Show Hide image

First class or economy? Airports hold a mirror to an unequal world

How airports have become the territory of the capitalist elite.

I have always loved airports: the muddle and classlessness of them, the anonymity and freedom. I like how people are out of their comfort zones, shuffling around in non-places, uncertain of what time of day it is. I like airport chapels, soulless and empty, their little vases of flowers serving only to make them more depressing. I'm fond of airport hotels, the nowhereness of them, and I am particularly keen on transit lounges in small, hot nations, humid and dirty, where you're not quite sure which country you're in - or not quite in.

You can tell a lot about a country from its airports: the style of the waiting lounges, the attitude of the immigration officials and even the loos. "Please do not flush toilet with your foot," I once read in a lavatory in Latin America, sparkling with pride and gently chiding the fastidious European and American travellers. "These toilets are cleaned daily."

Another time, at Gatwick, I was standing in a queue with some horrified Americans outside a vomit-strewn, blood-soiled Ladies. I found myself apologising and saying to them that Britain wasn't normally like this. It is always a depressing experience to fly back to Gatwick or Heathrow and see what happens when you sell a national asset to international, profit-motivated corporates. Yes, I love all airports, except ours.

Lounge lovers

I have, however, just read a book that shatters the fantasy of drifting happily around foreign airport lounges and supping a last drink at the bar near the departure gate. Tim Cresswell is a geographer who specialises in mobility. His book On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World includes an analysis of how people move around Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, a major international hub. For sociologists and geographers, mobility is not a fantasy. It is something that differentiates classes of people, a mode of inequality: I drift around airports; you, a refugee, get arrested in them. It's obvious once you think about it, but most of us, too busy with our schedules or dreams, do not.

How quickly you move through an airport denotes international status. The business traveller, branded "upper class", "connoisseur" or "elite", moves from complimentary limousine through fast-track services to special lounge and early boarding. The iris-scanning system that business travellers can pay for to speed the journey further at Schiphol is called Privium, a name laden with connotations of exclusivity and privilege. It is open only to those from inside the European Economic Area. These travellers are capitalism made flesh, what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once called a "nomadic and extraterritorial elite": "Capital can travel fast and travel light and its lightness and motility have turned into the paramount source of uncertainty for all the rest."

Families with cheap tickets struggle slowly through economy check-in and along immigration queues, weighed down by pushchairs and clutter. The illegal immigrant and asylum-seeker face arrest.

I have written before about the young Bangladeshi men I met in central America, whose three-day route to the US had taken them via India, Dubai, Brazil, Panama, Peru, Honduras and Belize - and they still hadn't made it into the US. "Some glide through the fast lane and have complimentary massages in the business lounge," Cresswell notes. "Some bodies are found frozen in undercarriage wells."

The homeless favour airports for their warmth and shelter, the theatre they offer and because the more privileged travellers discard food and reading materials as they drift along. The homeless can fit in here, a kinetic underclass amid the kinetic elite. Momentarily, at least, everybody is sleeping on plastic seats - but we are choosing to do so and they are not.

Candid camera

Not so classless, then. And free? Even for those of us with golden passports from the US or UK, travelling through airports is a tightly controlled and pre-planned process. "Critical path analysis" programmes are used to engineer the efficiency of passenger movement at modern airports. A sophisticated system makes use of yellow and black "primary process" and "secondary process" signs, as well as colour-coded emergency and commercial signposts.

The process signs are set at right angles to the flow of passengers to grab attention. The commercial signs are darker, set lower down and in parallel to us. We are not drifting; we are being managed unconsciously. Even the building materials have codes built into them. The floor of the entrance plaza to Schiphol, for instance, is a neutral-coloured grid that indicates two directions for movement - one to the airport entrance, the other to the rail terminal. You won't notice it but it is directing you.

So much for freedom. And the anonymity? When I travel to the US this month, I will be pre-screened, screened, searched, watched, profiled, scanned, turned into a computer code and processed. As this is the US, I'll be fingerprinted and iris-scanned, too. In the Star Centre at Heathrow, an anonymous-looking building near Terminal One, there is a windowless office with a circle of desks facing outwards to banks of computer screens. No fewer than 26 CCTV screens show the entire airport, from the roads to the check-in areas and security queues.

Even the grass is regimented. It is cut to between eight and 12 inches long: any shorter and birds will sit in it, because they can see what's around them; any longer and they can hide in it. Yellow trucks with loudspeakers drive around Heathrow all day, playing distress signals to ward off flocks.
Cresswell has shattered the illusion of happy freedom at airports - but it is reassuring that, even though they might have us under control, they struggle to manage the birds.

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the far right

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

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.