Tech has a white dude problem, and it doesn't get better by not talking about it

The organisers of the British Ruby Conference have cancelled the event due to their failure to invite a diverse speaker line-up.

The British Ruby Conference announced, last night, that the 2013 event would be cancelled, because of a furore stemming from one developer's reaction:

Ruby is a programming language, developed in the mid-1990s, which has gained a lot of popularity in recent years as the basis of a framework used for building web applications. As with programming in general, the Ruby community undoubtedly skews heavily male, and the conference – known as "BritRuby" – cites that in its defence.

In their official explanation for why the decision was made to not put on the 2013 event, the BritRuby organisers write:

We wanted innovative ideas and we whole-heartedly pushed everyone that submitted a proposal to think outside the box. Our selection process was the content and nothing more. Not the individuals gender, race, age or nationality. It’s about community…

The Ruby community has been battling with issues of race and gender equality. We at Brit Ruby were well aware of this fundamental and important issue. This was one of the reasons why we encouraged everyone to submit a speaker proposal.

It is often the case with situations like this that those under attack cite the belief that they picked the line-up based entirely on quality. For instance, it remains true that orchestras are dominated by men, and for years, explanations were given about how only men had the strength, or control, or innate musicality to play certain instruments, and so on.

Yet as orchestras gradually introduced blind auditions – actually picking the line-up based purely on quality – the gender balance shifted. And it appears much the same may be true of technology. Josh Susso, the developer whose tweet sparked the whole discussion which ended up leading to the conference being pulled, ran his own ruby conference in San Francisco, GoGaRuCo, which had a completely blind selection process.

As a result of that, and explicitly reaching out to women's programming groups, the slate of speakers was a quarter women. Even though it may be easier in a city like San Francisco, it is possible.

Sadly, the debate around BritRuby's monoculture led, according to the statement, to their sponsors getting spooked after accusations of sexism and racism threatened to toxify the brand. With uncertain sponsorship and personal liabilities, the organisers were forced to cancel.

They did not go out in a blaze of glory.

Sean Handley, who has run previous conventions with the BritRuby team but was not involved in this one, posted his own take on the situation which is slightly more self-pitying than the official one:

Yes, gender equality and racial equality are important. But the team's motives were to get the best speakers who were able to make it to Manchester. Turns out, a lot of the famous Rubyists are white guys and all of the ones who said they'd like to come were, indeed, white guys.

Making an issue out of that is, frankly, misguided. Adding a token minority speaker is offensive to that speaker, it says "You're here because you tick a box - not because you're skilled." It doesn't matter who speaks at a conference, as long as they're capable, interesting and relevant. That's what matters: content, not style.

Even that defence starts getting a bit uncomfortable in the end. If you are defending your all-white, all-male speaker line-up by saying that you only wanted the "best speakers", it's hard for non-white, non-male people to not infer that they are considered sub-par. Saying that the only way to fix the problem would be to add "token" speakers makes it sound like there are no non-token speakers worth inviting.

And saying that "it doesn't matter who speaks at a conference, as long as they're capable, interesting and relevant" is plainly untrue: it does matter, to a hell of a lot of people, and if you set out to be a leading voice in your community, you owe it to yourself and that community to try and make it a better group to be in.

Some – not all – elements of that community sorely need help, judging by the comments beneath Handley's post.

The whole event ruined for everyone but a few narrow minded individuals.

Yes. The people who want not all-white-male-speakers are narrow minded.

Next thing would be people complaining about the lack of Unicorns on the conferences.

Women in tech: Literally Imaginary, apparently.

[Quoting an earlier commenter] I feel this needs to happen more and more so Conference organizers are forced to start considering diversity from the beginning and initiate programs or reach out to more non-white-males to speak

While we're at it, let's make sure to throw in a few over-50s, a disabled woman and a couple of homosexuals. We need to focus on diversity after-all.

Where is the line?

Oh no! Gay people might be at the conference?!

Seriously, this whole equality crap is… crap! One thing is when there are cases where women are not treated fairly (not good) or abused (very bad), but equality is a non-issue for most of us in the Western world. In cases where exploitation or abuse are confirmed, society should act for sure, but the reality is men and women are not equal in many ways. It's not that one is better and the other is worse is that, quite simply, we're different. I see plenty of "Women Seminars" (not very "Men Seminars" I should add) and I don't see anyone rushing those asking for "equality" or "lack of men on these".

I'm done here.

Update: Changed the headline slightly, and corrected the reference to Sean Handley

Photograph: 2013.britruby.com

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.