We should not build certain technologies because the human cost is too great

Danah Boyd has long been one of the smartest voices in tech, and in her recent awards speech to the Electronic Frontier Foundation she must have made a lot of people uncomfortable. In it she talks about the tech industry’s sheltering of terrible men, and how its technologies can have terrible consequences.

Tech prides itself in being better than other sectors. But often it’s not. As an employee of Google in 2004, I watched my male colleagues ogle women coming to the cafeteria in our building from the second floor, making lewd comments. When I first visited TheFacebook in Palo Alto, I was greeted by a hyper-sexualized mural and a knowing look from the admin, one of the only women around. So many small moments seared into my brain, building up to a story of normalized misogyny. Fast forward fifteen years and there are countless stories of executive misconduct and purposeful suppression of the voices of women and sooooo many others whose bodies and experiences exclude them from the powerful elite. These are the toxic logics that have infested the tech industry. And, as an industry obsessed with scale, these are the toxic logics that the tech industry has amplified and normalized.

…“Move fast and break things” is an abomination if your goal is to create a healthy society. Taking short-cuts may be financially profitable in the short-term, but the cost to society is too great to be justified. In a healthy society, we accommodate differently abled people through accessibility standards, not because it’s financially prudent but because it’s the right thing to do. In a healthy society, we make certain that the vulnerable amongst us are not harassed into silence because that is not the value behind free speech. In a healthy society, we strategically design to increase social cohesion because binaries are machine logic not human logic.

…The goal shouldn’t be to avoid being evil; it should be to actively do good.

The girl vs the gammons

As a rule of thumb, if Spiked columnists, billionaire Brexiters and Toby Young are against something you can be pretty sure it’s a good thing. Guess who really, really hates Greta Thunberg, the young woman who sparked today’s global climate protests?

Jennifer O’Connell in The Irish Times elaborates.

Even for someone who spends a lot of time on Twitter, some of the criticism levelled at Thunberg is astonishing. It is, simultaneously, the most vicious and the most fatuous kind of playground bullying. The Australian conservative climate change denier Andrew Bolt called her “deeply disturbed” and “freakishly influential” (the use of “freakish”, we can assume, was not incidental.) The former UKIP funder, Arron Banks, tweeted “Freaking yacht accidents do happen in August” (as above.) Brendan O’Neill of Spiked called her a “millenarian weirdo” (nope, still not incidental) in a piece that referred nastily to her “monotone voice” and “the look of apocalyptic dread in her eyes”.

But who’s the real freak – the activist whose determination has single-handedly started a powerful global movement for change, or the middle-aged man taunting a child with Asperger syndrome from behind the safety of their computer screens?

If all you had to go on was the hysterical abuse levelled at her, you’d think Thunberg turned up claiming to be the second coming of Christ and was busily throwing moneylenders out of temples.

Other than money – at least one of the named pundits has been generously funded by right-wing billionaires, whose deep pockets have helped persuade people that there’s still a debate over climate change when there really isn’t – what could possibly motivate right-wing men to hurl abuse at a woman? Here’s Martin Gelin in the New Republic.

In 2014, Jonas Anshelm and Martin Hultman of Chalmers published a paper analyzing the language of a focus group of climate skeptics. The common themes in the group, they said, were striking: “for climate skeptics … it was not the environment that was threatened, it was a certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity.”

The connection has to do with a sense of group identity under threat, Hultman told me—an identity they perceive to be under threat from all sides. Besieged, as they see it, both by developing gender equality—Hultman pointed specifically to the shock some men felt at the #MeToo movement—and now climate activism’s challenge to their way of life, male reactionaries motivated by right-wing nationalism, anti-feminism, and climate denialism increasingly overlap, the three reactions feeding off of one another.

This is how the world ends: not with a bang, but with a barbecue.

The New Republic again:

Climate change used to be a bipartisan concern, the first Bush senior presidency famously promising to tackle global warming. But as conservative male mockery of Thunberg and others shows, climate politics has quickly become the next big battle in the culture war—on a global scale.

As conservative parties become increasingly tied to nationalism, and misogynist rhetoric dominates the far-right, Hultman and his fellow researchers at Chalmers University worry that the ties between climate skeptics and misogyny will strengthen. What was once a practical problem, with general agreement on the facts, has become a matter of identity. And fear of change is powerful motivation.

O’Connell:

…the truth is that they’re afraid of her. The poor dears are terrified of her as an individual, and of what she stands for – youth, determination, change.

…The reason they taunt her with childish insults is because that’s all they’ve got. They’re out of ideas. They can’t dismantle her arguments, because she has science – and David Attenborough – on her side. They can’t win the debate with the persuasive force of their arguments, because these bargain bin cranks trade in jaded cynicism, not youthful passion.

…for her loudest detractors, she represents the sight of their impending obsolescence hurtling towards them.

It’s called consequences, not cancel culture

Kevin Fallon of The Daily Beast reflects on the latest person to lose a high-profile job for having said terrible racist things, comedian Shane Gillis.

If you’re not familiar with the story, a recap. It’s about:

Saturday Night Live’s firing of comedian Shane Gillis, of whom videos surfaced showing him telling blithely racist jokes that caused controversy not even hours after he was announced as a new cast member on the sketch show. (That his jokes traded in boring, retrograde stereotypes of Asian Americans was all the more cringe-inducing given that SNL had just made history hiring its first-ever Asian cast member alongside Gillis, Bowen Yang.)

Gillis’s jokes were outwardly racist. They weren’t jokes about racism, or satire about race, or illuminating truths about the marginalized. They were racist jokes, and quite bland ones at that. People were pissed. Then people became pissed that people were pissed. Censorship! McCarthyism! Worst of all: Cancel culture!

As Fallon points out, it’s hardly cancel culture if the people who say the terrible things are almost always completely and utterly unaffected in any way.

It would take too long to list all the recent controversies involving celebrities who said something alarming enough to detonate social media outrage: Scarlett Johansson defends Woody Allen, Dave Chappelle mocks Michael Jackson’s accusers, Lara Spencer shames male dancers, a Queer Eye host rails against his critics, some Real Housewives are caught being casually transphobic.

Some of these celebrities apologized. Some didn’t. All were likely forced to consider the impact and the responsibility of their words, amid outcry and, in many cases, calls for them to lose their jobs. But none of them were fired.

Many people are building their brands on pretending they’re saying the unsayable, and saying it again and again and again. But on occasion, very infrequently, a tiny proportion of those people discover that their employers don’t want to have, say, massive racists, homophobes or transphobes on staff.

In the non-celeb world, employment contracts frequently have a clause where you can be fired for bringing your employer into disrepute. Clearly Saturday Night Live has something similar.

A job on Saturday Night Live is not owed to anybody. It is arguably one of the highest profile gigs in comedy. Fans, audiences, and critics are right to expect some sort of responsibility or awareness, a certain standard, from those who are given that platform. They are right to be upset if it comes out that one of those benefactors has a history of espousing racist views. Gillis, in turn, had a right to respond to those who were angered. His response didn’t satisfy those critics, nor did it satisfy his employer. So he was fired. That is how jobs work.

The people we call idiots aren’t idiots

Writing in the Globe and Mail, Cory Doctorow has a nuanced take on the rise of beliefs such as flat-Earthism.

The modern way of knowing things for sure is through formal truth-seeking exercises.

…For these systems to work, they need to be fair and honest.

But 40 years of rising inequality and industry consolidation have turned our truth-seeking exercises into auctions, in which lawmakers, regulators and administrators are beholden to a small cohort of increasingly wealthy people who hold their financial and career futures in their hands.

…Why don’t we agree on the urgency of climate change? Because of a moneyed conspiracy to make us doubt it. Why did we let a single family amass riches greater than the Rockefellers while peddling OxyContin and claiming it wasn’t addictive? Because of a moneyed conspiracy. Why do some 737s fall out of the sky? Why are our baby-bottles revealed to be lined with carcinogenic plastics? Why do corrupt companies get to profit by consorting with the world’s most despicable dictators? Conspiracies.

You can see the link: we say vaccinations are safe, because they are. But we were told for a very long time that all kinds of things were safe, and they were not.

I’m not immune to this. For example, having seen the way certain newspapers print lies and misinformation about subjects I know in depth, I find it hard to trust their reports on anything else. If they are demonstrably lying about X, why should I trust them about Y?

In extreme examples, we start believing extreme things. Doctorow:

We can never be sure whether our beliefs are true ones, but unless we can look where the evidence leads us – even when it gores a billionaire’s ox – our beliefs will tend toward catastrophic falsity.

 

Introducing the band

Stadium* band photo

 

With all the drama lately I completely forgot to mention my band. Now a three piece, the first EP by Stadium* – Some People Are Inconvenient – is out now.

Here it is on Spotify.

Here’s the EP on iTunes. And here’s the link for Apple Music.

Google Play is right here.

Do you prefer Deezer? It’s here. The link for Tidal is here. Napster is here. For other services including Amazon, MediaNet and iHeartRadio, step this way.

You can order digital downloads in the format of your choice, or get it on CD, from Bandcamp here.

More news, gigs and other things to follow soon.

Little miracles

The Royal Hospital for Children in Glasgow, my son’s home for the last week

I mentioned in a previous post that my son has been in hospital. It’s been a very long couple of weeks: he was misdiagnosed twice before his atypical symptoms led to a correct diagnosis and treatment, which included surgery. He’s home with me now, recovering.

My head is a mess of thoughts just now, but I wanted to post one thing: I’m very grateful to the many NHS staff from surgeons to domestic staff who helped look after us over the last week or so. For all its flaws, the NHS is an extraordinary thing. The people who work for it ensure it performs little miracles every single day.

Pain and privilege

The Guardian is in trouble this week for an editorial about David Cameron in which it suggested that while the death of his son was tragic, Cameron’s pain was somewhat reduced by his privilege.

The editorial, now removed, suggested that Cameron’s experience of the NHS would have been considerably worse “had he been forced to wrestle with the understaffed and overmanned hospitals of much of England, or had he been trying to get the system to look after a dying parent”.

Callous? Undoubtedly. But it’s true. As a rich man Cameron has been protected from some of the stress other parents have to go through. Losing a child is horrific, and no amount of money can cushion the horror. But what money can do, what money does do, is cushion you from the cruelties and stresses that poor people face when they’re caring for terminally ill children or grieving their loss.

Here’s an example of that, on a much less dramatic scale. My son is currently in the Children’s Hospital in Glasgow (no need to write in; he’s okay now after a scary week). Because I’m a self-employed media type with a supportive family I don’t have to worry about work: I can survive the loss of income from a week-plus of hospital days and nights, and I don’t have a boss or the DWP breathing down my neck. I drive, so I don’t have to navigate public transport to and from the hospital or shell out for taxis because buses don’t run near where I live. And because I’m not estranged from Adam’s mum neither of us is having to navigate this as a single parent.

I don’t have Cameron’s money or connections, but I have it much easier than many of the other parents of children in the same ward, and of the families of the adults in the main hospital it’s connected to.

And the wider point of the editorial is true too. Cameron has suffered, but his government has made many people suffer more – people who don’t have his money, people who aren’t insulated from the wider consequences of caring for sick family.

I don’t doubt Cameron suffered a horrific loss, or that he grieves any less than any other bereaved parent. But most parents aren’t in a position where they can help lessen the suffering of others. Cameron was.

And yet.

Cameron’s government introduced austerity programmes that have been linked to the deaths of 120,000 people, primarily due to the reduction in the number of nurses.

It didn’t start but it has certainly contributed to the worsening of the NHS, especially in England, especially in adult care.

And the Brexit car crash Cameron instigated is a disaster for the NHS. If no-deal goes ahead, we face a shortage of life-saving medicine; the government is secretly stockpiling extra body bags (and here in Scotland our government is doing the same).

The Spectator – no link, because Spectator – criticises the Guardian and says of Cameron:

The knowledge of pain breeds an empathy deeper and more enduring than political fashion.

Where is the evidence of that in Cameron’s case?

Update

On Twitter, Jess Moxham talks about Cameron’s book and how the personal does not appear to have influenced the political.

After coming to power Cameron began a programme of austerity which saw the steady reduction of all services for disabled children. My son was born in 2009. Our experience of parenting him has aligned with the reality of austerity, and for us it has meant less of everything.

I have never (like him) had a social worker come round and talk to me about the help that is available. We no longer have access to the kind of respite stays at a hospice that he describes. There are longer waiting lists for equipment and therapies. There are fewer therapists.

This is nothing to do with Cameron’s grief, which is personal and painful and not my business, but everything to do with his experience of looking after a disabled child.

I find it hard to understand how he can recognise the importance of the care and support his son and his family received without acknowledging that those resources are no longer available.

…Cameron was in a position of power and he ensured that all of the families with disabled children that came after his got less than his family got.

You can’t trust The Times

The Sunday Times published its usual collection of anti-trans scaremongering at the weekend. One story in particular managed to demonstrate everything that’s wrong with the former paper of record: it was based primarily on the comments of an anti-trans activist, and it presented fake science as fact.

This is the same newspaper that told its readers AIDS was a PR move by the homosexual lobby, remember.

Yesterday’s story once again attempted to conflate puberty blockers with cross-sex hormones, trotted out the completely discredited idea of “rapid onset gender dysphoria” which only exists in the minds of bigots, and presented Michael Biggs as an impartial expert.

Biggs has been in the papers before.

Professor of Sociology and Fellow of St Cross College Michael Biggs has been posting transphobic statements online under the Twitter handle @MrHenryWimbush, The Oxford Student can reveal.

The Twitter account, named Henry Wimbush and still online at the time of publication, has been tweeting statements such as “transphobia is a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons” since first Tweeting in January.

Biggs is a contributor to Transgender Trend, which is linked to the US Christian right and advocates dangerous and discredited conversion therapy.

Meanwhile in Australia, another newspaper has been waging what one website describes as “a Holy War on trans youth”. Its favourite experts are right-wing conservatives who support conversion therapy.

The paper, The Australian, is owned and its editorial policy steered by one Rupert Murdoch.

Guess who owns and steers The Times.

Today, The Sun warned its readers about the national census being queered by the “transgender agenda”.

Guess who owns The Sun too.

Update:

Incidentally, The Sun’s piece is based entirely on the false claim that trans people want to change the way the census records their gender. They don’t. As the Equality Network points out, the demand for change is coming from anti-trans academics who want to change the government’s guidance.

This hateful ignorance costs lives

Anti-trans bigots are the climate change deniers of gender: despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they’re full of shit, they continue to lobby against life-saving action and push long-discredited pseudoscience.

One of their favourite conspiracy theories is the idea that being trans is contagious, that it’s a conscious choice and that you can be persuaded to become trans through peer pressure. This social contagion conspiracy theory has been debunked endlessly, but it still persists – so this report by the Australian Psychological Society won’t change any bigot’s mind.

The APS isn’t mincing its words here.

“Empirical evidence consistently refutes claims that a child’s or adolescent’s gender can be ‘directed’ by peer group pressure or media influence, as a form of ‘social contagion’,” APS Fellow Professor Damien Riggs said.

“To say that there is a trans-identity crisis among young Australians because of social media pressure is not only alarmist, scientifically incorrect and confusing, but is potentially harmful to a young person’s mental health and wellbeing.

“There is no evidence to suggest that such approaches work in terms of changing a person’s gender.  What such debunked ‘therapies’ do produce, however, are high levels of shame, disrespect and distress.

Belief in “social contagion” goes hand in hand with belief in conversion therapy, the dangerous and discredited “pray the gay away” so-called cure that’s caused incredible damage to so many LGBT+ people: if you believe that being LGBT+ is a choice, then you’re likely to believe that people can be persuaded not to be LGBT+.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that. But bigots’ feelings don’t care about facts.

What conversion therapy does do is persuade LGBT+ people to kill themselves. The latest study into such “therapy” demonstrates yet again that there’s a strong link between it and mental health problems, including suicide attempts. Exposing transgender people to conversion therapy makes them twice as likely to attempt suicide.

The bigots don’t see that as a problem, though: to them, one less trans person in the world is a result. These are people who are currently crowing about the prospect of Brexit-related medicine shortages cutting off trans women’s HRT supplies. Who cares if diabetics don’t get their insulin or cancer patients don’t get essential medicines? If it hurts (or better still, kills) trans people, it can only be a good thing.

You don’t need to wear a swastika to be part of a hate group. Some of the most hateful people in modern society could be your neighbours.

Here’s an example. The crowdfunding site GoFundMe has finally pulled down the page raising money for campaigns against inclusive education in schools (but not before they raised thousands). Here’s one of the key groups who campaigned for the page’s removal, the British Humanist Society:

‘This homophobic crowdfunder was in support of protesters who have been holding disruptive and intimidating rallies that have absolutely no place near a school. There is strong evidence that the protesters involved in these demonstrations have been uttering outrageous homophobic slurs and even calling members of school staff paedophiles which surely was in breach of GoFundMe’s terms.’

The backlash against LGBT+ equality encompasses trans rights and relationship education at schools. It is co-ordinated and well funded and originates in the US. OpenDemocracy:

At the London meeting of Christian conservatives this summer, our reporter – posing as a prospective teacher, to learn what these campaigners were telling teachers about sex education – found an energised opposition movement.

In a room filled with LGBTIQ children’s books, tea and biscuits, the keynote speaker argued that equalities legislation “is not all-powerful”. Rather, he said it can be limited to protect “health and morals” of other students or teachers.

This was Roger Kiska, in-house lawyer at the Christian Concern group that organised the event. He previously worked for Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian right ‘legal army’ and one of a dozen US groups that openDemocracy revealed have spent millions of dollars in Europe.

Christian Concern, you’ll be amazed to discover, is a great believer in the efficacy of conversion therapy. Their communications manager claimed in late 2018 that conversion therapy is “just about any practice that offends the taste of social liberals” and added:

If ‘conversion therapy’ means anything at all, it should surely refer to a process that treats people with cross-sex hormones, damages fertility and cuts up their bodies to portray them as something other than what they really are. In other words, gender reassignment.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly the same argument – using exactly the same words and phrasing – that the anti-trans activists use.

That’s not a coincidence.

“This unholy alliance”

Writing for Vox, Katelyn Burns describes how a primarily English anti-trans lobby is fuelling anti-LGBT+ sentiment and anti-women legislation here and in the US. There’s a long MetaFilter thread about it here.

It’s a long read but a worthwhile one.

TERF ideology has become the de facto face of feminism in the UK, helped along by media leadership from Rupert Murdoch and the Times of London. Any vague opposition to gender-critical thought in the UK brings along accusations of “silencing women” and a splashy feature or op-ed in a British national newspaper. Australian radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys went before the UK Parliament in March 2018 and declared that trans women are “parasites,” language that sounds an awful lot like Trump speaking about immigrants.

According to Heron Greenesmith, who studies the modern gender-critical movement as a senior research associate with the social justice think tank Political Research Associates, gender-critical feminism in the UK grew out of a toxic mix of historical imperialism and the influence of the broader UK skeptical movement in the early aughts — which was hyper-focused on debunking “junk science” and any idea that considered sociological and historical influence and not just biology. Those who rose to prominence in the movement did so through a lot of “non-tolerant calling-out and attacking people,” Greenesmith said, much like gender-critical feminism. “Anti-trans feminists think they have science on their side. It is bananas how ascientific their rhetoric is, and yet literally they say, ‘Biology isn’t bigotry.’ In fact, biology has been used as bigotry as long as biology has been a thing.” (See scientific racism, eugenics, and the justification for slavery that black people were intellectually inferior to white people.)

Many of the women in the skeptic movement blogged for Mumsnet, whose feminism discussion board has become a cesspool of anti-trans hatred and whose owners and moderators seem quite happy about that. A former moderator wrote in Huck Magazine, in 2018:

Mumsnet has become a breeding ground for transphobic voices; a space where they can laugh about sabotaging an NHS surveyaimed at LGBTQ+ users and scorn trans participation in sport, or ponder that trans rights are a millennial issue. On Twitter, where transphobia has less of a platform, ‘Gender Critical’ users began to recommend Mumsnet as a safe space for cis women to openly attack the trans community.

Twitter has since become much more of a safe space for transphobes, but even it draws the line sometimes and bans some of the most abusive users. More of that in a moment.

Burns is particularly good on the links between English women building personal brands on the  back of transphobia and the US religious right. She describes the links between the most prominent English transphobes – including some high profile journalists – and US evangelical groups, and notes the way in which the work of transphobic English academics is used by evangelical front groups to advance anti-LGBT+ and anti-women legislation.

One of the key differences between England and the US here is race. In the US, “White Feminism” – feminism that centres on white, often heterosexual, often middle-class women to the exclusion of other women – has largely been shown the door. So when people come along demanding the exclusion of a particular group women, in this case trans women, feminists can see history trying to repeat.

the recent gender-critical wave has largely failed to gain traction in the US outside of the very far-right spheres. “I don’t think American women are buying it,” she said, pointing out that nearly every major US feminist advocacy group is vocally pro-trans rights and inclusion. “It’s because they understand what it means to be marginalized. They understand that any strict rules placed around gender are to the benefit of nobody.”

Self-declared feminists with transphobic views were previously described as TERFs, which is short for trans-exclusionary radical feminists. Some women claim that the term was coined by trans people (it wasn’t; it was coined by feminists), that it’s a slur (it isn’t; it describes a very specific set of views among people who describe themselves as radical feminists) and that the term is misogynist (it isn’t; a significant number of TERFs are straight, cisgender white men with very unfeminist views who nevertheless claim to be feminists so they can be abusive to trans women).

We’re in “the real racism is calling the racists racists” territory here.

People who previously proudly identified as TERFs now describe themselves as “gender critical”. Burns quotes Gillian Branstetter of the National Center for Transgender Equality:

Branstetter compares the deployment of so-called feminists to oppose trans rights to the white nationalist movement rebranding themselves as the “alt-right” to achieve a veneer of respectability.

“It’s portraying it as this divide within the progressive movement or this divide within the LGBTQ community that only serves to benefit people who hate women and the LGBTQ community, including Heritage, the FRC [Family Research Council], and the ADF. Certainly, we should not be shocked that they’re desperate to sort of put up decoys — I just can’t imagine how you can walk through the doors of the Heritage Foundation as a heralded guest and continue to call yourself an advocate for women’s equality.”

The comparison to the alt-right is important, because there are significant links between the anti-trans movement and the far right. Some of the anti-trans activists detailed in the Vox piece are loud supporters of Tommy Robinson and spout anti-immigration rhetoric; others have formed alliances with right-wing politicians or have right-wing publications on speed dial. Some even dig up old tropes of “scientific racism” but aim their pseudoscience at trans people rather than people of colour.

Whether intentionally or accidentally, they’re playing with fire. Across the world, right-wing politicians rail against so-called “gender ideology” which to anti-trans activists means trans rights but to the right, often means feminism and women’s reproductive rights too.

The far right sees anti-trans activists not just as allies, but as potential recruits. Neo-Nazis on message boards (including the boards where “incels” discuss their hatred of women) talk openly of their intention to “redpill” (reeducate) anti-trans women to make them “tradwives”, which the NYT describes as “the housewives of white supremacy”. They believe that these women’s ideologies are already very close to their own.

Over the past few years, dozens of YouTube and social media accounts have sprung up showcasing soft-spoken young white women who extol the virtues of staying at home, submitting to male leadership and bearing lots of children — being “traditional wives.” These accounts pepper their messages with scrapbook-style collections of 1950s advertising images showing glamorous mothers in lipstick and heels with happy families and beautiful, opulent homes. They give their videos titles like “Female Nature and Advice for Young Ladies,” “How I Homeschool” and “You Might be a Millennial Housewife If….”

But running alongside what could be mistaken for a peculiar style of mommy-vlogging is a virulent strain of white nationalism.

As if to illustrate the point, just last month many of the “gender critical” people finally banned from Twitter for sustained abuse and harassment of trans women found a new home.

Gab, the social network for neo-Nazis.