The crime of the queue

To the Musée d'Orsay in Paris for an exhibition entitled "Crime et châtiment", which celebrates (can this be right?) the 190 years of French punition between Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau's calling for the abolition of the death penalty (1791) and its final abolition (1981). On a chilly June morning, with the wind blowing grit off the quais, now would seem a good time to meditate on the bizarre fate of Saint-Fargeau himself.

Allegedly the casting voter for the regicide of Louis XVI, he was assassinated in January 1793, on the eve of the king's execution, by a former member of the Garde du Corps. The usual Revolutionary canonisation followed: body laid out in the Place Vendôme, buried in the Panthéon, then a four-act musical celebrating his life staged within a month of his death. A cartoon for J L David's painting of Saint-Fargeau's final martyred moments is on show inside the Musée, together with his later Death of Marat. But what's weighing on me, comme d'habitude, is the madness of the crowd.

It's only 10.30am and there are hundreds of them swarming around the entrances and grudgingly sorting themselves into long, snaking lines. It looks as if a formidable pan-European moiety awoke with a start in its chain hotels and rushed along here for a little crime et châtiment of its own.

Jump start

What is it that makes us put ourselves through this torture, this ordeal-by-boredom designed to prove our aesthetic blamelessness? I say "we", but of course I mean "them", for my companion and I soon made with our press cards and swanned inside. But hey, c'mon - before you start inveighing against me for this queue-jumping, please observe that I am writing about "Crime et châtiment", although probably not in the way the Muséed'Orsay's PR flacks would prefer.

In truth, I've come to regard my membership of the NUJ as effectual solely in such situations. Indeed, I even think of it as the National Union of Jumpers, since I've bunked into more museums, art galleries and historic sites than I care to remember on the strength of my avowed commitment to fair wages and working conditions for all manner of hacks. Yet think not unkindly of me, for my childhood memories of the terrifying press of vulturine humanity in search of artificial carrion are seared deep. In 1969, in Amsterdam, my parents insisted on dragging me to a huge Rembrandt tercentennial exhibition where the punters were almost tearing chunks out of each other, so keen were they to get inside the Rijksmuseum.

Seen and herd

And then again, far from one's first trip to the Louvre being a breathless dash in the style of Godard's Bande à part, like me you probably found yourself shuffling in a herd of schoolchildren, wheeled en masse to confront the tiny, glassed-in postage stamp of La Joconde, while wondering: "What's so great about that?" Indeed, it sometimes seems to me that there's an inverse correlation between the size of the object on view and the size of the crowds that swarm about it.

There is timed entry to exhibitions these days, so in theory there need be no queuing. But need be doesn't really enter into it: the museums must increase their throughput, and so the queue is simply relocated inside the exhibition. Nowadays, no signature show is complete without its halting
march and the stop-glimpse-start of the hallowed objects.

Where will it all end? Every time I attend some fashionable Hoxton opening and see the great mob of the rich, the aristocratic and the useless teeming about the entrance to a gallery that cannot possibly contain them, it occurs to me that, were the more proletarian queue for a museum to be bussed in, a Terror of some kind would undoubtedly ensue.

ll of this courses through my mind as we stumble through the semi-darkness of "Crime et châtiment". Ahead of me there's an object that seems to be the focus of considerable attention, the queue backing up and lumping into a throng. What's this? Why, it's Madame Guillotine herself, in all her steely finesse, her gaunt and wooden exactitude. But who sits below? Not cackling, stitching, purling tricoteuses, but a couple of plump security guards, walkie-talkies warbling on their hips. The crowd is cowed, sedated by the gloom and its own animal heat.

We move on - our time will come.

Next week: Real Meals

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 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals

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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.