FEATURE

Technically, a Utopia

Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture edited by Elissa Shevinsky. OR Books. Paperback, 284 pages. .
The Feminist Utopia Project: Fifty-Seven Visions of a Wildly Better Future edited by Alexandra Brodsky, Rachel Kauder Nalebuff. The Feminist Press at CUNY. Paperback, 360 pages. $19.
Lean Out BY Dawn Foster. Repeater. Paperback, 87 pages. $14.

The cover of Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture The cover of The Feminist Utopia Project: Fifty-Seven Visions of a Wildly Better Future The cover of Lean Out

"Feminism," Shulamith Firestone wrote, “is the inevitable female response to the development of a technology capable of freeing women from the tyranny of their sexual-reproductive roles.” This meant not just that technology could eradicate social inequalities by rendering physical ones unimportant, but that it could allow us to imagine the possibility of equality in the first place. In her 1970 book, The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone argued that, pace Marx and Engels, sex oppression is the oldest form of oppression: Since the dark ages, women had been rendered physically weaker thanks to their near-constant state of pregnancy—and this impairment ensured men’s ultimate dominion over them. It followed that with changes in reproductive technology—birth control and, as Firestone enthusiastically prophesied, externalized cyberwombs—women would gain the potential to free themselves from this centuries-old subjugation. She envisaged a world in which “genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.”

Following Firestone’s lead, other feminists hailed technology as a means of transcending sexual difference. In 1983, Donna Haraway wrote the trippy, provocative “A Cyborg Manifesto,” which announced that “the relation between organism and machine has been a border war,” while suggesting that the coming convergence of flesh and technics might do away with gender altogether. We could then evolve into cyborg beings of diverse origin. If the search for a solution to gender inequality had run aground on the weakness of the flesh, this bold new group of feminist theorists reasoned, then silicon, cobalt, and steel might set us free.

Unfortunately, just as they haven’t quite made good on the elusive dream of the flying car, the technologies of twenty-first-century capitalism have failed to deliver a dissolution of the body. Cyberfeminists had banked on women being able to use new technologies to achieve their own ends, but capitalism has delivered a tech industry that uses them instead. Nor does it use us gently. The women who contributed to Lean Out write with palpable dismay that the latter-day capital of technological innovation has become a sort of sexist hellscape—even though any enterprising female geek must, of necessity, be drawn to Silicon Valley like a moth to a Zippo Lighter app. The book is saturated with misery. “There’s something more I want to tell you about Silicon Valley,” writes Sunny Allen, a linguist, bioengineer, and cofounder of the start-up Hum (makers of “the first artificially intelligent vibrator”). “It breaks us.” She describes a “work hard, play hard” scene drenched with amphetamines, one that resembles its coked-up white-collar forebear, Wall Street. One sleep-deprived young man suffers Adderall-induced psychosis at the Hacker Dojo, an incubator for ruthlessly competitive coder-entrepreneurs. “When they pulled him out on the stretcher,” Allen writes, “he was twitching.”

Industries like this perpetuate these macho rituals by invoking a sacred corporate principle known as the “culture fit.” Under its protean yet reliably self-serving guise, bosses look to hire people who will fit in with the team and with desirable clients. On Wall Street, that means a workforce largely made up of men from Ivy League schools. In Silicon Valley, everyone’s after a similar effect via a chiller vibe. Chill, here, does not connote relaxed; it’s meant to summon the mellower (but still alpha-wired) younger brother of the Ivy-educated white dude on Wall Street. I picture him as a bro in flip-flops, game for an epic night of coding.Investors know this guy too.As John Doerr, a partner at the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins, said in 2008, “If you look at Bezos, or [Netscape Communications Corp. cofounder] Marc Andreessen, [Yahoo! Inc. cofounder] David Filo, the founders of Google, they all seem to be white, male, nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford and they absolutely have no social life. So when I see that pattern coming in . . . it was very easy to decide to invest.” In this world, pattern recognition becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The women in Lean Out are bad culture fits, beginning with their most obvious shared trait, femaleness. They are all but guaranteed to kill the vibe at tech conferences where presentations are accompanied by stripteases. (Not every woman hates a striptease, of course, but female attendees at these performances understood them—correctly—as an assault on their right to play any other role at a tech conference.) Elissa Shevinsky, the editor of this collection, decided she was “finished defending sexism in tech” when the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon featured two hackers who had made something called Titstare, an app where you photograph yourself looking at tits. (Yes, that’s all it did, and no, I can’t explain.)

Then there are the gay or queer women here. They recount being bullied by nerds who now felt empowered to reverse-code the ultra-hetero sexual taunts they endured in high school. In this setting, contributors to Lean Out report, women must struggle to become the nonthreatening token in a given group of coder-bros; this leaves female hires looking askance at the new girl, wondering, in Leigh Alexander’s words, “Do the men like her better than you?”

It’s an important question because the men still have most of the money. Five percent of the Valley’s venture capitalists are female (approximately). Three percent of companies receiving venture-capital funding have female CEOs (approximately). The number of female partners in VC firms has been declining since the late 1990s. Erica Swallow’s glum verdict, after a summer spent interning at a VC company as the sole woman on the investment side, was that “the only time being a woman had any cachet was recruitment for the firm’s co-ed softball team.”

On the one hand, the authors here are rightly furious about being subjected to the stupid test of culture fit, to sexual harassment, to racist stereotypes, to all manner of garbage. On the other hand, though, they subscribe to the hoary notion that they’re operating in a meritocracy. “I got to where I am because I worked really hard and I am good at what I do; it has nothing to do with filling a quota,” Dom Deguzman writes in “Breaking the Bro Code.” In other words, they have a fraught relationship to tech culture: They keep trying to fix Silicon Valley sexism as if it were a bug and not a feature. At bottom, they want to play the game; they just imagine it can be played more fairly. There is, however, one notable exception. My favorite essay in the book is a little piece by the gamer and developer anna anthropy called “But What if It’s Killing You?” After a litany of charges against tech culture—lists are produced of the “hottest women in tech,” women of color who call out harassment are fired, well-off rapists are protected—she says that if she could take all those episodes and “stack them up, I would build letters a mile high that say ‘THEY DON’T DESERVE YOU.’”

She is onto a crucial truth about women in Silicon Valley—their faith and eagerness to participate in tech culture drives them to keep lending their brilliance, their enthusiasm, and their time to an industry led by people who hate them. “We must really love FIELD OF WORK,” she mimics women telling themselves, as they battle abuse at their jobs. And “women in FIELD OF WORK journalism must really care about FIELD OF WORK to put up with the constant abuse, threats, attempts at manipulating their sexual history to get them fired or discredited.” The passion that tech inspires spurs developers to keep giving more in exchange for less; so, logically, “I’m calling for an end to Passion,” anthropy writes.

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In any case, there’s less and less to be passionate about. The tech industry, despite its progressive aesthetics, is emerging as the sort of destructive, deregulated force that Wall Street has been since the 1970s. New ideas often look suspiciously like the old ones: Many apps, whether for calling cabs or delivering snacks, “disrupt” a unionized or decently paying industry and create low wages on a contractor basis instead. There’s no number of female CEOs that could make that look like progress.

The anthropy essay is a sad coda to the wide-eyed geekiness of Shevinsky’s 1997 college memories: She recalls “hanging out with this group of wonderful nerdy gamer coders” in a “gender balanced group.” But this elusive, utopian moment of collective virtual exploration has been supplanted by something so toxic that women just want out. This is, of course, the world that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has asked us to lean further into. Aren’t there any other possible futures?

For dreamers, there is a bright-yellow book out called The Feminist Utopia Project, edited by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, a playwright, and Alexandra Brodsky, a founder of Know Your IX, an organization that has led the fight against rape on campus. Like Lean Out, it reads unevenly—most contributions are by activists, artists, and lawyers rather than writers—but it captures a refreshing point of view: in this case, optimism for a world emptied of sexism and full of colorful block prints.

Each contributor was asked to describe her vision of utopia, and many turned to that most wishful of genres, sci-fi. A handful demonstrate an enthusiasm for technology that would make Firestone proud and venture capitalists stoked. Their work doesn’t partake of the “move fast and break things” aggression of Silicon Valley, but expresses a shared longing for a more Firestonian future, in which technology can serve women’s needs instead of accelerating their oppression. One author writes about a body-positive society in which clothes are 3-D-printed from a body scan; another envisions a sex-positive Reproductive Supporter who helps girls choose a birth-control digital clock. (Data mining apparently isn’t much of a concern in Utopia.) As if to emphasize technology’s role in boosting us into the future, the right-hand side of every page forms a flipbook of a rocket going up, up, up, beyond our world of sexism, rape, and inequality.

A number of essays address economic divisions directly: Longtime labor activist and author Ellen Bravo describes an exhausted cleaning worker, Anna, magically transported to the future, where she emerges from the supply closet to find a democratically controlled workplace complete with a library, free lunch, and Medicare for all. When Anna tries to explain how things were before, a new comrade asks: “What’s a lobbyist?” Ah, to dream!

Madeleine Schwartz advocates a basic income, something that would change women’s perennial question from “How do I balance work and life?” to “What do I do with all this free time?” Enormous economic resources have clearly been brought to bear in many of these utopias: There’s support for reproductive health, child care, and mental health. “We want more,” the editors write in their introduction. “These three simple words are so difficult to say because we, as women, aren’t allowed to want much.”

It’s good to see feminists reaching out for more resources. By contrast, Twitter’s circular firing squad can make for what feels like a battle for shrinking territory, perhaps because these are often (though not always) fights among the paid commentariat, and they’re right to be nervous—there is only room for so many pundits. The entire exercise is beside the point for a lot of activists doing the work to get women more of what they need. Melissa Gira Grant’s essay points to the problem of thinking that is not concrete. As a frequent writer about sex work, Grant recounts how she’s regularly told that “a politics of sex work here and now is less important than to produce a sex work politics in order to advance feminism’s utopian vision. The question ‘Is there sex work after the revolution?’ is one you can debate without having to ask sex workers what they think. It’s a debate without stakes.” Utopian thinking, of course, always depends on skipping the impossible steps. Real change is the backstory, not the plot.

The agents of that change finally take center stage in Guardian journalist Dawn Foster’s excellent book, also called Lean Out, with a foreword by Nina Power. (And if you haven’t read Power’s funny and profound short book One Dimensional Woman, you must do so.) Foster addresses herself directly to Sheryl Sandberg’s own pet utopia—a meritocratic world in which women can vanquish the internal obstacles that supposedly keep them from “sitting at the table” and so ascend to Sandberg-esque fame and billion-dollar wealth. One obvious problem with this logic is that capitalism requires hierarchy, so simply working harder will never benefit everyone.

Sandberg has tried to fudge this implacable truth by declaring, airily, that having women at the top benefits “women who work anywhere in that company.” Foster demonstrates that it does no such thing. She cites, among others, Theresa May, Conservative Party Home Secretary (and former Minister for Women and Equalities) in the UK, who allegedly allowed horrific abuses to continue at the Yarl’s Wood detention center, supported aggressive anti-immigrant measures that split up families, “endorsed an austerity regime that saw the gender pay-gap increase, and has been a stalwart of a government that introduced cuts that affected four times as many women as men.” After all, Foster points out, “there is no intrinsic tendency for women to support other women when competing class and power interests offer far more fruitful personal rewards.” May is now the longest-serving Home Secretary in half a century.

Foster’s most forward-looking contribution is her final chapter, in which she describes an alternative to Sandberg’s “feminist revolution”: working-class organizing, which “is far harder to write a chirpy feature about,” she writes, “because, like most aspects of working-class life, it becomes enmeshed in many other axes of oppression: class, disability, age, region, race, education.” For working-class women, “simply being a feminist isn’t enough to cover the myriad hardships enacted upon them and their peers.” They are held to different standards than better-off women. Their sexuality, for example, is caricatured—“depicted as bovine and boorish, the ‘wrong’ kind of promiscuity, while a glitzier, posher sexuality, bound up in consumerism, is sold to us constantly through the media as liberation”—and used as an excuse for cutting government benefits. In America, these were the women dubbed “welfare queens” by the Right (and Bill Clinton’s center). They are oppressed as women, but also because they are poor. You can’t fix that by changing your attitude—or by improving your CV.

In 2013, as the British labored under round after round of austerity measures, twenty-nine single mothers founded the Focus E15 campaign in the London borough of Newham. Facing eviction from the hostel they stayed in with their children, the women began campaigning and drew activists to their cause, ultimately staging a temporary occupation of empty flats. They hung a banner: “THESE HOMES NEED PEOPLE: THESE PEOPLE NEED HOMES.” Foster notes that direct action is by far the most effective weapon in the working woman’s arsenal. “By occupying, withdrawing labour, and refusing to be complicit in the state’s violence against the most vulnerable in society, they show that ‘leaning out’ of the capitalist model is far more effective at securing attention, provoking change, and ensuring demands are met than ‘leaning in.’” Before you put your hopes in some future generation of machines, better to throw a spanner in the existing one.

While Foster argues that the lo-fi feminist strike is the most useful technology in the fight for gender equality, even she hails “the democratising potential of social media networks,” which have “helped bring attention to campaigns and causes that previously would have buckled without press attention.” Tech remains an appealing utopian zone, and not just for moguls—we can’t help thinking it’s for us, too. And since any mass adoption of the sort of activism Foster describes feels far off indeed, it’s tempting to hope that some magic mechanism will intervene to get us there more quickly. Unfortunately, we’re likely to be slogging it out under late capitalism a little longer. To shorten our time between here and utopia, Foster suggests we lean out all the way—not just by leaving this or that male-dominated industry, but by going on strike, and committing ourselves and our energies not to the bosses, but to one another.

Sarah Leonard is a senior editor of The Nation and coeditor of The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century (Metropolitan Books, 2015). She is also editor at large of Dissent and a contributing editor of the New Inquiry.