When you start looking for examples of nonconsensual culture in technology, you find them absolutely everywhere.
– Deb Chachra, Age of Non-Consent
About a month ago, someone sent me this lovely rant and asked me to publish it anonymously. I’ve been sitting on it mostly because I got wrapped up in other things. But I was reminded of it tonight when I read Deb Chachra’s “Age of Non-Consent” and Betsy Haibel’s “The Fantasy and Abuse of the Manipulable User”.
Both of the above pieces draw links between rape culture and issues of consent in software design. I recommend them both, particularly the Haibel piece, for incisive and disturbing analysis of the details of how the Stacks intentionally build software to violate their users’ consent — and what a major problem this is given technology’s influence on culture as a whole.
This coercion is picked up on and amplified by the platforms themselves – when someone I know tried to delete his Facebook account, it tried to guilt him out of it by showing him a picture of his mother and asking him if he really wanted to make it harder to stay in touch with her.
I’ve been in meetings where co-workers have described operant conditioning techniques to the higher-ups, in those words – talking about Skinner boxes and rat pellets and everything. I’ve been in meetings where those higher-ups metaphorically drooled like Pavlov’s dogs. The heart of abuse is a fantasy of power and control – and what fantasy is more compelling to a certain kind of business mind than that of a placidly manipulable customer?
– Betsy Haibel, The Fantasy and Abuse of the Manipulable User
However, where these otherwise terrific articles don’t go far enough is in explicitly acknowledging that the people who are most responsible for perpetuating rape culture and the people writing consent-violating software are the same people. It’s no coincidence that Facebook doesn’t care about your consent, because most of the people who work at Facebook wouldn’t think twice about getting you drunk and “taking advantage” of you at a party, or of defending a friend who did.
So, while both of the above authors optimistically implore high-level developers and other elite tech workers to adopt an ethic of “enthusiastic consent” when it comes to software design — as if the majority of workers in that sphere understand what that is or would even care if they did — my angry and extremely on-point friend below has another solution:
There has been much gnashing of teeth recently about how blatantly people’s privacy is violated by software like the new Facebook messenger app. These articles or editorials will rage about “companies like facebook” and often have a picture of Mark Zuckerberg’s punchable face just so people know who to have rage at. One imagines Zuckerberg, possibly at the same table as the director of the NSA, maybe a CIA agent, and maybe the ghost of Steve Jobs all conspiring to violate your privacy and make hardware you bought do what they want against your will. The villain in these stories is either the CEO of some company or “the corporation” as a faceless monster.
But what’s really going on here? What we have, overwhelmingly, is a lot of technology being built which ignores the consent of the user. A app which no one wants is forced on everyone, things which clearly everyone will hate are put in vague terms of service which essentially say that the service provider can do anything they want any time they want and there is nothing you can do about it. How did this happen?
Meanwhile, if you follow technology media and especially feminist technology media you see constant stories about what a festering shithole of sexism the technology industry is. These articles are generally along the lines of a narrative about female engineers trying to be at conferences or trade shows and facing constant harassing of just about every kind from their overwhelmingly male peers. They are constantly being touched, catcalled, and generally treated like shit, obviously against their will. Articles will talk about how this needs to be addressed in order to improve the quality of life for women in tech as well as to bring more women into tech. As tech insider media, they meanwhile generally ignore the role of the user in all this.
What I find disappointing here, and is the point of this article, is that these are all the same shit heads, and that this is no accident. Is it an accident that the same men who think it’s ok to grab ass at a technical conference are writing software that deliberately and blatantly ignores the consent of the user all the time? No. Because software is simply one of the worst industries in the history of technology. I think it would be hard to find any industry in the history of technological capitalism that has held itself to such low standards and shown such consistent contempt for the user or for quality of their product.
It is time for people in the public at large to stop seeing companies like Facebook as either a monolithic inhuman monster, or the personal fiefdom of some monstrous oligarch like Zuckerberg, but rather like just a big group of horrible people doing horrible work. It’s time for the tech backlash within the industry to wake up to just how fucked the rest of us are by this, and for the rest of us to wake up to just how fucked this industry is from the inside.
It’s time to smash Silicon Valley.