Show Hide image

Beijing’s Olympic park is pristine, but something is missing – people

The whole area still looks immaculate, but seems pointless.

Late in the evening a few days ago, after 16 or so hours of waiting and flying and waiting and flying, I got stuck in Heathrow Airport. Not at, but in. There was a group of us – a family with three young children, another woman on her own, me – who had been the last off the plane (the kids had been asleep and needed delicate parental carrying to avoid tantrums on waking; I’d found a lost iPhone and the hostess asked me to show her the exact seat where I’d found it, which of course I couldn’t remember, being almost asleep on my feet, too, and so rapidly lost my feeling of good-Samaritan smugness).

We’d walked, as directed, from the plane up staircases and along corridors, following the signs to the baggage hall. But then the signs seemed to give up on us, or at least they pointed through doors that were locked. We turned around and tried to go through other doors, which were also locked, and so, still hopeful, we attempted to go back the way we had come, and found that the doors had been locked behind us. Then we saw a pair of doors that we’d only just walked through automatically shut and lock themselves and soon enough we began to feel like we were in a Mission Impossible, airtight, slow-death chamber of doom that would require one of us (the smallest child?) to be sent up an air vent as an emissary to civilisation and help.

There was no one around, in any direction. All the now-locked doors were glass, so you could see through them down the length of corridors that only airports can house – tunnels of grey as far as the eye can see, all empty. The only person finding the whole situation remotely entertaining was the little boy in the David Beckham No 7 shirt, who was having one of those early glimpses of the utter helplessness of his parents.

Take me to Mongolia

The panic didn’t last long. A phone was found, someone was called who called someone else who called someone else, and soon enough we saw our rescuer – an airport official coming into view at the end of one of the interminable corridors. We were pathetically grateful. And in that way that only people who are at fault can do, she blamed us for our misfortune and denied that anyone else had been left on the plane when she had locked all the glass doors, even though there we were before her, a party of seven, stuck.

This is all a long way of saying that there is something peculiarly disturbing about being in a place that is usually teeming with people after everyone’s gone, about seeing emptiness somewhere unused to the state. You start to hear echoes, see shadows, but then even the memory of human activity is overtaken by the deadening quiet. It’s like being in the office long after everyone has left, or at a seaside resort midwinter. It can be beguiling, in a haunting sort of way, but often it’s just plain old spooky.

The plane I’d caught had flown from Beijing, and the day before the flight, on one of those Beijing afternoons when you can hardly see your own feet through the smog, I had gone to the north of the city to see the Olympic Park. It felt appropriate, as the London Games came to an end, to make a pilgrimage to its predecessor. (A pilgrimage with the help of an extremely grumpy taxi driver. Hailing a taxi in Beijing involves emotional bribery: nine out of every ten will refuse your destination point blank and drive off. Most will look at you as though you’ve asked to be driven to inner Mongolia. You have to plead.)

Arriving at the park, you see the stadium first, that frantic asymmetrical creation, rising up against the orange sky. But then your eyes fall back to earth and you realise that, on all the highway-like walkways and footpaths by the fake, dragon-shaped river, there are very few people. This is Heathrow Airport syndrome magnified a thousandfold. A place built for hundreds of thousands, for peak human density, for a condensed period of time, now hosts a smattering of tourists and the odd seller of ribbons on sticks and photo books.

We all know the stories of Olympic parks falling into disrepair – the empty swimming pools and ragged running tracks – but, this being China, there’s no chance of that. The whole area still looks immaculate, but seems pointless. The sheer acreage of empty space, coupled with the white mist of pollution, makes you feel as if you’re walking in some post-apocalyptic concrete wilderness. It would be beautiful, if it wasn’t so bleak.

Pretty vacant

Two years ago, a report by State Grid Corporation of China said that 64.5 million electricity meters had registered zero consumption over a six-month period, suggesting just as many homes in China were empty – enough to house about 200 million people (a startling number, even out of a population of 1.3 billion). The figure was disputed, but emptiness seems to stalk the nation – there are countless photographs of newly built, vacant shopping malls, deserted theme parks and whole housing estates that resemble, from an aerial view, lifeless toytowns.

And yet, in Beijing, on every street, on every corner, you see cranes. They are building here as though they’re running out of time. In some ways they are: a new report by the Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says the government needs to spend £5trn over 20 years to accommodate the 200 million people who will move from the countryside to the cities. But in the meantime, many of the new buildings, and new cities, are eerily devoid of movement.

The new buildings in Beijing are vast – not tall, but wide – and shiny, glass-fronted, gleaming. I saw more window cleaners in Beijing than old people. But China is not only building new homes and offices. In a central neighbourhood, near Raffles, the Novotel, the Grand Hyatt and the Oriental Peace Hotel and about 50 other hotels, I passed a building site that will soon be a monolithic Waldorf Astoria. It was half-finished, a skeletal frame. You wonder who will stay in all those rooms at crazy prices, and how many of them will sit there week after week, empty, like all those shopping malls and apartments and Olympic parks.


Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

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.