Today my corner of the internet is abuzz with the story of Adria Richards. The news and numerous weblogs report that she was allegedly fired after tweeting both text as well as the alleged perpetrators' photos after she reported hearing inappropriate sexual joke (not directed to her) made by a couple of fellows behind her at the Pycon Convention. One of the fellows also was fired, once his supposed comment became known to his employer. The news reports report legions of internet outrage on all sides of the issue, threats and DDoS
hacker attacks, and a huge firestorm of controversy. Media ranging from Mother Jones to Forbes have weighed in.
Last month, a different issue raised a smaller but very palpable controversy. At the BSides SF computer security conference, members of the Ada Initiative, a group that promotes the role of women in open source software, got embroiled in controversy. When asked by the convention operators to advise on ways to make the conference welcoming to all, the Ada Initiative folks
allegedly made some comments that resulted in the cancellation of Violet Blue’s talk on
“sex +/- drugs: known vulns and exploits.”. Howls of outrage, threats and controversy resulted.
All of these incidents have me thinking. I do not have one simple nostrum or insight. I could not set all this aright with a tweet. I feel badly for folks on all sides--folks who got fired, folks whose speeches got canceled, and folks whose words were given weight in the cancellation of speeches.
I think it’s hard to create a public space that will make everyone happy. For one thing, a few folks will not be happy one way or the other. For another, a fringe of people on the far end of almost any issue follow systems of belief and conduct inevitably incompatible with a happy result. For a third thing, positive change rarely arrives in a neat package,but instead usually requires lots of growing pains and uncertainties about the rules.
I can state my beliefs more simply in the words of the Unitarian Universalists. I believe in these seven principles:
1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and
7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
I would like to see more focus on achieving these principles, and less focus on assailing one another.
To state a few specifics:
1. I’d like to see far more women in technical fields, and particularly in open source computing.I believe that this will require a massive effort to change the culture, starting in elementary school and continuing into professional life. I believe that some important issues are raised in the discussion of the “locker room atmosphere” of some male-dominated fields. I also believe that the solutions will not come so much from proper-talk guidelines as from concrete steps to encourage women to enter tech fields, and encourage employers to create an equal workplace.
2. I’d like to see an informal decorum in public spaces. I do not think that a return to the more formal and prudish ways of an earlier era will work. But I do think that a combination of
“ratings” similar to movie ratings and anti-harassment rules at conferences that makes sense are a good thing. I do not favor instituting a lockdown on human expression in the name of suppressing hate speech. Freedom of speech is a precious commodity, particularly in a post-privacy time. I do not favor censorship and instead favor disclosure. But a stress upon courtesy in public places is essential.
3. I think that the twitterverse is a poor court to try issues in.
4. Hacker culture is much maligned and in many ways misunderstood. Yet folks who commit mayhem upon private companies in this type of matter via cyber-attacks are on the wrong path.
The DDoS might have a use in retarding weapons development in North Korea, but not in disputes like the recent ones in the news.
5. It’s 2013. It’s past time for some dinosaur views of cyber-culture to end.
6. It’s 2013. It’s past time for attempted censorship to end.
7. Rodney King’s words ring true in this context, “can’t we all just get along?”
I do not have any answers, but this latest burst of news has me asking questions.