Taking stock


Trying to work out Internet share prices at the moment demands one of those wacky analogies beloved of science writers such as, "If all human history were squeezed on to one platform at King's Cross station, the dinosaurs would have become extinct somewhere near Manchester" (probably on a Virgin train). Or "If the whole of the stock market were a pizza the size of Trafalgar Square, Bill Gates would own all the cheese and eat all the anchovies". If these analogies lack a certain sanity, so do the prices we're talking about. Internet stocks have become the biggest casino game in history. is a fine company. I buy lots of books there myself, along with occasional CDs; if I wanted to, I could even buy fancy penknives from its site as well. Last year, it made a loss of $27 million on a turnover of about $150 million, and it has never made a profit; none the less, it is valued at $16,778,630,000, give or take a few million, on the morning that I write this.

All it really owns is a bunch of very sophisticated computer systems and less than $10 million-worth of books. Compare it with Granada, a large, boring and profitable British company which owns an awful lot of things: 42 motorway service areas, 400 Little Chef restaurants, 162 motels and more than 250 proper hotels. Its profits have been whizzing up for the last few years and in fact its stock price has nearly doubled, to the point where the company is worth, on the London stock market, £8,707,200,000 - yet even after converting from pounds to dollars, this is billions less than

Amazon is perhaps the most extreme case of a share whose value is almost completely unrelated to the underlying business. The shares trade furiously, with tremendous price swings. In December and January, it shot up from around $100 to twice that, and then back down again. On the day I write this, the share price has fluctuated from $110 to $90 and then most of the way back up.

Unless the investors of America are trembling at the news that the New Statesman is about to expose them, there is no good reason for any of this except gambling frenzy. The web-based trading services let anyone with a few thousand dollars to play with join in the market directly and gamble all day. This has produced a new breed of "day traders" whose idea of a long-term holding is 48 hours. A company like Amazon, which has never made a profit, and may indeed never do so, is almost entirely traded by gamblers who rely on fast-moving share prices for their profit - never mind which direction they're travelling. But there are elements of this in the behaviour of every Internet stock, even the ones which are based on real, profitable businesses. Many of the astonishing prices paid in Internet takeovers are payable only in the equally overvalued paper of the predator company.

So why are the world's investors placing such a huge premium on thin air? One answer might be advertising. The theory of the Internet economy is that the really valuable sites are those to which everyone flocks. That's where advertising can be sold. That is the basis for the huge valuations of "portal" sites such as Netscape's Netcenter ($4.2 billion to AOL) or Excite ($6.7 billion to @Home, which sells Internet access over TV cables). These "portals" started off as search engines, but now are being marketed as the natural home page for all the millions of people piling on to the web every month. But there is a huge difference between a portal and a search engine. Anyone who wants to get work done on the web needs a search engine. No one needs a "portal" unless they are trying to find a slow and unreliable substitute for television. Real television companies like Granada (again) charge far more for their advertising than even the most profitable websites can.

In the long term, there's no doubt that the web will change the world. But there's no guarantee that the companies which finally profit from this will be those trading today. Wired magazine invented the ad-supported model of the Internet site in 1992, when it was the hippest thing in the universe. Two years later, the company's still excellent site was not even among the 100 most visited on the net. The sanest people in the market today are probably the purest gamblers, for whom long-term means 24 hours.

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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.