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Hacking DiversityThe Politics of Inclusion in Open Technology Cultures$

Christina Dunbar-Hester

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780691192888

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: May 2020

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691192888.001.0001

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Conclusion: Overcoming Diversity

Conclusion: Overcoming Diversity

(p.229) 8 Conclusion: Overcoming Diversity
Hacking Diversity

Christina Dunbar-Hester

Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter assess the potentials and limitations of diversity advocacy in open-technology as a site for claiming equal rights, and as a quest for representation. It also evaluates the market logics that accompany advocacy. It reflects on the challenges inherent in centering a project that insists on a redress of imbalances of power around technology, arguing for a project of justice and equity that ironically decenters technology as a primary axis of intervention. The chapter argues that while voluntaristic tech communities cannot singlehandedly attain the scale of the endeavors they hope their interventions will address, they are well-positioned to offer care and analysis that can set a more expansive, yet more rigorous, agenda. It explores a variety of diversity advocates' interventions, which include changing rules and norms in open-technology communities, creating separate spaces for feminist hacking, bringing to the surface other political concerns like militarism and colonialism, and questioning the makeup of open-technology communities.

Keywords:   diversity advocacy, open-technology, market logic, intervention, feminist hacking, militarism, colonialism

We’re just doing workshops [for women in Python], but we’re not sure of the goal or outcome. It’s not really [job training], because there’s still a big gap [between what we teach and what people would need to know to get hired]. … I actually don’t really know why we’re doing it. We haven’t been reflecting.1


Something critical is at stake concerning how people interact with computing technologies, and who people are when they interact with or use computers. As cultural historian Thomas Streeter has argued, computer use is a site of selfhood construction, occurring within a history and set of social relations surrounding networked computing. When people use computers, they are often enacting simultaneous modes of selfhood whereby they are controlling something, reaffirming agency, and even hoping for self-transformation.2 Some of this occurs vis-à-vis a business or work self and some as a personal self, but these are often blurred. The use of networked computing is often mundane in practice though suffused with great moral import. When diversity advocates attempt to open up computing cultures—especially to make good on the promise of openness of open technology for more people—they are trafficking in these interpretations of computing, (p.230) hoping to distribute the agentic and self-transforming relationships they believe they have with computers more widely (for this is part of what openness implies for them).

Elise, a thirty-something programmer and mother of a toddler who led workshops in Philadelphia for women to learn Python, made the above remark at the unconference for “women in open technology.” As she indicates, while there has been momentum in recent years towards addressing unequal rates of participation in open technology, it is somewhat less obvious what is driving these initiatives. As she notes, part of her group’s impulse had to do with cultivating workplace preparedness, especially in the wake of the financial crisis that began in 2007. But at the same time, she readily admits, these workshops could not stand in for job training per se, and that was never her or other diversity advocates’ main intent. Diversity advocacy felt sufficiently urgent as a site to discharge inchoate political energies, but she was not certain of the goal or outcome of her efforts.

This book has chronicled efforts like Elise’s Python workshops—grassroots efforts within open-technology communities to reconfigure these communities. Though she claims that “we haven’t been reflecting,” there is far too much activity and discussion here to take that claim fully at face value. Diversity advocacy is an often a prefigurative but meaningful expression of critical agency for its proponents. At stake for members of this social formation are large, important, and often quite abstract social goods, including democratic participation, agency over technology, and often social justice; all of these concerns are imbricated for them. The preceding chapters explored a variety of diversity advocates’ interventions, which include changing rules and norms in open-technology communities, creating separate spaces for feminist hacking, bringing to the surface other political concerns like militarism and colonialism, and questioning the makeup of open-technology communities. This conclusion considers not only the consequences of these interventions, but the framings that undergird them. The current raft of initiatives—and parallel critiques about representation and equal treatment that have suddenly emerged in a number of other spaces in the broader culture, à la the “#MeToo movement” or #OscarsSoWhite—make for an opportune moment to draw out reflection and analysis that for Elise have been too fleeting.

On balance, it is worthwhile that these efforts have begun to open up conversations and take conscious steps toward transforming open-technology communities into more inclusive environments. This is undoubtedly (p.231) valuable for those who are already in these communities but have felt ambivalent about some of the cultural aspects that they perceive as injurious. It is certainly also useful for some people who would be there had they not been turned off. During the period of this research, many of these communities have initiated internal conversations, set new norms, and cleaned house in ways that probably do improve their communities for people who were already there or on the margins and just needed a little more support or a little less discomfort to join.

Another important critique, raised by feminist hackers, is the degree to which engagement with open technology is or is not meant to be about technical artifacts per se. Many diversity advocates advocate for reframing hacking itself as primarily about social relations. For them, this opens up the capacity to consider who is and isn’t set inside the frame of this activity. Hacking has greater significance in terms of association among its members—the relationships between people—and is less preoccupied with outcomes; it is moreover ambivalent about valorizing technology itself. Building social relations and infrastructures of care are paramount.

All this being said, much critique that peeks through diversity advocacy and feminist hacking is diffuse and could be drawn into greater potency. If these configurations of hacking are not mainly there to produce technological objects, what is their purpose? In this brief conclusion, I trace the proposition of diversity advocacy in open tech outward toward some of its logical conclusions, where as-yet-unclaimed potential becomes more evident. Four interrelated lines of possibility stand out:

First, diversity in tech is a very limited way of claiming equal rights. Technology has gained such dazzling prominence as a site of cultural authority that it seems, to many, that it is a main lever for ensuring political participation writ large. But this book argues that a just society must focus on a multitude of routes to equal social standing, including nontechnological ones. (It seems possibly gratuitous to write these words, but they are worth stating outright.) While it is good for technologists to cultivate their own backyard in terms of equal rights and treatment in sites of technological production, it is a mistake to allow these sites to stand in for the type of democratic participation that a just society would require. Because social power and technological participation can seem so utterly interwoven, it is easy to mistake one for the other, but this is a critical error. Put differently, to frame social inequality as a question of diversity in technological production, and to expect to change wider inequities by adding so-called diverse (p.232) individuals to technical cultures, is to misunderstand how the distribution of various social identities in a given sector are outgrowths of differential social power, not the other way around.

Second, market logics deserve scrutiny here. This book has elevated the voices and social world of those agitating within open-technology communities, but of course their social world shades and fragments into other worlds. Advocates often find their message can proceed with greater ease when they produce rationales for their efforts that dovetail with calls for diversity in industry spaces. One reason for this resonance in rhetoric has to do with open-technology diversity advocates’ adjacency to interpretive frameworks that are devoted to the profit-oriented pursuit of technological development and growth. When extolling the virtues of diversity in tech, Christen, a thirty-one-year-old German, said in an interview, “I cannot buy a bigger smartphone because it won’t fit in my pockets [as a woman]. Apple didn’t include period tracking in their health app, [and] face recognition software regularly fails people of color.”3 This is a perfect encapsulation of a market logic being articulated by a volunteer diversity advocate: she touches on race; she touches on gender; she touches on products she can buy; and she steers clear of any controversy that surrounds, for example, face recognition software, such as its relationship to surveillance and algorithmic incursions into citizens’ compacts with states. But she also disclosed a more expansive notion of what is at stake for her: “I wish, more diversity [in tech] would mean for everyone, who is not a white heterosexual able-bodied male, to finally feel normal and not like a freak. … Even if it meant just this bit of respect and humanity it would change the world.” Though she invokes respect for difference and “humanity” at the core of her vision for diversity in tech, product-centered explanations of the value of diversity are always rhetorically within reach and always an easy shorthand—but this shorthand shortchanges diversity advocates whose ultimate pursuit is social justice.

As cultural historian Thomas Streeter has noted, within a given interpretive community informal and commonly shared assumptions are rarely exposed in ways that would invite a full range of comment or questioning: “imponderables that otherwise might be open to an infinite variety of interpretation … are given relatively stable, agreed-upon meanings.”4 But the (p.233) point is not that diversity advocates in voluntaristic open-technology communities necessarily or always fully inhabit the worlds where market logics are so agreed upon as to be unworthy of comment. They do not. Rather, the prominence of market-based rationales for technological development means that market logics are always quite easily affixed to diversity advocacy, and other articulations require more effort. Market logics and racialized capitalism become the basis for emphasizing diversity, rendering other potentials more muted—not completely imponderable, but less salient than they might otherwise be.

Advocates also routinely invoke workplace relations, especially the notion that there is an untapped talent pool and latent diverse workforce waiting in the wings to claim just reward in tech industry employment. Examples of this abound. In a group discussion at one of the unconferences for women in open technology, one person urged people making comments to first give their names, a common enough request in a group setting. But she phrased her request, “Please say your name so that someone can say, ‘Bess, that was an awesome comment, I’d like to hire you.’”5 Though it is possible that workplace networking was occurring at the unconference, this was not its stated purpose; this comment should be taken as an almost ritualistic commitment to workplaces as a main object of intervention. This is somewhat curious given that many advocates acknowledge that their efforts do not produce—and may not even intend to produce—people readied for the workplace.

While goals of better products and workplace diversity are both fine as far as they go, they reflect a limited basis for confronting unequal social power in technological development. In addition, these framings are exactly what we would expect within industry settings, including—or especially—ones that claim to want to make the world a better place, the oft-lampooned mandate of many Silicon Valley firms. A stereotypical example is a post on Tech Crunch (an online publication featuring tech trends and industry news, founded in Silicon Valley in 2005), entitled “40 Diverse People Who Made Big Moves in 2015.” It states: “Diverse people—people of color, LGBTQ men and women, women in general, people with disabilities, older people, younger people, etc.—have contributed a lot to the overall tech ecosystem this year.”6 This is representative discourse in many ways: it highlights and celebrates diversity without specifying what, exactly, diversity is good for; and it frames diversity as inhering to individuals and based in demographic categories like race, (p.234) gender, age, and (dis)ability status. Detached from “scary” issues (matters of social justice, structural inequality, or the like, evoked by feminist theorist Sara Ahmed), it is corporate- and institution-friendly.7

The diversity advocacy featured in this book is not occurring in industry settings; it is prominent in noncommercial and often quite amateur spaces. But its resemblance to industry framings is not without consequences, of course. Unfortunately, market logics have the potential to choke civil rights like so many weeds. Most glaringly, such framings lead to the underdevelopment of goods and services that do not obviously have a market to capture, even if they may serve a public good. And they relegate technological decision-making to elites pursuing profit motives; they are essentially antidemocratic, and the sociotechnical arrangements they usher into being are not easily undone.8 Thus to let the interpretive frame of market value provide the rationale for diversity advocacy is to severely limit its potential for those who are ostensibly pursuing other values, like justice and equity.

Market framings also leave unexamined some of the power dynamics that advocates’ efforts nominally intend to critique. For example, though advocates often claim that a more diverse workforce is partly about members of minoritized or disadvantaged groups claiming some of the benefit that tech industry employment is often held to provide, this ignores the reality of historical struggles between labor and capital. Coding as a new literacy invites comparison to the nineteenth century, when, according to labor scholar Ursula Huws, industry, national economies, and empires became complex enough to demand a workforce that possessed numeracy and literacy.9 She argues that when these skills became relatively universal, no one in the workforce could exert extra leverage in the market. The point is not that some should have remained illiterate in order to maximize worker power for a few, of course. Instead, there may be parallels to the present in that universal or near-universal attainment of skills like coding will not necessarily enhance worker power unless they are accompanied by regulations and healthy, accountable institutions that would help them gain this power, (p.235) such as enforcement of equal pay for equal work, and unions.10 (Encouraging movement in this regard can be seen in the Tech Workers Coalition, which has been active in organizing both high- and low-status workers in the tech industry;11 in the Google walkout of late 2018, in which employees walked out to protest discrimination and harassment;12 and in a nascent movement for worker-owned platform cooperatives in the so-called sharing economy.13) And yet framings that are especially beneficial to industry—and are more ambiguously beneficial to people oriented to open technology for other purposes—have arguably captured much of voluntaristic diversity advocacy in open technology, which may deflate or stymie the wider emancipatory goals of many advocates.14

Third, there are disadvantages to framing diversity in open technology as primarily oriented toward matters of representation. Representation by itself is too indeterminate and not necessarily tied to emancipatory outcomes if it is not anchored to other sorts of politics (as discussed in chapter 6). FLOSS’s commitment to articulating liberal ideals and notions of expressive individual sovereignty have made it challenging for its practitioners to fully acknowledge how historical realities of race, class, and gender comprise systems for social sorting and have shaped their collectivities. Diversity advocates have a sharper analysis of these dynamics, readily zeroing in on wider patterns of social difference as they are brought to bear in their communities, and issuing challenges to the liberalism of mainstream FLOSS.

But though abstract rights and freedoms can be extended to new subjects, and difference can be celebrated, as suggested by Herman Gray, diversity advocacy is tripped up on tensions between articulations of diversity that evoke and endorse market logics, and those attuned to deeper and more (p.236) heavily politicized concerns.15 In particular, representation can straddle, but not reconcile, diversity advocacy framings that orient around social justice and those that seek to expand market potentials (commonly framed as “diverse developers will result in serving/capturing a diverse consumer market,” a discourse strongly emanating from corporations). For formerly marginalized or minoritized groups to achieve recognition as a market is not a fully unalloyed good, as it may sever production and consumption from other iterations of rights, identity, and visibility.16 Thus while a discourse of representation is convenient, it is possibly working against some of the emancipatory politics favored by diversity advocates. Like diversity itself, representation cannot address fully the “scary” concepts like power and inequity that lie at the core of some advocates’ concern.17 Justice requires not only recognition but redistribution; neither alone is sufficient. It is thus helpful for advocates to articulate and bound their concern.

Representation as a goal may also result in accepting (and reproducing) notions of fixity in terms of social identity. This should raise skepticism, as diversity advocates are, in other contexts, wary of reifying essentialist lines of social difference. Social identity categories are more fruitfully understood as always contingent and constructed, “intrinsically incomplete and open-ended”18 as opposed to fixed, let alone “natural.” Anthropologist Sareeta Amrute describes an insidious dynamic in tech work in the context of migrant Indian coders working in Europe: “Racial difference is prized as a source of new ideas even while it becomes an alibi for differential treatment of temporary workers.”19 This is certainly not a result that diversity advocates would seek, but it is an outgrowth of “recognition and celebration” of difference accompanied by the downplaying of the salience of race and gender as bases of inequality, against which Gray warns. There are a variety of reasons to believe that commitments to identity-based representation do not unambiguously amplify political potential.

Lastly, vaunting representation (with an emphasis on difference) as a goal may undercut the cultivation of coalition and solidarity across difference. As one unconference attendee had so poignantly asked, “does talking about differences … reinforce them?” I do not mean to elide difference, or to suggest that there are not worthwhile tensions and differentials to (p.237) be explored in diversity advocacy or other forms of social analysis about equity and justice. Indeed, as Pala, a Belgian designer, said in an interview, “Corporate culture is about taking away tension. [But FLOSS and hacking] projects need to include difference. Tension is diff erent from fear [which we don’t want], but there’s always misunderstanding, awkwardness. … Can we all have the space to speak and differ?”20 She believed that “tension” could be a productive force for members of projects committed to emancipatory politics. Feminist scholars and others have argued that it is preferable to construct coalition across differences, capturing the generative potential of recognizing difference without being reduced to—or by—that recognition. (This approach also forestalls segmentation into ever-smaller identity-based groups.) Many women* open technologists commenting on gender claimed that men could be allies and buddies. Some women of color said that their solidarity and trust with white women was often quite complicated. These are obvious—almost facile—examples, but they underscore how emancipatory kin relations ought not be reduced to predetermined social identity categories. To regard social identities as “intrinsically incomplete and open-ended” leaves room to forge new categories of belonging and alliance. Pushing past representation as a goal offers the possibility to tap into more political potential in coalition across difference, without seeking to obscure difference.

Fourth, diversity advocacy in open technology faces unique challenges to the extent that it centers on technology as an orienting concept. Technology has a unique stature in our culture. It stands in for things greater than artifacts; it is understood to have profound effects on social order. Conversations about technology are rarely about artifacts in themselves. Technology’s stature is part of what draws people to it to enact social change. But the social relations and historical patterns that surround it are always freighted and often reflect the priorities and interests of groups with greater social power, such as elites, technocrats, and (within a capitalist system) corporations. According to historian Leo Marx, technology is a “hazardous concept”: it fills a semantic and conceptual void in our culture, wherein technology is vested with the power to determine the course of human events all by itself.21 Thus it is always challenging to engage with this concept in a way that accounts for its presence and power accurately and with appropriate nuance.

(p.238) These matters are paramount when considering diversity advocacy in open-technology cultures. All open technologists (not only diversity advocates) are oriented around open technology as a site for expression of agency and a force for social change; in Anika’s words, “Open tools are powerful.”22 Indeed, it is productive to understand technologies in general as “thought-objects for the collective enactment and exploration of hopes, desires and political visions.”23 Thus, conversations about who participates—the need to consider diversity—carry baggage, often implicit, about a much bigger progressive project. As stated above, these discussions implicitly refer to social goods, including democratic participation, agency over technology, and often social justice; they are not merely about technological production. This is why it is necessary to carefully tease apart these concepts. Technology cannot stand in for implicit or abstract social goods because of how it is implicated in social relations and unequal power. Without attention to the hazards of technology, even sowing greater diversity in open-technology cultures may fail to reset the power dynamics advocates aim to address, leaving the power structures surrounding technology essentially intact. In other words, technological intervention needs to be accompanied by a critical analysis of technology that names and seeks to redress imbalances of power.

We urgently need to engage in explicit political work and formal political intervention, not a prefigurative politics of techno-utopianism in which social problems are solved by expanding our technical practitioner base. In other words, the notion of “building up young people of color in tech so that we can finally tackle structural inequity,” as urged by Dream Corps, has the cart before the horse. This techno-politics fails to acknowledge its own complicity in sorting people into insiders with social power and those set outside. As historian of engineering Amy Slaton writes, “the delineation of STEM learning and work from other cultural projects [is] itself a highly efficient instrument of discrimination.”24 It is not possible to shift the balance of power by bringing new people in without examining the whole arrangement. And hoping for social change without confronting this legacy more directly creates a missed opportunity to intervene into open-technology cultures.

This is also part of why it is perilous to frame diversity advocacy as a project of worker empowerment. As STS scholar Virginia Eubanks has shown, social location sorts people into more or less desirable jobs, and (p.239) then job categories are used to selectively construct the notion of IT work as favorable. Women in particular (but not only women) holding jobs in the bottom portion of an increasingly bifurcated economy do participate in the high-tech economy by supporting those toward the top.25 In addition, empirically, much IT work is itself low-status and precarious, and training ever more people to be programmers is likely to exacerbate this, not shift it favorably for workers (especially if we take the global political economy into account).26 Thus, Eubanks recommends shifting focus away from high-tech products and skills and argues that we need to analyze and intervene into the interlocking issues that can move us toward a “high-tech equity agenda.”27 While many diversity advocates have excellent intentions and no doubt intend for their efforts to lead to positive outcomes for relatively disempowered workers, cutting corners with the analysis—letting diversity in tech stand in for an equity agenda—is bound to lead to suboptimal results, failing to upend the status quo.

This is not to reject technology—it is part of our society (an instantiation of our society), and we should engage it. But this should occur in a mindful way that recognizes limits of technology as a project for empowerment.28 Of major consequence is the creeping mandate of Silicon Valley, whereby we are all urged to have programming skills, lest we become irrelevant in the brave new future. This threatens to dilute worker power, as noted above. Even more than that, it undermines our ability to solve social problems using the full range of tools at our disposal. In other words, not only should we push back on the notion that all must to learn to code, we should also push for geeks and technocrats to learn more social theory and history. “Making the world a better place” simply cannot happen without rigorous social analysis that includes in its purview technologists and their own social positions. We should immediately ask, Whose world? Better for whom? Cui bono?29

To the extent that technical cultures and artifacts are an object of progressive intervention, it is worthwhile to be reflective about what inequities they can and cannot overcome. It is especially valuable to be conscientious about blind spots in technology-centered interventions and to take into account the structural and historical reasons why technical cultures have been instrumental in maintaining the global and local dominance of elites, (p.240) technocrats, and capitalists. To intervene into these power relations includes reassessing the primacy of tech and questioning how technical engagement and technical communities are themselves bounded. This is diff erent from adding diff erent kinds of bodies to unexamined technical cultures. Rather, it involves a larger reevaluation and appropriation of categories themselves—the boundaries of what is “social” and what is “technical” are flexible categories that have historically constituted resources for claiming “neutrality” while separating and sorting people—in order to build (socially, technically, and analytically) in new directions.

If the goal for grassroots organizers in open-technology communities is less about preparing people for workplaces and more about other inchoate outcomes, it is worthwhile to name those outcomes and work toward them. Most of the people whose efforts I chronicle in this book are sincerely invested in some form of “making the world a better place,” even if they would give the side-eye to many of the corporate practices of prominent tech companies like Uber or Facebook (and even to Sheryl Sandberg and her “lean in” feminism). But as Clara astutely points out in chapter 6, advocates themselves can wind up muddled when there is encouragement for diversity in their workplaces that stops short of a fuller social justice mandate. When “advocates of course learn the language that will get an initiative funded, or whatever their goal is” (in her words), this is realpolitik. But the muddle can potentially dilute their energies. This underscores why wicked (and “scary”) social problems cannot be solved by adopting the workplace logics with which they overlap. Though voluntaristic open-technology cultures are in many ways contiguous with workplace cultures, part of their appeal is to allow people spaces to hack and work on projects of authentic affective interest or pleasure to themselves. The impulse to open up these spaces or these feelings to others has plainly never been primarily about the workplace; more is at stake in these collective and individual experiences of joy, problem-solving, and agency.

Voluntaristic technology communities are important sites because they are utopian spaces where people play and tinker not only with technical artifacts but with social reality, imagining social relations through participation in a third space outside work and home, though they are in dialogue and tension with labor markets and domestic economies. (Python in particular is feeding into the market in obvious ways.) However, a hacker solution to the perception of unequal participation the ranks of open technology—a hands-on rough consensus and running code, or, in diversity advocacy, a DIY infrastructure of care—is, on its own, almost certain to come up short. (p.241) The challenges of changing social structure or dismantling systemic inequity are too big of an ask for DIY communities. Crucially, this is not actually a shortcoming of voluntaristic communities; building social change requires sustained efforts on multiple fronts, and it is not fair or realistic to ask voluntaristic efforts to bootstrap solutions to inequities. The shortcoming would be to misidentify the matter of unequal participation in tech as a tech problem with a tech solution—or even a tech community problem, with a tech community solution. Such framings obscure the real social relations that lie behind and produce technology itself (and technical communities)—that is, wider formations of social difference.30 (It is also true that in voluntaristic communities and in workplaces, social norms of politeness mean that bringing to the surface controversial or challenging topics is often fraught with interpersonal peril and tacitly discouraged, as discussed in chapter 6.)

How advocates draw borders around their “matters of care” is important.31 Bringing borders of care into focus can help clarify just what the discharge of political energies in these sites is actually meant to do. If it is to promote justice or an equity agenda, that may well draw attention away from tech and toward more elemental threads of the social fabric in a just society. Instead of aiming at diversity in tech, political energies could instead be directed toward desegregating our communities, pursuing fairer distribution of wealth, shoring up public and educational institutions (including libraries), decolonizing institutions, and finding alternatives to shareholder capitalism and attendant rampant ecological destruction. The latter are bigger challenges, needless to say, but they are where a more holistic and less defanged notion of diversity advocacy could very well lead. Attaining them would, incidentally, likely lead to changes in techno-cultures, including who participates in open technology.32 Equal voluntaristic participation (or equal representation in career paths) are outcomes of a just society, not the prize itself; the former cannot be retrofitted to engineer the latter. To the extent that technical engagement is a part of this project, it might start from a premise of “generative justice,”33 as opposed to technical participation or diversity in tech. Diversity is necessary, but not sufficient; it represents a shortcut in what should be a deeper conversation about values and justice.

(p.242) Diversity advocates can take heart in the fact that the problem is not only how to open up hacking to new sorts of people. Hacking at the periphery has not enjoyed the attention that more mainstream practices like FLOSS have. But if we take a series of situated views from outside this cultural mainstream, it is clear that hacking has never been centered exclusively around white men in the Global North.34 Furthermore, some of what is required here is simply to shift the frame of what counts as hacking: to redraw boundaries to place social and historical analysis and infrastructural care work within the purview of hacking. In combination, these analytical adjustments can illuminate the “others” hacking—who are already here.

To reiterate, the politics of diversity advocacy to date is often indeterminate. But rather than saying it is therefore “not productive,” we might ask, what is it productive of? What this book has shown is that diversity in open-technology advocacy exposes a complex dialectic between social relations that reinscribe a dominant order and others that begin to challenge and reconfigure this order. Technologists are involved in cultural mediation as much as technological production.35 Technology is, if not always already of the dominant culture, always laden with a legacy of division. Technical cultures are world-making: they sort people and present barriers to entry by design. Diversity advocates recognize these dynamics and challenge them, but often incompletely. This book suggests that though advocates might tinker on the margins, such tinkering does not change the fact that technology as an edifice is freighted with a legacy of having been built, in the first place, to shore up the positions of elite and powerful entities. A focus on technology itself (or even technical cultures in relative isolation) may be confining to a social justice agenda.36 It might be possible to build more democratic technology—undoubtedly, it is possible—but at the same time, democratic praxis should never be limited to a technological imaginary.


(1.) Fieldnotes, July 2012, Washington, DC.

(3.) Email,—to author, July 2, 2015. See Benjamin 2016. Of course, though it is constitutively racist, facial recognition software is still scary and ripe for abuse even if its algorithms could be made to be “less racist” (see also Noble 2018).

(5.) Fieldnotes, June 8, 2013, San Francisco, CA.

(8.) Philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg writes, “An undemocratic technical system can offer privileges to its technical servants that might be threatened by a more democratic system. … The most important means of assuring more democratic technical representation remains transformation of the technical codes and educational processes through which they are inculcated” (1999: 143).

(11.) See for example Tarnoff 2017.

(12.) The walkout organizers encouraged solidarity among not only full-time workers, but contract and temporary workers, who are more likely to be people of color, immigrants, and people from working class backgrounds (“Google Walkout for Real Change,” Medium.com, November 2, 2018, https://medium.com/@GoogleWalkout/google-employees-and-contractors-participate-in-global-walkout-for-real-change-389c65517843). Discouragingly, mainstream coverage elided this aspect of the protest, highlighting gender discrimination and harassment among higher-status employees like software engineers (Wakabayashi et al. 2018).

(14.) Söderberg and Delfanti theorize this as an ongoing dynamic of firms’ co-optation of “from below” hacking energies (2015).

(20.) Interview, Pala, New York, NY, April 26, 2014. Pala’s quote also highlights the questions for FLOSS and hacking groups over when it is productive to “fork” versus to keep hacking together, even when differences arise. See Arvin et al. 2013 on crafting alliances that address difference.

(22.) Interview, Anika, July 7, 2015, New York, NY.

(28.) Thanks to Chris Csíkszentmihályi for discussion on this.

(30.) As historian of technology David Noble has written, “behind the technology that affects social relations lie the very same social relations” (quoted in Wajcman 2015: 90).

(36.) Or as Judy Wajcman writes, “[P]olitics and not technology per se is the key to … equality” (2007: 287).