Thursday, August 10, 2017

What Did You Do In The Gender Wars, Moppa?

The tech world is buzzing over the latest political/cultural/gender workplace skirmish, this time when a Google engineer published a long internal memo on his painfully obtuse theories of gender. The memo was leaked to the public, causing a category-5 shitstorm. The guy was fired after a few days later, which only added energy to the vortex of moral posturing, a vortex that sucked in everybody՚s attention, from all sides of the political spectrum, everybody who works in an office and has to deal with gender issues. Whatever is going on here, it seems very important, although compared to the likelihood of, say, the consequences of climate change or Donald Trump starting a war in North Korea, it seems like a kind of silly thing to spend so much energy on.

Nonetheless I՚m just as vulnerable as anyone else to the forces that pull people՚s attentions into these intellectual black holes, and that obligate me to form an opinion. In my case I couldn՚t manage to gravitate to one side or another, for reasons I՚ve talked about here before. On the one hand, I think the guy is a dolt, and talking like he did in a workplace was either stupid or deliberately provocative, and Google not only was right but had a possible legal obligation to fire him. On the other hand, I think that people ought to be able to have some freedom to express even stupid opinions, and that intellectual is as important as gender/culture diversity, and I dislike enforced conformity of opinion.

One person who does not suffer this tornness is Scott Alexander of (SlateStarCodex), who is firmly on the side of the memo guy. This is completely unsurprising, although someone who makes a point of trying to see the merits of views he disagrees with seems oddly unsympathetic to the people at Google and elsewhere who were upset by the memo.

I am not very interested in the main point of his post, which is about the reality or not of gender-based differences in particular cognitive abilities. This issue may seem central to the controversy but is in fact entirely irrelevant. [Why? Well, that probably deserves a separate post, but briefly: The process of creating software or other technology is not like, say, weightlifting or running a marathon, where one՚s ability can be quantified by a single metric. It՚s a complex human creative activity and needs all kinds of different sets of cognitive skills, and badly needs a diversity for that very reason.]

Instead I wanted to focus on a passage at the end which jumped out at me, because it relates to the theme of antipolitics that I keep harping on. In the course of bemoaning the fact that some people are rather too vigorous in their hatred of Nazis and fascism, he says:
Silicon Valley was supposed to be better than this. It was supposed to be the life of the mind, where people who were interested in the mysteries of computation and cognition could get together and make the world better for everybody.
This is, um, a slightly idealized version of what Silicon Valley is. It՚s not even what it pretends to be (Stanford, the institutional parent of Google and much else, might plausibly pretend to be devoted to the life of the mind on its better days, but in fact it՚s chasing dollars like everybody else). Silicon Valley is a bunch of businesses, not a debating society. That՚s kind of a side issue, although it՚s very relevant to why Google may not be as dedicated to free speech as one might like.
Now it’s degenerated into this giant hatefest of everybody writing long screeds calling everyone else Nazis and demanding violence against them. Where if someone disagrees with the consensus, it’s just taken as a matter of course that we need to hunt them down, deny them of the cloak of anonymity, fire them, and blacklist them so they can never get a job again. Where the idea that we shouldn’t be a surveillance society where we carefully watch our coworkers for signs of sexism so we can report them to the authorities is exactly the sort of thing you get reported to the authorities if people see you saying.

…It doesn’t have to be this way. Nobody has any real policy disagreements. Everyone can just agree that men and women are equal, that they both have the same rights, that nobody should face harassment or discrimination. We can relax the Permanent State Of Emergency around too few women in tech, and admit that women have the right to go into whatever field they want, and that if they want to go off and be 80% of veterinarians and 74% of forensic scientists, those careers seem good too. We can appreciate the contributions of existing women in tech, make sure the door is open for any new ones who want to join, and start treating each other as human beings again.
I don՚t even know where to begin with this, since it՚s such a raw and unvarnished specimen of what I have been hunting – the denial of politics. “Nobody has any real policy disagreements” – in what universe is this true? Does he think that all this conflict is over nothing, that it՚s just an excuse for egomania or something? If women and racial minorities do have equal rights today that they did not enjoy in the past, does he think those happened without conflict, that one day people just woke up and decided to start doing the right thing? Or does he think that those conflicts might have occurred in the past but now we are all comfortably settled on Correct Thought?

I՚m starting to question my own obsession with SSC, which I justify because he՚s smart and the rationalism he exemplifies attracts the devotion of a lot of other smart people. But, as I said in a comment thread on my earlier post, it may be that the epistemological gulf between me and that world is just too wide. We seem to inhabit different universes.


Anonymous said...

A lot of words denouncing, near zero engaging. I'm removing you from my rss feed, I can get empty outrage from any number of outlets if I feel the need.

mtraven said...

Sorry you feel that way, but I don't see how anything I write can be read as "denouncing". I've repeatedly said that Scott seems both very intelligent and very well-intentioned. But he has ideological blind spots that seem worth exploring.

Dain said...

"But he has ideological blind spots that seem worth exploring."

He's not nearly ideological enough, if anything, which is why he's so refreshing. Ideologues of all stripes can find plenty to dislike in him. Progressives: well that's well-covered. Libertarians: not free market enough/doesn't hate the state enough. Conservatives: don't like his weird "aspie" style and decadent promotion of drugs and poly stuff.

There's a reason this whole Grey Tribe thing exists, to distinguish it from the more ideologically uniform Blue and Red Tribe. The fact that it's still a tribe though does suggest ideological blinders; maybe it's something like a faulty "view from nowhere" (HT Jay Rosen) or a sense that he merely splits the difference between sides and engages in false equivalence. I don't really think this applies, but I'm trying to be charitable. (The irony being that Scott also tries to be charitable, but apparently to a fault; one thing a rabid alt-righter and a SJW can agree on is that at least they know where the other stands, with no pretense to being above-it-all and with no cultural dog in the fight.)

You're not engaging in "empty outrage." What a silly and hyperbolic charge.

mtraven said...

I think what I am trying to say (and I haven't articulated this in quite this way before) is that he most definitely has an ideology, and it's bad to pretend you don't have one, which is what this sort of antipolitical rationalism does. If you are interested in the broad goal of improved thinking, it's much better to acknowledge the biases, political and otherwise, of your conceptual infrastructure.

This is not a particularly original or sophisticated insight, it's basically Critical Theory 101. It's pretty obvious that an epistemological stance which is incapable of recognizing the reality of structural racism is most definitely taking a political stance, whether it admits it or not.

Anonymous said...

“Nobody has any real policy disagreements” ...Does he think that all this conflict is over nothing...

Well, some of us can't figure out what more do these "SJWs" really want. Do they want 50/50 representation of men and women in the workplace, perhaps? If yes, why and in which workplace(s)?
Whatever it is, it's not stated explicitly enough, but it's wrapped in vague concepts that aren't agreed upon by the general population. I don't see women and minorities marching in the streets protesting that tech companies don't want to hire them... it all seems pushed by small groups of people and disconnected from reality.
Meanwhile the real problems (those perceived and agreed upon by most people) are seemingly neglected, which just adds to the frustration.

Dain said...

"This is not a particularly original or sophisticated insight, it's basically Critical Theory 101."

Scott doesn't dismiss something like Critical Theory out of hand, he just relentlessly interrogates it. ("Interrogate" ironically a term in vogue among the Critical Theory left.)

The Rationalist Community, more than any other group - progressives, conservatives, libertarians - is obsessed with uncovering biases and data-free just-so stories. One of their most popular blogs is even called Overcoming Bias. If they've got a problem with acknowledging their conceptual infrastructure, as you put it, every other collection of ideologues is positively in a state of crisis.

mtraven said...

The "rationalist" community may be obsessed with uncovering biases, that doesn't mean they necessarily do a good job of if. Overcoming Bias, in particular, is crawling with biases that are conveniently in line with those of the Koch brothers who fund it.

Dain said...

Koch brothers? That old saw? Oh man you've jumped the shark.