Djangocon keynote: the programmer’s body - Daniele Procida

Tags: djangocon, django

(One of the summaries of a talk at the 2014

Daniele Procida talks about diversity in our industry.

Everybody seems to share the values and advantages of diversity as the python/django community. So he doesn’t need to sell them to us now.

What were the earliest computers? Women. The power of early computers was measured in “girl years”: the work of how many computing women could it do? Women were highly prized for their manual computing work because they were paid half the salary of male colleagues.

Programmers are now building the world. Anyone in the world will live in the world we build. The systems that govern us. The systems that govern our relations. The way we are educated. The way we are formed. Programmers are quite important.

So a valid question is “who are these programmers?” But: does the question matter? Doesn’t it matter more what we do rather than what we are? Liberalism says that what we do is much more important.

Liberalism abstracts from “particulars”. And it makes asusmptions and assertions of equality. It actually says that people should be equal. It asserts individual autonomy, responsibility and merit.

In case you don’t like those answers, you need to be quite lucky to belong to the right group.

The greek philosophers made a clear distinction between the mind and the body:

  • The mind is alive, essential, free, human.

  • The body is inert, accidental, determined, animal.

This opens up to the idea of “universal humanity”, abstracted from the particular. The differences do not count. It results in the idea of universal human rights. He showed a picture of Cocina Wurst, the Austrian man dressed up as a woman that won the european song festival last week. “It is time to worry about more important things than things like our sexuality”.

The ideology of the IT industry shares liberalism’s privileging of the mind over the body. It is redefining humanity. We’re defined by our online personalities and relationships. Who we are as a body doesn’t matter.

Facebook/Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of relations has re-defined our real-world relations. They recently bought VR maker Oculus: they also want to change our perception of the real world.

Technology changes the world. But it usually changed the world in respons to a real need. Now we have ideas in search for problems: so our ideas will now try to change our world.

So… the question “who are those programmers?” isn’t so strange. Mostly they’re quite young. Often men. Often white. Well-off. Educated. Western.

At least the ones who are driving this development often are.

Normally when people of one specific kind are all the doctors, all the lawmakers, all the politicians, all the programmers? What happens then?

Liberalism abstracts from bodies. Who’s bodies? The bodies of those who don’t need to think about their bodies. Well, bodies without problems. Male bodies. Bodies that don’t become pregnant. Bodies that aren’t old. Bodies that don’t have problems getting food. Bodies that are in a good position already.

Liberalism’s blind spot is that of the priviliged elites. Just like in the UX design talk with the car/cyclists analogy: when only car drivers design the road, the road will never be a good place for cyclists.

So liberalism’s philosophy isn’t giving our IT industry the philosophy we need. The IT industry has many issues with bodies. We often forget and damage and mistreat our bodies. Human relationships lead to controversies. Your stand on gay marriage can cost you your job as IT CEO, for instance.

Working in the IT could be the ideal job for a physically disabled person. But he hasn’t seen a wheelchair at djangocon yet. He sees more of them engaged in sporting activities in the park!

The bodies in our industry are very different. But there is a stunning lack of diversity. There are many disparities in confidence, pay, influence, participation. There are high-profile controversies regarding sexuality, sex, sexism. And there are dark sides to it like harrasment.

It is not safe for the world we are building if all the programmers are privileged white men.

Liberalism inadvertently undermines diversity. Liberalism undermines some of its own key aspirations like justice, fairness, equality, meritocracy because it cannot find a place for the body in its philosophy.

Question: what animal would you be if you were an animal?

Answer: we are already an animal. So we need to look to our animal, our body. Human reason, moral responsibility, knowledge: they are all embodied.

  • Liberalism fails to recognise the embodied nature of human reason.

  • This failure makes disputes angrier, because of the way it leads us to dispute.

  • Anger is exclusive and detrimental to diversity. So watch out when getting angry on twitter.

He showed a poem by Mary Oliver:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

He told us another poem. Great! ‘to be of use’ by Marge Piercy.

Some comments:

  • Moral knowledge is practical, lived.

  • Learning to be considerate is a question of how to be, not of what to know.

  • People are generally kind, friendly, gentle, generous, but not always very considerate.

  • How is this kind of knowledge transmitted?

A conclusion:

  • Our python/django community already strongly embraces moral values.

  • We are in a position to assert values and act on them.

  • We influence the members of our community.

  • We influence other communities. They are watching us.

We are building the world.

French diesel train in Kruth, 2007 logo

About me

My name is Reinout van Rees and I work a lot with Python (programming language) and Django (website framework). I live in The Netherlands and I'm happily married to Annie van Rees-Kooiman.

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