October 22, 2004

Call Me Ishmael

Been listening to Poptech on IT Conversations. I'm hearing lots of amazing stories about technology, the environment, science, human behavior and online interaction, all while working, in-between phone meetings, working out, etc.

Speakers tell of amazing feats of swashbuckling science, man-verses-nature Masterpiece Theater style, where Richard Attenborough-esque feats of daring-do by men who get knocked down and go home wounded but not broken, only to recoup before going out to attack the world all over again, and winning out over their metaphorical whales.

It is exciting, but masculine in language, perspective and ideas framing a male-dominated world. I swear to God, it feels like I'm hearing these talks after dinner, over Romeo y Julieta cigars with the speakers, while having a bourbon on the rocks in front of a roaring fire, sitting in a leather chair, under a giant stuffed white rhino shot at dawn as he charged on the plains of Kenya while a manservant, dressed in native red dress, and a big sword around his waist, made cappuccino back at the basecamp. Oh wait, that was someone else's fantasy life. (I don't even drink bourbon.) Anyway, aside from the one (single, only) woman speaker at Poptech, couldn't they find any women scientists or sociologists or technologists to talk about their work/research/understandings framed from a less masculine point of view? I mean, I love all this stuff where the men are men, and they conquer stuff, women swooning.... The scenario is sexy as hell. A lovely romantic fantasy. These are guys you'd love to have over for dinner because they're fun, adventurous, risk-taking and they tell a great story. But giving talks on stage to hundreds of people, one after the next, at a conference where the idea is to present the changing world of technology and the social impact of it on human life and the globe as it stands in 2004, where the boys label it all, framing life in masculine terms seems seriously lacking in balance and realness. What is power but to define and label? These are powerful guys. They are labeling the world in male-dominated power structures.

But goodness, women are half the world's human population and can't we celebrate and present frames of female power structures? And what do power structures of equality look like? Could we have some contrasting labels for describing what happens in the world? You know, it's not 1922 with Hemingway in Africa and it doesn't feel real to hear the world circa 2004 described in those terms exclusively. Doesn't sound true to me. It's not my experience at all. At times some of the speakers sound like romantic throwbacks to an earlier era and collectively, it feels very much so.

Actually, I don't even care if it's women who tell about other frames, but rather that other frames are available as part of the story of our current socio-technical life. It can be men telling it. But men who are highly accomplished AND understand other ways of thinking are not all that easy to find. Where is George Lakoff when you need him?

The thing is, it's often easiest to get people who embody the other frames to expose them, and so it makes sense that often there is a call for those women who have accomplishments to celebrate by those who feel there is something missing. But it is the varied framing and labels that are really what's missing. So while it would be nice to hear from others, and I'd like to see it, this isn't about just making sure women are there, or representatives of other ethnicities etc. It's about making the picture represent what is more true in the world. The rest will take care of itself in my view.

Oh wait, the audience just asked Ben the-current-swashbuckling-speaker to tell his polar bear tale, before dinner. Good story. Cute. And he sounds damned handsome.

Oh wait, again. A speaker just announced that for Poptech 2005, Caroline Porco, Dame Julia Pollock, and some space ship guy have agreed to speak. Well, they just doubled the number of women from one to two, at least in announced speakers for next year over this year. Bravo. But I think they need to work a little harder to reframe the world as both masculine and feminine, in order to even attract women, because who wants to speak at an all male party, were the world is framed in male dominated power structures? It's demoralizing. It's like a liberal going to a conservative party. The liberal will never be taken seriously there because everything will be on conservative terms.

Reframed, Poptech might then have a better chance of getting speakers who then frame the world in more balanced ways around their own work. In addition, it would be a huge success if it led to having a number of accomplished women presenting their work with more progressive frames.

Posted by Mary Hodder at October 22, 2004 03:48 PM | TrackBack

Yes, such matters are often lurking in the background (and sometimes snarling at the forefront) of my mind when it comes to women in tech, or business and science in general. Have you read "The Futures of Women"? Worthwhile, in terms of the framing the authors came up with. I worry that the last couple of years, with recession and not-very-woman-friendly gov't policy, the US has been sliding from "Status Quo" towards something more second-class citizenish (again?).

Perhaps there's hope in the 'Web 2.5' (in which artifact I assume that collaborative technologies and social media and applications will play ever-greater roles). Perhaps if in our daily online environment we're all using such collaborative, less-hierarchical, multi-tasking (that is, feminine?) methods and technologies, they will spill over into how, in general, business is conducted and knowledge is garnered and evaluated. But until that has its own momentum, I think it'd be great for many of us to remind conference and business leaders that other frameworks besides their native ones exist.

Posted by: Nina at October 23, 2004 04:04 PM