connector, a technologist. Probably not a ‘coder’, although she can code and knows how to build teams and products. I’d say she represents a lot about the future of being in technology and the web as a profession.
My work is also not just about coding. Yes I write a lot of code, but to do so I have to also be horizon-scanning, thinking about the future, writing about my process.
If we only put forward software developers as examples of the people who really work in the industry, I think we’re at risk of saying working in tech is only about coding. Knowing about, and having experience of coding is very important, but working in tech is about having a wide skill-set for many of us.
I think we should encourage people to think about code-literacy as a spectrum. On one end, it’s “I can make a web page”, through “I can set up Wordpress on my own domain”, through “I write Rails apps”, all the way to “I write assembly code in the robotics industry”.
“Tech”is an industry made up of a wide range of roles, requiring skills along the code spectrum. Not just software developers, but visionary investors, product managers, designers, marketing people, event organisers, educators, and many roles I don’t understand! When I think back to the career advice I was given as a kid, the options now available to us mostly didn’t exist. But being able to write code is a skill that I’m so glad I developed (in my spare time!) because it’s prepared me for a variety of opportunities.
If we can help our kids and peers to see that being able to write code isn’t being a coder and that being a webmaker is open to anyone, we can ensure that the web is for everyone because it’s from everyone too.
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