A series of unfortunate events

This week, I thought I'd run, piecemeal, through some of the smaller follies I've encountered in the past seven days, such as the cab rank outside Clapham Junction Station - or rather, the attitude of one cabby towards it. The rank is situated in the middle of a busy road with no safe pedestrian access; when I remarked on this, having managed to get wife, child and dog into a cab without them being crushed, the cabby said, "It's always been like that." As if this justified any ridiculousness: you could imagine him in all ages and places - say, squinting at rebellious slaves crucified along the Appian Way - and, when you remarked on the barbarism, shaking his head and saying, "It's always been like that." This kind of madness has a name - conservatism.

Off menu

But there are equally deranging purviews that are bang up to date. Dining with elderly friends - all bar one in their nineties - at a fancy bar-cum-restaurant, I suggested to the waitress that she turn off the muzak, because it was making things difficult for those with hearing aids. She was utterly discombobulated. "But . . ." she managed to squeeze out, "we can't have no music - this is a restaurant." When I last checked, food-for-sale and tables-to-eat-it-on defined a restaurant, not Phil Collins warbling, "I can hear it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord . . ."

Just as zeitgeisty are obese people on mobility scooters wearing tracksuits. The quintessential sight of modern Britain, it should be put on postcards together with jolly policemen carrying Heckler & Koch rifles, Olympic stadiums with built-in obsolescence and looters trying on clothes.

I was having difficulty getting the organisers of a literary festival book me a hotel room I could smoke in. The saga went on for some time, until I spluttered over the phone: "Why can't you just call round the local hotels and find me one?" There was a silence, then my interlocutor said, "Well, you see, we don't actually book the hotel rooms. It's done by another company." A vision of interlocking private enterprises as complex as a medieval mosaic sprang to my mind: once it would've been another department that was responsible, but now it's the Hidden Hand of the Market that's afflicted with paralysis.

In Boots the poor pedant in front of me at the till engaged in a lengthy debate with the shop assistant: "Don't you see," she was complaining as I tuned in, "on this 25 per cent off voucher it says that it's valid with transactions over £40, and these two items I'm buying cost £46 altogether." The shop assistant shook her head wearily. "No," she rejoined, "the voucher is only valid if one of the items you're buying costs more than £40." "But," said the customer, "that's not what 'transaction' means - a transaction is a single act of purchasing, no matter how many individual items are involved, that's the dictionary definition." I wandered to another till - when someone appeals to the dictionary in Boots, hysteria is surely in the offing.

Mind you, at least you could, in principle, consult a dictionary in Boots, because it has bright strip-lighting. Not so in the corporate hotels that litter the arterial byways of our land. I stayed in three last week and in not one of them was the bedside reading lamp worthy of the name. At one, I managed to contrive enough illumination by removing the shade, but mostly I had to adopt rather disturbing - and lewd - postures in order decipher print. Perhaps no one reads in hotel rooms any more, in which case you should find a talking book of the Bible in the bedside table, shouted out by Brian Blessed.

Lost in Glos

And so, finally, to Gloucester, from where I had to take a minicab to Cheltenham. "Montpellier Gardens," I said to the driver. "Hmm," he hmmed, puzzled, "I'm not altogether sure of that location." I observed that it was probably near the town hall, and he said, "You're probably right." I said
I had hoped he had a more reliable mental map of the environs than me, given that he was the local, and he said petulantly: “But it's not local, is it, it's Cheltenham." I pointed out that this was hardly Ulan Bator, and besides he had a satnav to assist him. "Ah, but you see," he said, his tone suggesting that this was the clincher, "they're always putting up new estates and that in Cheltenham." Such intense parochialism was at once deranging - and quite comforting. I sat back to enjoy the ride along the A road into the unknown.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.