My iMac is a beautiful object, but it should be beaten and scratched until it begs for mercy

In December 1899, Rudyard Kipling decided he needed his own car, so he hired one. It cost three and a half guineas a week. It was, as he put it, a "Victoria-hooded, carriage-sprung, carriage-braked, single-cylinder, belt-driven, fixed- ignition Embryo which, at times, could cover eight miles an hour". The car came with its own driver. The chauffeur/engineer was essential, because the car broke down almost every time Kipling took it for a drive.

With new machines, the tinkering is part of the point. You're meant to treat them as a bit of a hobby and enjoy taking them apart at the weekend, or on the hard shoulder of the A12 as juggernauts thunder past. There is a category of men who, you could say, are addicted to the process rather than the product. They are more interested in the car than the place where the car takes you.

You can see other examples standing in waders in the ponds on Hampstead Heath with their intricate model boats. When I was six years old, I thought that, when I was a grown-up, I would have a radio-controlled model boat that I could race round and round the pond. But, by the time I was seven, I had started to notice that these model boats spent 59 minutes on the bank being adjusted with intricate tools and oily fingers for every one minute they spent speeding around the pond. And, by the time I was eight, I realised that, for these men, it was the bit on the bank that was truly enjoyable. The one minute on the water was just to have an excuse for the nights in the garden shed, stripping the boat down and soaking the parts in oil, or whatever it is that people do when they strip down engines.

Tragically for these men, cars are now being built so that they can't be tinkered with. You're not even meant to change the oil. They are simpler, more reliable, and you really don't need to know anything about your car, apart from how to drive it. This is how things are meant to be. Technology is supposed to be transparent.

Which brings me to the computer. Yes, I know that, for a grand, we can now buy a computer that is a hundred times more powerful than the 1950s mainframe computer that used to fill an entire floor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and cost more than the national debt of Peru. I am grateful for the increase in power. I wrote my first book on an Amstrad 8256, and it occupied about five floppy discs and took two days to print out. My Macintosh LCIII from 1992 was very reliable, but it just ran out of space. I couldn't use it to get on to the internet, so I bought an iMac.

My iMac is a beautiful object but, even when it works, it does more than I need. It offers me such an overwhelming plenitude of choice that it's harder to find the few things I actually want to do. If you want to read Pride and Prejudice, you're better off going into the tiny bookshop on the high street, rather than looking in the British Library.

The real problem is when things go wrong. My old Mac crashed about once a year. My iMac (don't you hate that pert little "i" at the front?) crashes at least once a day. Experts say it's because there are now so many features that they start interfering with each other. The things you're meant to do to deal with that remind me of those men and their miniature boats and a life spent out in the shed. It's also meant to be easy to move files from my Mac on to my wife's Mac. Yet I spent days struggling with floppy discs, ethernet, cables (if you don't understand, don't ask - you really, really don't want to know), and now we are stuck with sending each other e-mails.

It's wrong to hate an inanimate object. It's an entirely irrational, primitive response. Nevertheless, I would like to take my computer down to the cellar and hang it by its base from a hook on the ceiling and beat it until it begs for mercy. I would like to scratch its screen with my fingernails to make it wince. I would like to do to it just a bit of what it has done to me.

If somebody manufactured a toaster that could answer phone calls and copy documents, but only made toast properly one time out of four, customers would rise up in fury. How do computer manufacturers get away with it?

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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.