The suburban way of death

To Mortlake Cemetery for the funeral of an elderly acquaintance - it was only my second funeral in the past year or so and I was struck by the sparse turnout compared with the previous one, which had been for a considerably younger person. But then it's difficult to reach a ripe old age without the windfalls having rotted away already, while the funerals of the young have at least this small compensation: they're mostly pretty well attended, unless the deceased was especially loathsome.

A stroll through the cemetery grounds was the usual pathos parade: "Sadly Missed . . .", "Much Loved . . .", "Together at Last . . ." and so on. Then there were the graves themselves, which, in progression from the marmoreal splendour of the High Victorian - complete with columns, petrified laurel leaves and caryatids - to the post-war modernism of row after row of miniature Mies van der Rohes, reflected the evolving urbanity of their constructors.

To observe that cemeteries are the deathly analogues of the living cities within which they're implanted is as trite as noting that the funerals of the old often aren't that popular - still, on some days a plastic bag snared in park railings emanates tremendous profundity, while on others mortality itself is pretty, um, dull. That our town plans are shaded in with these greyfield sites is something we take so much for granted as to scarcely notice it: the train pulls away from a terminus built on top of a overcrowded catacomb and accelerates past the tightly packed headstones of inner-city graveyards; then, as we reach the leafy outskirts, we find the green swathes of garden necroburbia.

London, being a large and old city, displays this character very plainly: the inner boroughs, having filled up their allotted plots by the early 19th century, bought up tracts of open land further out and soon developed thriving cemeteries, which is why - to give just one example - St Pancras and Islington Cemetery is located between Finchley High Road and the North Circular. They order these matters better elsewhere: the Glasgow Necropolis looms over the living city like a Caledonian fantasy on a theme by Arnold Böcklin; while in the polymorphously perverse context of Los Angeles, an Elysium such as Forest Lawn Memorial-Park seems homely.

Clearly part of Americans' Manifest Destiny is to plant corpses further west. Here, however, the fashion for cremation came about because of our right, tight little towns becoming overpopulated by cadavers. But there were still those pesky cremains to deal with and in due course our cities have become almost as cluttered with their containers. My father's leftovers reside in a multi-storey columbarium, while my mother had to make do with a collective marker on Hampstead Heath that she shares with other Jewish people who died of cancer.

Dead serious

I say she had to make do - but I mean me and her other formerly nearest and dearest, because, while I bow to no man or woman in the militancy of my agnosticism, I still think the odds are pretty much stacked against a purgatory that consists in hanging around Hampstead Heath - or Mortlake for that matter. Which is where collective irrationality enters the picture: why should the biodegradable remains of human beings be lumped together in this fashion? Is it that having been a part of the crowd in life they cannot bear to experience a solitary afterlife?

Obviously not. No, our necropolises are the product of two irrational beliefs that synergise, eating up quality real estate. On the one hand we have the childlike conviction that the plains of heaven closely resemble the gardens of suburbia - right down to concrete wishing wells and dinky picket fences - while on the other we have the livings' need to do everything, including "visiting" the dead, en masse. You see this in Scotland in particular, where on a Sunday afternoon cemeteries are packed out with relatives indulging in the al fresco housework of dusting headstones and rearranging floral displays.

I'm not quite so monstrous as to suggest that we require no ritualised remembrance or our dead, but need it be quite such a grim parody of our own quotidian existence? After all, there's an awful lot of countryside crying out for bodies to be buried in it. I can readily imagine a shift in our ritual life that would see people six feet under areas of outstanding natural beauty, and their loved ones visiting on foot. English heritage indeed.

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 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain

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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.