ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Chicks —

There was a joker in every crowd.  I use the word “joker” because the jokers traditionally have thin defensive skin and calling them what they are instead of Jokers gets that hurt look I don’t need on a night of triumph.

All the nights were nights of triumph on the JET LAMP tour, by the way. I had crowds as small as 4 and as large as 100, and they all had high points and low points, and I think it was a great couple of months. But there’s always the Jokers. The Jokers would always ask questions that were more about the Joker than the film they just saw, like commenting on how everyone had beards, or glasses, or thought some people weren’t dressed for the occasion. A couple would be more cutting, regarding possible proclivities or social skills of an interviewee, as if you could tell anything from this footage about the interviewee’s life as it was currently lived.

But one question would pop up in various ways and in its boat of shallow judgmentalism showed a greater, more interesting situation.  So I’ll discuss that.

The question is, “Where Da Women At?”

At this point, for both the documentaries/sub-episodes and a variety of other projects, I’ve interviewed about 320 people in the realm of computer history. Some of them have been impromptu and short, and others have been two-day affairs requiring lunch breaks and discussions over said lunch on how to address all the issues raised. I have done a lot of interviews. I have planned them. I have sought them out, and I’ve certainly been there for choosing who gets interviewed and what.

Gender, race and income level does not come into it. I promise you. I do not sit around getting calls from women involved in computers and quietly pressing 9 to delete the voicemail or hitting the d key on my cellphone mail client to push these unwanted females into the bin. Does. Not. Happen.

My films have primarily been about events happening in the 1960-1990 computer era, with a few references to “modern” iterations of the subject. In doing so, there’s a simple, basic fact:  Less women used computers back then. I had less of a pool of women who would ever potentially contact me or be contacted about my documentary, and so if a guy turned down my movie (and many did) then it was less destructive to the quota of male interviewees than it was to the female ones.  In fact, if I couldn’t interview someone male of a certain stature or position or historical significance, finding someone who could answer the same questions or be the same voice of authority was, more likely than not, also going to be the same gender.

So up to this point, you and I are both probably on the same page and thinking of it all in the same terms, so you then make the expected point. “But Jason,” you say, “that’s understandable given the circumstance, but we’re much better now, and getting better.” Better, in this case, means “more women in engineering” and, ostensibly, “less women being shunted aside on the basis of gender”.

Yes. Cognitively that’s true, but in actuality the situation is not worked out and it is still in effect. It is still weird, in some ways, to see really kick-ass women engineers aggressively innovating and being at the lead of a team doing engineering problems. It is made note of, or light of, when described. For a fun hour, go ahead and see how Google VP Marissa Mayer is mentioned and described in press.

But before we get off track onto quotas and pointing out the obvious, here is the specific sound bite I started using at the end of the GET LAMP tour answering questions about why there’s not more women in GET LAMP:

“Until mom and dad stop pushing little Suzy away from the Tonka Truck and towards the Barbies, my technical documentaries will not have a lot of women in them.”

Less of a pool of women in computer subjects mean less of a pool of women who might really excel in their field or get on the radar of “person you need to ask about X” when I’m doing a film about Y where X plays a part.  It means that just like expert rock climbers are generally going to be in very good shape, engineers who are getting major attention or innovating in a hugely public way are going to be men, and so on.

But this isn’t even what I really wanted to talk about.

The whole entry to this point is basically obvious stuff. You can feel good that you’re following along.  Here’s something I’m encountering that is not so obvious.

During my last DEFCON speech, I said that “being a historian means being a hater of all things”. By that, I mean you watch the same patterns happening again and again. You see patterns of people pointing out patterns of things happening again and again. Once you see it, you start to go a little crazy because you realize how futile a lot of action is in terms of using cold, simple logic to manipulate choice.

So the pattern I now see, more than ever, is that people who live in a certain period of time start to evoke their own values on the previous eras and are shocked or disappointed or ignorant that the era is going to maintain what happened back then regardless of what happened later. Need it easier? The present, which is past’s future, is perennially disappointed in the past’s inability to incorporate present’s values.

It’s been a while since I’ve written in this weblog regularly, so I won’t get too meta on you, so let’s go back to brass tacks/reality: in general, in the computer industry, at least up into the 1990s, if you were a woman and you walked into an engineering section, you would more likely than not be asked to get the coffee.  Or, if you were in a meeting, be asked to make copies for the team. You might make noise about it, sure, and if you really got loud about it you could be sure that you’d sure not be getting any damn coffee or copies for anybody again, but you were still in an environment where you were not putting up with that crap, not where that crap was, itself, something that you shouldn’t have to put up with.

You can scream at me for weeks about examples of women engineers, architects and technical folks who are out there, but find me one without the stories, the stories of what the guy engineers were like when they got there, or the first promotion into management, or anything where they excelled in the sea of norms. It was a weird situation for people, and while things got less weird quickly for individuals, it is still a weird situation.

As society moves along in its floppy, messed-up way it does and it always has, maybe Suzy will get the Tonka Truck or the Adafruit kit for her birthday. And maybe there won’t even be a low grumble on the side from other family members as she pushes the truck around or reads the instruction manual on how to make a Mintyboost. But that’s not happened yet. Not really. I’ve got hundreds of cites of women in technical fields covered with some sort of reference, oblique or joking or self-aware or subtle, along the lines of “and she’s a woman”.

I can’t do anything about this. It is a fact. If I keep making documentaries taking place involving computers and engineers and especially if I focus pre-2000, it is going to keep happening. There’s no agenda. There’s no intent. There’s no overarching aim here. It’s what happened.

Next question, Joker.


Categorised as: computer history | documentary

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8 Comments

  1. Jason Scott says:

    By the way, I’m aware I said this in another fashion in a same-named entry some time ago, but now that the movie’s come out there’s a lot more contemporary attention, and I wanted to give better historical context to not just the gender issue but the greater present-looks-at-past-through-glasses-of-present issue.

  2. lily (jim) davis says:

    as a chick who’s always “acted” like a boy, i’d like to take the opportunity to sincerely thank my folks for the legos, and the nintendo, the erector sets, the star wars memorabilia, and most of all, for the endless pep-talks when the other kids thought i was a first-class weirdo. it might be weird for a while, but i suppose at least these days any outcast kid with an internet connection can find a little love and society. at least there’s that.

  3. Sarah says:

    I’m sure in the history of adventure games (as a whole) there have been plenty of women worth interviewing… assuming they consented to it.

    But, the GET LAMP documentary seems to deal with the very early days of interactive fiction, before someone put a GUI on it. So even if there were women using the machines back then, they’d have more likely to have been typists than engineers. I watched GET LAMP and honestly didn’t have a problem with the lack of women in it.

    But then I guess you can’t please all the people all the time.

  4. Tabsels says:

    Women in tech actually sounds like a really interesting subject for a documentary. When looking at history, how people saw themselves and related to one another is often the interesting part. The facts are usually easy: 1066 Norman Conquest of Britain, that sort of thing. But how did the common people react to that? What changed, what remained the same? It’s how ancient Sumerian clay tablets are so valuable not despite but because they show the boring numbers behind the economy, which allows us a rare glimpse into the life of common Sumerians.

    Of course thinking up work for somebody else is always very easy, but still I’d seriously recommend looking into making a documentary on women in tech.

  5. Zoe Blade says:

    Thanks for just interviewing the women in your documentaries the same way you interview the men, and not grouping them all together in the editing room, singling them out as different. This happens far too often in documentaries and books with a technical subject matter (the book Analog Days sticks in my mind as an example), where the author or interviewer gets obsessed with how it must have been a feminist statement or an act of gender role defiance to be even in the field at all, rather than talking about the interviewee’s accomplishments the same way they do for all the men.

  6. Mike Hillyer says:

    You know, I think the contrast between comments 3 & 4 is fascinating in its own right.

  7. nimbus says:

    I don’t think it’s necessarily a “joker” comment to ask about the fact that there are fewer women in your film – it could just be something that was noticed and the audience wanted to know more about why. The reason why is one that makes sense given the situation in the time period you’re covering. I have the film but haven’t watched it yet, I’m looking forward to it though.

  8. Decius says:

    “So the pattern I now see, more than ever, is that people who live in a certain period of time start to evoke their own values on the previous eras and are shocked or disappointed or ignorant that the era is going to maintain what happened back then regardless of what happened later.”

    I’m going to start quoting this and crediting it to “Jason Scott, Historian, 2010″. Do you have a preference if any link should go to this post, to the blog homepage, or no link?