31c3: inclusivity, bias and awareness

4 January 2015

My head is still spinning a little after returning from my first visit to the Chaos Communication Congress, aka 31C3, with the assigned motto ‘A New Dawn.’ It was four days long, with upwards of 12,000 people, organised by Europe’s largest association of hackers, the Chaos Computer Club who, for more than 30 years, have been - in their words - providing information on:

technical and societal issues, such as surveillance, privacy, freedom of information, hacktivism, data security and many other interesting things around technology and hacking issues.

It wasn’t anything like an event I’d ever been to before, for many reasons. I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland having fallen way, way down the rabbit hole; there were things I didn’t realise were possible, and things that I didn’t understand all around me. The Congress Centre in Hamburg was transformed from a standard conference centre into a thing of beauty; volunteers running the Congress had spent days (weeks?) there building, decorating, and illuminating the entirety of the place.

This is something that struck me heavily: the entire event is run by volunteers, and it’s probably the most slick event I’ve ever attended. More than a tenth of the attendees ended up being ‘angels’, as they call the volunteers - doing things like simultaneous interpretation, selling tshirts and tickets, picking up bottles, keeping people hydrated, moderating stages and getting speakers ready. Providing regular Wifi to attendees - which is by far the biggest issue I’ve encountered at the very large majority of events I’ve attended in the last few years - was far from being a problem:

… just another one of the very slick operations at play here.

Event logistics aside, there were very clear efforts made to be inclusive and welcoming to newcomers, including the mentoring scheme, ChaosPatinnen which matched newcomers up with experienced attendees to show them around. Given the gargantuan size of the event, having someone to show you round is, I can testify, very welcome. There were also incredibly fun facilities provided for children, making it much easier for those with families to attend, and I heard upwards of 400 kids and teenagers attended. The thought and care that went into planning these facilities blew me away.

Despite this though, I did find the attendees to be overwhelmingly white and male, and in their 20s/30s. This is, however, unsurprising - it’s held at a time of year (between Christmas and New Years) which is difficult for many to be available for, it’s held in Germany, and the audience for this kind of event (those with time + finances to spare, or supported from jobs in the tech industry to attend, as well as technically literate, etc.) is also overwhelmingly white and male.

As a woman there, I didn’t find the audience demographic to be a particular problem. A few microaggressions - more stares than I would have preferred, the strange feeling of being ‘the odd one out’ while sitting in a massive hall and only being able to see men in the 300-odd seats around me; and some awkward winks and attempted chat up lines in the evenings, but nothing ‘major’, so to speak.

As someone interested in technology, politics and ethics, however, the demographic did leave me slightly uncomfortable. The people who attended the Congress were some of the smartest, most politically active (not in the sense of necessarily being involved in political parties, but in the sense of actually taking action) that I’ve ever come across. They’re also some of the most technically literate people in Europe, if not the world, who understand systems that are effectively incomprehensible to the very, very large majority of the world’s population.

This in itself is pretty impressive; it was great (and humbling!) to be among such intelligent people. All of our societies’ dependence upon technology is only going to grow, and while it does, the power held by people who really, deeply, understand those technologies is also going to grow; essentially, the attendees of Congress (and more besides). I couldn’t help but wondering, however, when listening to some of the more technical talks - how would this system have been designed differently/this criticism be structured differently/this problem be addressed differently, if it weren’t coming from white men living in rich countries?

A seemingly inconsequential example of this bias can perhaps be seen in the talk by the designers of The Machine To Be Another. In it, they quoted a paper (not written by them)- “Putting yourself in the skin of a black person reduces implicit racial bias”. I was the only person in the room to flinch at this title, and I was the only person of colour in the room. The idea of the ‘you’ referred to in that paper as white by default didn’t strike anyone else as unacceptable - the idea that a black person could also be reading it, and not experience anything like the ‘racial bias’ of a white person for whom the paper is clearly written to, for, and about, utterly ignored.

To the credit of the two presenters in question, they are, in general, seemingly very aware of their biases, and are talking to and working with people from a wide range of backgrounds while developing their virtual reality technology.

Another bias in terms of focus can be seen in the talk ‘Computer Science in the DPRK’, by Will Scott, who has taught at a university in North Korea over the last two years. He talked for half an hour about the technological habits of his students and among civilian life in North Korea, showing some fascinating videos and glimpses into life there.

It was only during the Q&A section, however, when someone (a woman) asked why all of the photos showed only photos of men, that he revealed that actually, all of the people studying Computer Science at that university were men, and that women weren’t allowed into the faculty. Essentially, all of the observations that we’d been hearing about students’ access to technology, the differences between postgrads and undergrads, were all true for men only, not for any women at all. Call me picky, but for me at least, gender segregation in the university being discussed is a major fact that affects how I interpret most of the observations mentioned, and one I hope would be given more importance than being brought up by an audience member.

Admittedly, these biases have fairly minor effects (I hope!) among actual work carried out; but hopefully they serve as examples of the point I’m trying to make. Especially within topics with people and societies at the heart, there could definitely be more awareness and proactive recognition of the potential biases at play. People who are lucky enough to be in positions where they can invest time and energy into exploring these people-centred themes, and intelligent enough that they critically assess problems they come across, need to be hyper-aware of the biases that they are projecting into their understandings and criticisms.

In this field more than others, the voices of people from diverse backgrounds - though increasingly present - are at risk of being drowned out by the same demographic that has been in power for centuries. And if this continues to happen it would, in my opinion, lead to anything but ‘a new dawn’.

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