The tech blogosphere is often a place where great ideas about society and politics intersect with technology, and the tech industry and society are usually the better for it. But I was reminded recently about how much the perception of hip and progressive and cool is in many ways a façade, one that we use to flatter ourselves as we proceed to perpetuate old stereotypes, bad behavior, and endemic social inequalities. So, just in case you think that following Web 2.0, Office 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, and every other meme and theme makes you a truly better person, here’s my list of where social progress and high tech are still miles apart.
Disabilities and High Tech: I’ll start here because this blog was prompted by a very touching email from a friend and colleague at SAP regarding the death of her brother. He had been diagnosed with bipolar syndrome, and succumbed to the disease, as many do, by taking his own life. This email was touching and brave, insofar as any mention of mental illness, among other disabilities, is a decidedly taboo subject in the macho, gung-ho culture of high tech. I have another colleague, with a similar disability, who told me how she was shunned by a mutual friend for the crime of revealing her disability, one that is under control and, in my opinion, makes her success all the more impressive.
There is evidence that some of this bias against disabilities is ripe for the trashcan, though it won’t be easy. A recent exchange about work/life issues among my fellow Enterprise Irregulars included the revelations that a surprising number of EIer’s have children with some form of Asperger’s syndrome. Interestingly, Asperger’s is one of the few disabilities that have a degree of cachet in the tech world, being the purported “diagnosis” of Bill Gates, among others. Nonetheless it was touching, and revealing, to read about how this one disability had effected the fathers involved, and to see the supportive responses of their colleagues: Unfortunately, I’m betting most of us never have such conversations with our techy peers – because most of us wouldn’t dare.
That’s because there’s a long way to go regarding the acceptance of disabilities of all kind, especially in high tech. We tend to prefer our high tech leadership to be white, male, and, if not macho, then at least whole. Ever seen a tech exec who was blind, permanently in a wheel chair, or a “little person” (i.e. someone with dwarfism)? As a society we have no problem letting people with these disabilities run our country (FDR in his wheelchair, countless legislators with limited sight or total blindness, former secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who at 4 feet 10 inches qualifies as a little person), but it’s not an accident that the culture of high tech simply doesn’t let this particular cream rise to the top. It’s called bias, plain and simple.
Race relations: While we’re on the subject of bias, and preferring our tech leadership to be white and male, let’s get the issue of race right out on the table. Silicon Valley is a racist institution, plain and simple, especially, and particularly, if you’re black. Of course there are exceptions, notable ones (Charles Philips of Oracle, among others), but by and large Silicon Valley and the high tech uber-culture are no place for blacks. This is, of course, not about skin color – the success of people of Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, and Korean origin belie a simple “white makes right” analysis. But high tech is a wasteland of non-opportunity for black Americans, and all the socially progressive foundations and community outreach programs funded by high tech billions don’t begin to make up for this exceptionally egregious omission.
Gender Relations: In this category I’m lumping sexism and gay/lesbian bias into a single category, mostly because, as mentioned above, the white, macho-male ethos of high tech makes it hard for women to succeed, and keeps many gays closeted, and quite rightly, I’m afraid, fearful of what being outed would do to their careers. Again, there are many notable exceptions among women (though I know of no openly gay high tech execs), but not enough to really challenge the reality of the low brow attitudes about gender issues that permeate high tech. It’s a manly man’s world, plain and simple, and women and gays face an uphill battle to succeed.
Can anything be done to change this? Knowing how many of my personal friends, colleagues, and clients are neither racist, sexist, anti-gay, nor anything but accepting of people with disabilities, I do have hope. But I’m struck by how virtually nothing in the social networking, hipper-than-thou, Web/Enterprise/Office/Blah-blah 2.0 world seems to have any awareness of these problems, not to mention interest in trying to resolve them. It would be truly courageous, as opposed to self-interested and self-absorbed, to step out of the boundaries of stereotype and bias and do something about high-tech’s attitude towards those who are different than what the norm is supposed to be. But courage and hip don’t really go together in our little corner of American culture – it's so much safer for high tech to keep doing what seems to have worked rather than try something new, like killing off old stereotypes and biases.
If high tech is truly going to change society, it must first change itself, for the better. Absent some real progress towards social equality, high-tech’s self-image as a socially progressive force is in reality a farce masquerading as a something much more hip than it really is.