Archives for the month of: August, 2015

You have no reason to care about what I’m going to tell you, until you’ve finished reading.

Imagine if this page was sent to you by your girlfriend, boyfriend, wife or husband. You would immediately give it priority. So, too, if I was your boss or employer.

Chances are, you don’t quite know why this is the case, or maybe you think you do.

This is a crucial question in writing or reading fiction. “Why would the reader care enough to sit through yet another set of paragraphs, pages or entire chapters written about non-existent people?”

Why would you read this, or really any piece of writing, beyond the fleeting compulsions of random curiosity?

First answering the “why” will help guide the construction of plot and character by looking at how value is construed in society, for which fiction acts as a mirror and amplifier. This “why”, at its deepest level, may also elucidate what makes homeless people seem socially invisible, or why a person might perceive others as being more or less human. Even in casual dating, people construct imaginary classes in which they situate themselves and sigh that some potential lovers are “just out of my league”.

Samples of dramatic conflict that derive directly from everyday life:

– An ugly old male millionaire dates and marries, or even openly cheats on a gorgeous young supermodel or famous actress.
– A beautiful woman plays endless mind games of emotional manipulation against a hapless man who is hopelessly ensnared by her carefully constructed illusion of perfection and mystery.
– A rich older man and cunning young woman battle for sexual and emotional supremacy.
– Someone from the lower rungs of society fights his or her way up to become a defender of justice from the top echelon of the social world, usually by defeating the incumbent “champion” of that world to become a “winner”.
– Two powerful adversaries, one fighting for good and the other for evil, clash in an epic struggle that will determine the fate of humanity. The adversaries can either be Godlike heroes, or two opposing groups that band together as tribes or “teams”.

Most popular stories contain at least one subplot along these lines. (Notice also how, in the first three examples, the plots only make sense using the assigned genders. Though not impossible, switching the genders would make a credible story more difficult to write.)

The best fictional stories are just as “real” as the stories that you see on the news — and the autobiographical stories that most of us tell ourselves about our own lives. The news media is a complete topic unto itself; suffice for now to say that news, especially the kind seen on television, is a type of entertainment rather than “fair and balanced” presentation of fact. The average news broadcast presents factual information similarly to how a Hollywood movie tells the “inspired by true events” life stories of dramatically compelling people. Facts come a distant second to the all-consuming imperative of keeping the reader’s eyeballs fastened to the unfolding narrative spectacle.

Remove the optional emphasis on fact, and what remains is compelling fiction. The structure is exactly the same.

Take another look at the sample plot types in the list above. How many news stories fall into those categories? Answer: practically every single one.

The extent to which a writer understands the machinations of society is the extent to which he or she designs and builds compelling stories. The value of science fiction in particular is to highlight asymmetries of power based on access to, and differential uses of, human technology based on social status (and in terms of character construction, aliens are humans in disguise).

This is the first of a series of entries. By the end of this series, your approach to fiction writing and reading, and perhaps to the “real” social world itself, will never be the same. Or maybe it will be just as it was before, but now you’ll be able to clearly say why (and how). Concrete, step-by-step fundamental understanding of social dynamics forms the basis of any worthwhile story. Most readers know none of this explicitly; you have to hold them by the hand while showing them how to fly.

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For a moment, this blog is being hijacked. It is now “STEM Note Social”. For the length of this entry, at least.

Women in the technology world and STEM fields generally face a continuous uphill struggle against sexism at every level.

STEM, of course, means Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

On Twitter, it’s easy to tap into an endless stream of “feminists” whose specialty is essentially little more than pious whining about the evils of men. Men’s Rights Activists seem to occupy their own little hell far from most sensible technologists’ Twitter feeds; a pseudo-radical, playground bully form of feminism is more widespread and popular.

Those who trade less in shrill accusations love to spout rainbow-hued, falslely cheerful ‘positive thinking’ exceptions to gendered rules. “My Bubbie is an 88-year-old Perl hacker and systems engineer — #ilooklikeanengineer“.

Well, no, in reality, that’s _not_ what engineers look like. The typical engineer is a heterosexual, heteronormative (also known as “cis” in some circles) white male.

There are two clear contributing factors regarding the mistreatment of women in STEM fields.

1. Technology is a perpetual carousel of learning new skillsets to either deepen or replace old ones.

A programmer or other engineer may spent as much (or indeed more) time per day studying as he or she may spend actually doing the work.

Consider also the abstract nature of the work itself, and you have a strong disconnection between the average male engineer and the average female human being. It is true that women are typically more emotionally attuned than men, if only because girls are indoctrinated to fight using their minds rather than their fists.

2. Egalitarianism is a myth in _every_ field, including STEM.

Part of the fabled advantage of being in a STEM field is that no one cares what you look like. If you can write the code, you can get the accolades. Do the work, get the pay. No matter if you’re a biracial transgender woman born in Calcutta or a white cis man who grew up in the midwestern suburbs — we’re all equal as long as the code runs and the proofs pass muster.

Is it true, though?

Of course not.

Gender aside for a moment, ageism is legendary is the programming world. Beyond a certain age (say, thirty years old), it’s easy to find stories online about the difficulties programmers face when seeking work compared to when they were younger. Why? There is a practical element: many older people have families. They don’t want to live in a “permanent startup culture” of 80-100 hour workweeks. The “adult” responsibilities of older workers generally center around keeping a house in order (and often a spouse) and raising children.

In that respect, ageism and gender are quite similar. Most young women want to have children, whether they consciously realize it or not.

Consider three facts: First, nearly half of all pregnancies are not planned in advance. Second, women must have children prior to age 36 in order to ensure the child’s optimal health. Reproductive technologies (such as egg-freezing and in-vitro fertilization) are primitive at worst and unreliable at best. Third, a woman should space her pregnancies approximately two years apart to give her body time to recuperate and prepare for the next pregnancy.

What do these three facts add up to? They add up to the reality that by the time a woman is in her late twenties, she will most likely be close to having her first child. As we see with ageism, the responsibilies of properly raising children will cut into the time and energy available for incubating a science and/or technology career. In that light, it does make at least some sense for employers to screen women out if the work requires the grueling, often unpredictable schedules that are typical in software and other techie fields.

Hence, egalitarianism falls apart when confronted by biological reality.

Plus, there is a pyschosocial element: our minds do not function in absence of social cues. Anyone who has interviewed for either a job or a consulting gig has heard one of these phrases: “we want to see if you’re a good fit”, or “we think you’ll be great in our ‘corporate culture’.” Every organization is first and foremost a group of human beings interacting with one another. If you don’t fit the profile of the group — that is, if you’re a heavily-accented foreigner, an older person out of touch with pop culture, or a woman who takes offense at sexist “bro” humour — you’re probably “not a good fit”.

Every social group has cultural norms, rituals and biases. Social expectations and typed behaviors do not disappear just because the ostensible goal is to complete a software project (open-source or otherwise), or deploy a rocket on trajectory to Pluto.

Women are also partly responsible for sexism in STEM industries.

This is the part that most people leave out for fear of incurring the rabid Radical Internet Feminist banshees’ wrath.

The problem isn’t so much women inside of technology as it is the other 99.9% of women outside the tech world.

It was mentioned above that many male engineers are relatively unskilled with women. Most men in or out of technology are fairly inept at dealing with the feminine gender. What about a guy who spends most of his waking life around other (male) engineers, doing abstract and emotionally detached work? That’s a perfect storm of unpreparedness when dealing with women in any capacity.

Imagine, then, a guy who has relatively little skill in dealing with women on a daily basis, forced to “adapt” to a feminine communication style that is completely alien to him. Combine that with the repressed sexual desire that often is inevitable between heterosexual people — and remember that techies are often not habituated to dealing with it.

Then we add in the influence of women outside the tech and science industries. The average woman is steeped in emotional gamesmanship from puberty onward, if only to deal with her social and sexual rivals. Even for men who have an average level of experience with the opposite gender, the emotionally-driven behavior of women is a bafflingly strange and at times cunningly manipulative experience that he learns to tolerate in varying degrees and extents.

Much of the gamesmanship of both genders occurs largely outside of conscious awareness (body language, voice tone, dress style, etc.) and is therefore invisible to the person herself. This is why women accuse men of “playing games” and men fire the same recriminations back at women in a comical merry-go-round of miscommunication.

In the STEM world, consider the average woman who is emotionally intelligent and skillful in ways that she either cannot consciously articulate, or has learned to plausibly deny. Place her next to the average male engineer who does not operate in that mode at all in his daily life. It’s quite understandable, then, that he might feel estranged or even threatened by the presence of such an alien way of forming alliances, approaching social problems, and communicating something as simple as professional warmth and friendliness as opposed to nascent sexual attraction.

Without descending into “asexual, virginal nerd” or “evil woman” stereotype, the points sketched above hopefully shed light on at least a few of the starting points for sexism in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The issues raised here will not be solved by punishing men or enticing more girls to become scientists and engineers. Although some Radical Internet Feminists (and their male apologists) might like to see all-female offices or enforced “affirmative action”-style regulatory mandates, the core issues are not ones of gender dominance or legal wrangling.

The real answer may be at the same time more simple, and more complex: men and women need to understand each other better _before_ becoming workmates in the laboratory, or as fellow hackers working on the next great advance in technology. A key roadblock is the portrayals of gender in popular culture itself — sexualized portrayals that benefit women in ways that academic feminists often disingenuously deny.

Such portrayals also mask the truth that we can’t simply ignore gender and sex. Sexual desire is perfectly normal and gender is as real as the teenage throes of puberty. Transcendence of sexism may be found in accepting ourselves and each other rather than shaming and blaming the “other” for real or imaginary transgressions. And that’s a task that starts far before anyone dons a lab coat or writes their first line of code.