First things first, a disclaimer:
- I don’t condone, nor I accept any form of harassment, physical, verbal or electronic.
- I don’t mix technical qualities with life situations. Your choices, opinions, abilities and disabilities may affect the quality of your work, but this is not about those, but about the result: your work.
- I don’t promote abusive behaviour as a form of getting your point across, even if no abusive intention was meant.
- I do promote inclusion in STEM to balance towards the real proportion in society.
- Both GamerGate and DongleGate were disasters on their own, for very different reasons. I want neither to happen.
- I have Asperger’s Syndrome and see things more black and white than most people. I cannot accept qualitative features being used for quantitative purposes. None of this is meant as an offence, or to explain or validate harassment, abuse or any other unethical behaviour. It’s just an analysis.
When Charles Babbage begun creating his analytical machine, he was worried about the hardware and the implications of it for mathematics and the world. But we all know that hardware is only as good as its software, and so Ada Lovelace’s work was of equal importance on that critical milestone. Both of them were mathematicians of an elite that weren’t thoroughly recognised until much later. Both were extremely methodical, eccentric and disconnected from reality. All well known characteristics that Hans Asperger recognised circa 1920 as what we now know as autism.
In the 40’s to 60’s, only really brilliant mathematicians could understand computing, mostly because they were just developing it, but thousands of men and women took part in building and using them. At that time, the proportion of people “using computers” was closer to the social distribution than it is today. However, the number of people working “with computers” was independent of their understanding of the underlying technology. Naturally, the distribution then follows the source group’s own. But after the first real case for general computing (WWII), the world was left with a tool that could do so much more, and people realised that they needed to take it to the next level.
Still too many people were clueless as to how computers worked, and a huge effort was made to get people “into computing”. But the importance and prevalence of computing those days were inexistent, so the appeal to the general public, men and women, were close to zero. The kind of people that felt attracted by it then, and during the 70’s and 80’s were the same groups as Babbage, Lovelace, Turin: people in the autistic spectrum. This is not to say that non-autistic people did’t do it, or worse, that they couldn’t do it. On the contrary, the proof that this is not an autistic-only field is today’s proliferation of computer scientists around the world, regardless of their mental status, gender, race or culture.
During the 70’s, computers had specific purposes, and only universities and very big companies had them. The 80’s saw the first boom in “personal” computing, but it was still dominated by self-built kits, and those like me that remember that time fondly, know how much of a weirdo we were in the eyes of the general population. While more people were taking on computing careers, those experimenting at home still had a clear autistic predisposition.
It was only in the 90’s, when Bill Gates became a millionaire, that people started giving “some” credit to the field, and personal computing toppled and then completely replaced mainframes. During the 80’s, operating systems were developed for the common tasks like word editing, spreadsheets and simple databases, but it wasn’t until the 90’s that most people had one in their homes and small shops. It became ubiquitous only then.
But even in the 90’s, all the attempts to simplify programming (Logo? Basic?) couldn’t really help you do much with computers. They were (and still are) basically toys. So, people that learnt Basic have realised early on that they couldn’t write anything meaningful and would either have to delve deep into C, or give up completely. That was still promoting those of the more autistic disposition to stay and the rest to find something more interesting to do.
But as with every spectrum, thresholds are biased.
If you understand a bit about autism, you know that all we want is to be left alone to our own devices. Don’t come to my house telling me what to do and how. This is most upsetting for autistic people and you will be faced with some unintentional harsh responses due to the genetic reasons that autistic people cannot control or fix.
Autistic people were *always* banned from social life for thousands of years (maybe more?), and since ever they tried to group into segregated societies, often characterised with bigotry and rudeness, not uncommonly harassment. The Royal Society was such a place, and not unlike the current computer science scenario, was dominated by “White European Males“.
It seems obvious to me that the “White European” part is easily explained because of the degree of development that Europe had at the time (1600’s), compared to everywhere else in the world. The parallel with modern computer scientists is clear: North America and Western Europe have a much higher rate of Caucasians well educated and positioned in society, for obvious reasons that don’t fit this text to discuss, than the other groups.
When a field is new and needs pressure to get to, most of the people that will get in will be of a similar disposition. In the same way that most voluntary army cadets will have a similar mentality. I would never be an army volunteer, but I was a computer enthusiast since I was 5 years old.
Recent studies have shown that the proportion of males and females in high-functioning autistic people (the ones that like to solve complex problems for fun) is 4:1. But boys and girls behave very differently, with boys having a lot more physically and verbally violent games, and girls being more sensitive. With a start ratio of 4:1, it’s not hard how that biased self-selection can get to 10:1 or more.
What has become
But after the initial self-balancing, true bigots and abusers (trolls), saw the chance to belong to a society that was professing, for completely different reasons, that different people be kept out. I hope it’s clear enough that high-functioning autistic people have a valid and important reason to keep people out of their lives and groups. Otherwise, they cannot function properly.
Moreover, autistic people have the tendency of responding badly to social pressure, and that includes behaviour that is often misinterpreted as harassment, bullying and violent. It is not uncommon to see very drastic ends to really sad stories.
Autistic people also have a higher than usual rate of trusting people, and therefore much more easily abused by trolls, who will become part of a community and extend their modus operandi, but not necessarily their intention.
People on less advantageous backgrounds (wealth, disabilities, minorities, life choices) had even less chances of getting in a club that was trying to keep people out. But with trolls inside, they’ll make sure this becomes impossible, and that’s how situations like GamerGate happen.
It is important to separate the original cause of aggregation and demand for separation, sometimes aggressively, as a classic high-functioning autistic process, from the subsequent harassment and directed intentional aggression that trolls had after they took over well meaning but fearful and trusting mostly autistic people.
That fact, however, does not condone any aggression, including from autistic people. But what people have to understand is that, if the aggression comes from an autistic person, even high-functioning, they very likely cannot control it and need help. Being offended is ok, but reserving the right to then discharge your own contained aggression, even if you are a minority, is not the way to solve this.
We all have problems, but turning off your care-meter because you are a minority and have just being offended is not ok. And that includes autistic people, too.
Why is this important?
Because computer science has moved on from the nerd-zone for at least 20 years, but much more so in the last 10.
The barrier into technology is so low now that anyone can enter, and once they’re in, they don’t need to be autistic to enjoy. Furthermore, neurotypical people can be as good (or better) than autistic people even in the hardest of problems. After all, being high-functioning autistic doesn’t mean you’re smarter, just means you want to do something that keep you away from people, and talking to machines is the best thing I can think of.
So nowadays we have all kinds of people, and with that, we’re back to the real distribution that societies have. All minorities are now represented by what they are in society. But trolls are haters, and they know some very cunning ways to keep unwanted people around, mostly using subversive tactics like physical, verbal and social abuse, doxing, DDoSing, etc.
We need to remove the trolls from our societies together. This is not a minorities vs majorities fight, this is a fight for the right to be safe. The new minorities have as much right to be safe as the original minority who created the space. And both minorities have the right to be represented, but so does the majorities. The only thing we want to get rid of are the trolls.
What we should move towards
So, autistic people want a space of their own, trolls take over, destroy the Internet. Minorities try to participate, trolls shoot them down, behave like assholes. What else is news? As it all started in the 40’s, we need a compatible distribution with the rest of society. The very definition of minority is that there is less of. So it makes no sense to expect an equal distribution of minority and majority on each specific scale.
For instance, on average worldwide, we have half men, half women. So I would expect the same distribution in STEM subjects. We may be far from it in computer science and physics, but not in biology or chemistry. It’s still not 50/50, so we can’t take each topic to be exactly 50/50, but we can expect the whole STEM subjects to be around that ballpark.
Of the world population, at a glance I see 18% is Han Chinese, while about two thirds of that is “European”, and a third of each Arabic, Hindu and African, living all over the world. The real distribution doesn’t matter much, but I’d expect a similar distribution for STEM in the same way.
Now, getting there will involve two distinct activities:
- Deep grass root movements to increase the development and literacy of impoverished communities, education of better off communities regarding equality and inclusion.
- Improve STEM inclusion and attractiveness for all members of society, as well as remove the exclusion characteristics (trolls) of the already existing community.
People that are keen on seen global equality (1) have to fight that battle outside of STEM subjects. The fights you should have inside are those that discriminate minorities that can already be represented in STEM subjects (2).
For example, all the feminists advocate for inclusion in open source communities already have the will and ability to participate on equal grounds as men. The fact that someone is gay or transgender makes absolutely no difference in a STEM community and should bear no value in inclusion or acceptance. The fact that they are not included is a horrible mistake and has to be fixed inside STEM communities.
We should move towards STEM communities that have a relevant distribution as far as STEM can have on its own. We’re not looking for equal numbers of all minorities, we’re looking for equal distribution of minorities, and those are two very different things.
What we cannot have
What seems to be happening, and it’s something that will not fix anything, is that we’re moving to the other side.
We have to discourage any kind of troll, regardless if they agree with you. It may be satisfying to see someone on your side trolling someone you’re against, but that’s as bad as their side’s troll behaviour. Encouraging hate, even in the form of biased consensus and imposed cultural traits is just as bad as any other form of harassment.
More importantly, it’s that form of harassment that gets to the core of autistic people, including high-functioning ones. It’s the very reason why we hide from people and talk to machines. Cases like DongleGate are as extremist as GamerGate, and as offensive to me.
The fact that one misinterpreting person with one picture and one tweet can get someone fired is disconcerting beyond words. As disconcerting as people ganging up on girls just because they want representativeness on their games. Both behaviours are beyond words.
What we cannot have is to flip sides and have the suffering minorities so far gaining the upper hand and gaining the right to harass the majority or worse still, the forgotten minority that started it all and had no intentional part in any of the bullying.
We need to protect the minorities from abuse, and that includes the odd folks that don’t look mentally retarded or deficient in any way but behave oddly and sometimes aggressively. Those people are too often interpreted as bullies when all they want is to be left alone, and all they need is help adapting to an alien society.