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What Derren and Gordon Brown have in common

Will Self on susceptibility.

At the end of the first half of Derren Brown's current stage show, Svengali, the accomplished prestidigitator and manipulator of minds makes a plea that no one in the audience should reveal any of his act's content, lest they ruin it for others. Fair enough. A cynic might say that Brown's more concerned that no one devalue his shtick, but actually these are two sides of the same palmed coin - and besides, I happen to believe Brown is generally a good thing who adds to the gaiety of the nation.

True, he's not an illusionist with the stature of, say, the Great Lafayette (né Sigmund Neuberger), who perished in Edinburgh in the notorious Empire Palace Theatre fire of 1911 while performing his signature "Lion's Bride" illusion, wherein a smallish woman was metamorphosed into a big cat. Such was Lafayette's hold on the public that when a fault in a stage light caused it to plummet and ignite the set, the audience, assuming this was all part of the show, sat still and watched while the illusionist and ten other crew members were incinerated.

As I say, I've no desire to rain on Derren's parade, but I do think the methods he employs to obtain the raw material of his performances are worth discussing because they teach us so much about that critical component of human folly, suggestibility. Besides, I think it unlikely that the Venn intersection between New Statesman readers and potential Derren Brown audiences comprises many members - possibly I'm the sole one.

The first time I saw Brown, a few years ago, he told the massed ranks of the goggle-eyed in no uncertain terms that nothing he was doing in any way involved the supernatural. In this he was following a grand tradition of professional magicians acting as debunkers of the paranormal, the most notable example of which was Houdini himself. Nevertheless, during the interval I overheard several people saying to their companions words to the effect of: "Ooh, he says it's not real magic - but I think he's lying".

Playing the fool

Two psychological phenomena were operating simultaneously here. First, the average Derren Brown audience member must be more suggestible than most: why else would she or he be there in the first place? After all, if you don't unconsciously wish to be fooled, why go and see an illusionist? Second, Brown's impassioned assertion of the rationally explicable nature of what he was doing constituted an example of negative suggestibility - primed, by him, to disbelieve everything he did and said, the audience flatly denied this truth.

I assert that Brown primes his audience to disbelieve everything he does and says, but I should qualify this: like all adroit manipulators he wishes them consciously to question everything overt while unconsciously they absorb a great deal of covert instruction. To give one example: at the very beginning of each of his feats he throws balls or frisbees out into the audience, then asks whoever has caught one to come up on stage. This appears a completely random way of selecting his participants, but in fact he has already refined his selection to the more suggestible - because, when a frisbee flung by a magician is flying across an audience, who but someone who wishes to be manipulated would stick their hand up to catch it?

Once these gullible souls get up there, he subjects them to a further culling. In poker circles, good players become extremely adept at spotting another's "tell", the unconscious tic that reveals when someone is bluffing. Brown is a master of reading these tells: the little spasms we make when someone has hinted at a truth about ourselves we are concealing. Holding their hands, looking into their eyes, persuasively uttering their names, Brown has only to ask these already self-selectively suggestible people a few questions in order to establish whether they are what he requires for the rest of his act - namely, people who can be told what to do without being aware of it.

Hm, I wonder what other social groups exhibit the same characteristics as Derren Brown's audiences? Let's see . . . self-selecting for a willingness to suspend disbelief while also desperate to be told by a charismatic figure what they should do . . . That sounds uncannily like the psychological profile of a typical political party member, and, like Derren's dupes, party members are also fond of hand-holding and first-name-calling. Indeed, the only distinction between the audience for illusionists called Brown and the one for, say, party leaders also called Brown is that the former are unlikely to become disabused given that what they're after is purely entertainment, practised by someone they actively chose.

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.

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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.