Shanley Kane’s twitter bio refers to herself as Silicon Valley’s last cultural critic. And as one of the tech world’s most prominent feminist crusaders, she’s no stranger to making statements in 140 characters or less. Her writing, and the writing of others that she publishes in the journal Model View Culture, unwaveringly calls out and smartly comments on brogrammer bullshit. From Shit Men Say to Women Founders to Lean Against, her essays are required reading. The CEO and founder of Model View Culture doesn’t dream of a tech future where all women have leaned in. She advocates and highlights queer voices and people of color, an area in which The Women in Tech movement has been exclusionary. We sat down to talk to Kane about queering the tech world, leaning against, and surviving Silicon Valley.
Topical Cream: How did you first become involved in the tech community?
Shanley Kane: I started using the internet in middle school. Back then things were more low-level, more anonymous in many ways, and much more disconnected from concepts like a social graph rooted in static positions and identities. As essentially a child in the early days of the internet, this ephemerality, transitiveness, the rapidly shifting scaffold of online platforms was a massive asset. When you’re in those first conscious years of sexuality, grappling with authority, besieged by hormones, starting to emotionally grasp the violence of patriarchy that you don’t yet have words for or understand – and you have that isolation and powerlessness of being a child where adults are in control of almost every aspect of your life – the early internet was an amazing place. My early life online was lots of catfishing, experimenting with different kinds of identities; publishing early art and writing, sharing poetry, developing self-expression and autonomy.
In order to accomplish any of these things, you had to learn some things that we now see as “programming” that have since been obscured from most users of consumer tech. But then, and still today, much of those skills are guarded by privilege-based gatekeeping from a resources and access perspective.
So that was my early experience in tech. Later in my life I drifted away from tech because I was dealing with a lot of shit in my adolescence like drugs, eating disorder, anxiety, sexual assault, misogyny. I was still focusing on writing though which somehow ended up in technical writing and then I moved to San Francisco when I finished school. I think I had a lot of hopes for San Francisco based on its mythology as a place that was safe, welcoming, etc. to queer people, radicals, geeks, intellectuals, nerds etc. I had this vision of like personal joy and fulfillment and prosperity and ended up working in one of the most misogynist, bigoted, corrupt areas of the tech industry which is enterprise software. Model View Culture is in some ways both an escape and a rebellion against that.
On your twitter you refer to yourself as “Silicon Valley’s last cultural critic.” Do you find that people (women, minorities) are afraid to be vocal about their experience and critique tech culture in fear of backlash or complete alienation? Is it sometimes better to keep quiet if that means keeping your job?
I logged into this app called Secret yesterday for the first time. It’s this app that lets people share short blurbs anonymously, and so of course it is also a place where violent harassment of women happens. Within 3 minutes of logging in I saw posts about me: people expressing how much they want to punch me in the face (with over 40+ “likes”), men saying I need to be “hugged by a penis.” As someone who has been punched in the face by someone who then raped me, there is a level of violence in the backlash against me personally and my work in general that is incredibly hard to absorb and continue to function under as a tech worker and business owner. I have a stalker who has had almost daily abusive contact with me for over six months. I’ve had my devices be hacked and photos of me sent to investors in companies I work for.
I have only ever expressed 20% of what I think about tech culture and it wouldn’t be safe to ever express the rest of it.
The risk of backlash and complete alienation is real. People who are straight, white, cis and male are able to express some resistance against dominant tech culture with relatively little consequences. Many of them get fawning accolades for saying watered-down versions of the shit we get death threats for. And of course there’s also a desperate attempt to make the resistance to tech culture, the attempts to diversify it look like they’re coming from rich white dudes themselves, instead of from the people they’ve oppressed who are brilliant and successful and achieving and rebelling. There’s this function of the devouring nature of white supremacist patriarchy in tech that says that all critical and relevant intellectual and emotional labor must come from cishet white men. Half of the backlash around critique of tech culture is transparently hostile, punishing and abusive; half of it is more about absorbing, co-opting, minimizing and profiting from the progress, achievement, critique and production of marginalized groups.
Why did you decide to have MVC in print in addition to having it online?
I think many people still like and enjoy print media, especially when it comes to content that they feel an emotional connection to. For Model View Culture, a lot of people do have that emotional connection and they value having that print version. Me personally, I haven’t adjusted super well to digital reading and I actually read a lot less than I did when print media was more ubiquitous.
That’s not to say there aren’t lots of problems with print media – there definitely are. It poses lots of issues in terms of accessibility, access, reach, and the overhead expenses are non-trivial. There’s definitely issues around environmental issues to consider as well – our quarterlies are printed on recycled paper with recycled inks. At the same time from an economic standpoint I’ve found, like many independent publishers, that print can be a valuable part of your revenue strategy. Running a media company, especially one that challenges the status quo and is aimed at a relatively niche audience, is not easy, there are a lot of costs involve – print is one way to achieve some financial stability, but it certainly shouldn’t be the only one.
What do you think are the biggest problems facing women and minorities entering the tech world? If the solution isn’t to Lean In how do we completely destroy white male dominance in STEM fields? How do we “lean against”?
This is a pretty big question. I think there are a few places to start that would be high-impact.
• Abusive acts that are pervasive and well documented in our workplaces, events and open source communities need to end.
• The tech industry is known for discriminating against minorities in tech in ways that are empirical and extensively measured:
• Minorities are not funded, or promoted to leadership positions, or represented at events and conferences, at anywhere near their proportional representation in the industry.
People talk about how we need more diverse people entering the tech pipeline, which is true, but we also need to STOP doing the things that are causing incredibly high attrition rates and lack of progress among minorities already in STEM. And of course fundamentally, there’s this problem where most of the capital and attendant access within tech is centralized in collectives of, or individual cishet white men. These resources must be re-distributed across diverse individuals, groups and collectives within tech to achieve financial stability, and start new types of companies led by and developed for diverse people, and gain power and autonomy.
People talk a lot about how much Bill Gates, Marc Benioff, etc. have donated to charity, but no one wants to talk about how different a world it would be if that type of extreme wealth gap wasn’t enabled by the tech industry in the first place, if the resources in tech were more equitably distributed.
Do you think the emphasis and discourse around getting more women in tech excludes or erases people that identify as queer/non-binary?
Most of the “women in tech” movement is incredible exclusionary. Following in the footsteps of mainstream feminism, most of the “women in tech” movement has been focused on white straight cis women achieving incremental progress instead of identifying and dismantling fundamental systems of oppression that go far beyond that particular position. As a result, much of the women in tech movement has been an abject failure, has done nothing to stem the attrition rates of women in tech, and has not substantially helped any other groups or created culture change. Despite the hypervisibility of the women in tech movement, which has a lot to do with the interest of the mainstream tech media in publicizing and profiting off the pain of women while ignoring systemic issues like patriarchy and white supremacy, the movement is largely ineffectual.
In order for true reform of the tech industry, we need to form broader bases of solidarity that center LGBTQ people, non-binary people, people of color, people with disabilities and the many people at the intersections of those groups. For all the talk about sexism in tech, there is a marked and deliberant silence about racism, transphobia, queer-phobia, and other systems of discrimination, abuse and inequality.
You published a piece on Model View Culture titled, Diversity Is Not Enough. To me, tech culture is very much bro culture. The piece highlights this – the men at the start-up in question would play boyish pranks on their “weaker” co-workers, implied compulsory drinking after work as “team building,” being “one of the guys.” And the author of the piece felt pressure to play into the frat house culture. Although employers try to make an effort to hire women and minorities, the author of the piece describes the work environment as a “boys club that allows women.” That’s not exactly a warm welcome or a safe space. How do we get past the point of just hiring for diversity and create an inclusive environment for women and LGBTQ tech workers?
The factors that make tech workplaces abusive and hostile to minorities are many and systemic. Aspects of that reform need to include workers’ organization and collective action. Right now while major tech companies illegally collude behind workers’ back to control salaries and competition, workers together and especially diverse workers have very little formal political mechanisms to drive change in policy. Tech workplaces also need to start holding workers and managers responsible and accountable for their behavior – over and over, workers and managers engage in hostile and discriminatory, abusive behavior against marginalized people and are never held to account. It is enabled by the lack of consequences and recourse in the environment for members of the dominant group. Of course, raising the level of critical awareness is necessary as well but we often find that despite multiple attempts to educate people in power, they do not change.
What are your opinions on Cross-Country Love? The startup founded by Lauren Kay that flies single women from NYC to SF, where there are supposedly no women to speak of.
It’s an enormous waste of time of money, and it is fucking disgusting and symbolic of the venture-capital sponsored moral depravity of the industry.
Django is a web framework that apparently a lot of major sites run on. Last month a thread was started on Github to get Django to change their terminology (master/slave) to something with less of a racially charged meaning. Surprisingly, Django actually changed their terminology (yay!). Can you talk about why is this important and why were so many white men mad about it?
We have an article about the Django changes coming up in our next online issue that looks at social media so I won’t talk about it too much. But as an overall comment, we see very often than when attempts are made to make online spaces and specifically open source spaces more inclusive and less hostile – for example, by using gender-neutral and non-racist language instead of gendered and racist language – that there is an enormous amount of resistance that happens. It represents a threat to the dominance of white men in tech to say that we are going to make these places inclusive and destroy the discrimination and abuse in them. In the recent case of Django, online white male terrorist groups such as 4Chan helped to deploy massive, despicable racist attacks in opposition to the change. They were of course joined by a legion of white dudes in tech so secure in their privilege that they didn’t even bother to hide behind anonymity while leaving incredible hateful comments that should get them fired.
How can we have a more nuanced discourse when we talk about diversifying tech?
I think there are actually lots of nuanced discussions about tech happening, but they are occurring in diverse communities, by diverse people and as a result they are stifled, threatened into non-existence, stolen and watered down and sold for pageviews. So, I think it’s less that we have a need for nuanced discourse and more that we need to center the nuanced discussion that is already happening, value it, allow it to flourish unpunished and unoppressed. Model View Culture is only one tiny fraction of the nuanced discourse that is happening on individual blogs, social media, in diverse physical spaces in tech, in the innovative companies and collectives of diverse people here.
There’s this idea in tech that “THERE’S NO DIVERSE PEOPLE IN TECH”, when there are, it’s just they are being forced out and have been for decades. There’s this idea that this type of discourse is rare or absent, but really it is HERE, it just isn’t being listened to, and in many cases it’s being actively silenced.