Dead to Rights

by Henry on December 11, 2013

Jillian York has a “piece”: in the new _Democracy_ which starts by criticizing my earlier article on tech intellectuals, before going on to say many good things of her own. As she notes:

If all you had to go by was Farrell’s piece, your image of the tech intellectual would be of a mid-to-late-career male, likely occupying the world of academia, with one foot deep in Silicon Valley. Farrell’s essay is conspicuously missing tech intellectuals of a certain stripe—namely, women. Apart from Rebecca MacKinnon, whose work is revered but whose profile was already prominent due to her prior career in journalism, Farrell fails to recognize the valuable and often-dissenting contributions made by women technology intellectuals.

… Even in areas where both men and women have something to say, men somehow crowd out the women in the popular discourse. In his piece, Farrell looks beyond pop-culture tech intellectualism and into the spaces where the dark side of technology is being debated. Evgeny Morozov is surely the best-known voice on the subject (and Farrell spends a lot of time on him). Meanwhile, only a fraction of the publicity goes to prominent women like MacKinnon (whom he mentions but doesn’t discuss) as well as emerging voices such as lawyers Marcia Hofmann and Jennifer Granick, academic Biella Coleman, and journalist Quinn Norton who offer a look at the digital threats facing the world today. When it comes to the intersection of technology and policy—the space inhabited by Larry Lessig—women like Pamela Samuelson, Susan Crawford, Latanya Sweeney, and Kate Crawford provide valuable insights through their public speaking and writing. And in the mainstream media, women like The New York Times’s Jenna Wortham, The Wall Street Journal’s Julia Angwin, and Forbes’s Kashmir Hill assume the role of public intellectual when, for example, they dissect the surveillance state or the ways in which large tech corporations track their customers. And yet when one thinks of a tech intellectual, a white male is invariably the image that comes to mind.

Jillian is absolutely right. I can make two pleas in mitigation – that the article did, acknowledge, in passing, the overwhelming white-maleness of the dominant tech intellectuals, and that I did apologize in a “follow up blog post”: for not giving MacKinnon’s excellent book the central role it deserved. But they are at best pleas in mitigation. As an explanation – but certainly not as an excuse – I only realized after the piece had been published (and I started getting well deserved grief on Twitter) that my operating definition of a tech intellectual _was_ one which took a certain self-referential status hierarchy (in which men have tended systematically to do better than women) as a given. As a first approximation, a proper discussion would have looked at how this definition of who ‘counts’ as a tech intellectual is itself part of a tacit power dynamic. It would then have gone on to look at how this and other definitions are being contested between different groups with different definitions, and used this as a springboard for a much broader discussion, which would have included many of the women that Jillian mentions, as well as many other people too. If I’d tried to do this (and obviously, I would surely still have gotten lots of things wrong, opened myself up to useful criticism and pushback etc) I think it would have been a better and more useful article. I’m sorry that I didn’t – but I’m very glad that someone else has started this broader conversation (and done a much better job of it than I ever could have).