On Nerd Entitlement: Those who feel underprivileged are now the privileged

January 7, 2015 at 7:37 am 11 comments

Interesting blog post about a discussion going on with MIT Professor Scott Aaronson on his blog (see here). The point of the post linked below is that some white males may feel underprivileged, attacked because of their geekiness as kids, but are actually in-charge now. Those who felt underprivileged are now privileged and may not realize it, and that might be what’s making it so hard to change computing culture.  (Later update in The Chronicle blog here.)

Scott, imagine what it’s like to have all the problems you had and then putting up with structural misogyny on top of that. Or how about a triple whammy: you have to go through your entire school years again but this time you’re a lonely nerd who also faces sexism and racism. This is why Silicon Valley is fucked up. Because it’s built and run by some of the most privileged people in the world who are convinced that they are among the least. People whose received trauma makes them disinclined to listen to pleas from people whose trauma was compounded by structural oppression. People who don’t want to hear that there is anyone more oppressed than them, who definitely don’t want to hear that maybe women and people of colour had to go through the hell of nerd puberty as well, because they haven’t recovered from their own appalling nerdolescence. People who definitely don’t want to hear that, smart as they are, there might be basic things about society that they haven’t understood, because they have been prevented from understanding by the very forces that caused them such pain as children.

via On Nerd Entitlement.

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alfredtwo  |  January 7, 2015 at 7:51 am

    At times there seems to be a contest to see who is the most oppressed category in the world. It seems to depend largely on invalidating the trials and tribulations of other groups. I don’t believe this is helpful.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  January 7, 2015 at 10:43 am

      I agree, Alfred, that a race to the bottom (“Who is the most underprivileged”) is not helpful. I’m unhappy with the response described in the post that Owen shared.

      It’s more important for those in a position of privilege (a) to be aware of their privilege and (b) to actively seek ways of including those with less privilege.

      A personal anecdote to ground my comment. Last semester, my daughter had an awful computer science teacher. From his position of privilege, he made assumptions that the rest of the class was just like him, e.g., with respect to prior background before entering the class, career goals, and even music preferences. I don’t know if that teacher feels he was underprivileged growing up. I do know that he has privilege now, and he should be aware of it, and he should not assume that others share in it.

  • 3. astrachano  |  January 7, 2015 at 9:38 am

    I think reading Scott’s blog post, and then perhaps this response, which has been called out as compelling http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/01/01/untitled/ are an important part of understanding broadening participation, though I’m not sure how and why

  • 4. Mike  |  January 7, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    (I haven’t yet read the above articles/blog posts; I wanted to post this before I head off to my Long Day of teaching)(I’ll read the articles on my Short Day of teaching 🙂 )

    I was actually thinking about this, exactly, a couple weeks ago – how many nerds are now multi-millionaires (although not all of them)(not even most of them?) yet a lot of us had traumatizing events growing up. I’m surprised that no-one’s mentioned the “Voices From The Hellmouth” post that crashed Slashdot back in 1999 when all the nerds chimed in at once about the terrible things that were done to them (http://slashdot.org/story/14525?limit=0).

    I think that we computer types do need to acknowledge the privilege that many of us now enjoy, but I think it would really make things go better if people asking for change would acknowledge that it hasn’t always been so easy. I feel like I keep seeing someone asks “Gee, couldn’t you computer types do X, Y, and Z to make it easier for ” who is then surprised that the computer types react with some techno-libertarian spiel about how they figured it out themselves and so can . I don’t have a formula for how to do this better, but I hope that seeing the computer people not just as (possibly) wealthy, certainly privileged adults but also as the kids who grew into them would help people get a better handle on how to interact with computer types.

    (Which is not to say that all computer geeks are/were traumatized as kids, or that geek trauma is worse than any other)

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  January 7, 2015 at 7:54 pm

      In some ways, it’s like the point I made a while back in a blog post — CS education is just so valuable these days, which means that leaving out whole segments of the population is a significant economic cost, and conversely, there is a potential for raising the status of low-SES kids if they learned computing. That creates a demand and a cry to “make it easier for.”

      • 6. Mike  |  January 8, 2015 at 12:06 pm

        I definitely agree! We need to include everyone, especially for the economic benefits these skills accrue.

        As I understand it we also want support from industry in order to accomplish this.

        I wonder if one way to help win support would be to frame our demand as a way of helping other people who were ‘in the same boat’ growing up. This is probably too heavy-handed but something like “You remember how parts of your life sucked when you were younger? These other people over, the computing parts of their life isn’t so great either. Let’s help them out the way we wanted someone to help us out”

        I agree (with you, Mark, with Nick Falkner, below) that most geeks probably have a lot more privilege than low SES kids, but I think that the point about not making this a race to the bottom is spot-on.
        In other words, how can we use the fact that many/most geeks get bullied to make our message about inclusion more palatable?

    • 7. Michael S. Kirkpatrick  |  January 9, 2015 at 10:48 am

      “…people asking for change would acknowledge that it hasn’t always been so easy.” Please, please, please read Laurie Penny’s article in full. It is FILLED with admissions like: “I do not intend for a moment to minimise Aaronson’s suffering,” “he makes a sudden leap…from an honest place of trauma and post-rationalisation, from that teenage misery to a universal story [emph. added],” “Your suffering was and is real,” etc., etc. Or this very straightforward point: “I want you to understand that that very real suffering does not cancel out male privilege, or somehow make it alright. Privilege doesn’t mean you don’t suffer, which, I know, totally blows.” The people talking and writing about privilege and rape culture DO acknowledge that white men can also suffer. But too many men (and I have been guilty of this myself) ignore that recognition because we would then have to pay attention to the main point of the article, which would require us to recognize our own privilege.

      “…the computer types react with some techno-libertarian spiel about how they figured it out themselves and so can [blank].” This is really the heart of the problem, and I don’t have a solution. The fault in this case lies completely with the utter failure of the computer type to show empathy and to do critical introspection. The nature of privilege is that the computer type DIDN’T succeed all on their own. Rather, they were helped by the effects of privilege. Effects such as being allowed to fail without immediate and severe retribution (e.g., getting fired or going to jail) and insult, being allowed to succeed without suggestions that you cheated (or slept with someone to make it happen), being allowed to succeed without having the credit stolen, being allowed to succeed without suggestions that it was all luck instead of ability, being allowed to succeed without attributing it to “affirmative action” or “social justice warriors.” Yes, hard work is absolutely required and the computer type’s success is evidence of that person’s effort. However, we must also learn to recognize that many women and non-white males work just as harder–or harder–and have less to show for it because of external barriers.

      Benefiting from privilege does not make one a bad person, because it is beyond the control of the individual. What we men must do is recognize privilege when/where it occurs and take proactive steps to mitigate the harms that are inflicted on those who do not have the same inherent benefits.

  • 8. Mike  |  January 7, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    Hey, while I’m at it – what’s up with the word ‘Nerd’? Why not ‘geek’?

    Prior to now every time I’ve ever seen someone use the word ‘Nerd’ used it as a perjorative. I’ve always heard people who fall into this category describe themselves as ‘geeks’.

    ‘Geek’ means a person who’s really, really into something (as in ‘computer geek’) while a nerd is someone at the bottom of the social hierarchy who gets picked on by others.

  • 9. nickfalkner  |  January 7, 2015 at 8:06 pm

    I think the biggest problem I have is the amount of implicit opportunity required to get to the point to be a nerd/geek, as identified here.

    As an employed nerd, someone went to school, someone probably went to college, someone is part of a high-tech culture. No-one should be bullied or made to suffer because of who they are but, if I may make a bold statement, you really have to know that a ‘nerd’ is a ‘nerd’ before you discriminate against them if they happen to appear to be from an otherwise privileged group.

    There are people who cannot walk down the street without facing discrimination. That’s what we really mean when we talk about privilege: people who are not safe because of the colour of their skin or their gender. People who will be denied a large amount of the same opportunity to even get to the point of being discriminated against as a nerd. To lack privilege is to be denied opportunity for something that is effectively immutable, not because of areas of interest, social graces, dress-sense, or hair cut – all classic nerd identification strategies, and as useless and discriminatory as any subgroup identification for bullying.

    I can see why highly educated people who had a very nasty experience at the hands of ugly people have a problem with being treated badly, and we should all be doing what we need to do to stop it, but the nerd group was not necessarily under privileged – they were bullied. I think that’s a pretty big difference but I realise many people could disagree with me on this one.

    • 10. Mike  |  January 12, 2015 at 11:45 am

      Hi Nick,

      Thank you for the comment – it brought up a really good point, and got me thinking bunch about it.

      Two questions about immutability:
      1) I agree that race influences privilege (positive or negative, depending on the race). What about class? I know that people who start out wealthy (or poor) tend to live lives that are wealth (or poor) but is that really immutable?

      2) I agree that race is an immutable factor in privilege. What about homosexuality? I think that it’s reasonable to claim that homosexuality is an immutable factor in privilege (I don’t have any studies handy, but I believe it). And if we accept that a (sometimes) invisible, mental factor like one’s sexual orientation impacts one’s privilege, what about having an introverted personality? Our society clearly favors outgoing extroverts at a number of levels, and while you can learn to act a different way I think that one’s personality can’t really be changed

    • 11. Mike  |  January 12, 2015 at 12:01 pm

      “but the nerd group was not necessarily under privileged”

      My personal mental model for privilege is that one can imagine a checklist of factors, and one’s privilege is calculated (on a scale of, say, 1 to 100) based on which factors you check off. If you can check off “wealthy”, “white”, “male” and not “homosexual”, etc, etc then you’ve got a really high privilege score. Start flipping some of the items (say, by checking off “homosexual”, or unchecking “male”, etc) and your score goes down. It can still be objectively high, but it’s slightly lower than it was before.

      What we’re talking about here are geeks that are (typically) white, male, and middle class or better (and thus have a really high privilege score) but lack a couple of checkmarks that would have pushed their scores higher. “Social graces”? Nope! “Introverted”? Yep!

      I think that if we want to convince geeks that it’s important to help people with lower privilege scores we need to be able acknowledge that in the environment that they grew up they may have had relatively less privilege than those around them. Objectively they’re doing great, but we need a way of acknowledging their challenges in order to help them acknowledge others’ hardships.


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