Tag Archives: open source

Open source, opportunity, and women in software

Linux Journal recently ran a thoughtful essay by Susan Sons about females in open source and hacking communities.

Sons starts by talking about how she first engaged with the Linux community. It was the 1990’s, and Sons was around age 12. She applauds that community for including anyone who was interested and skillful — even a 12 year old girl living on a farm.

Sons goes on to talk about how her way of learning technology is very different than the way girls are typically introduced to tech nowadays, like in high school STEM courses. She seems to feel like she was introduced to technology in a healthy way. But she thinks that, unfortunately, most girls are not given the opportunity to learn about computers the way she did.

Twelve-year-old girls today don’t generally get to have the experiences that I did. Parents are warned to keep kids off the computer lest they get lured away by child molesters or worse—become fat! That goes doubly for girls, who then grow up to be liberal arts majors. Then, in their late teens or early twenties, someone who feels the gender skew in technology communities is a problem drags them to a LUG meeting or an IRC channel. Shockingly, this doesn’t turn the young women into hackers.

Her main point seems to be that, as she learned technology (on a computer at home, communicating over IRC), it did not matter whether she was male or female, and it didn’t matter how old she was. But the way we introduce most girls to technology now is much less healthy. We expect them to live up to certain gender roles — wearing make-up, dressing stylishly, projecting femininity — and emphasize those things instead of encouraging them to hack and create. Then, when girls who have never had the opportunity to learn about computers get to high school, we act like there must be something wrong with them and act like they need special help (like special classes for women in STEM).

Sons also explains how these differences in learning technology result in differences in the ways women and men are treated later as adults in technology and computer occupations. Sons also seems to think that the situation has become a lot worse over the last 20 years.

I’ve never had a problem with old-school hackers. These guys treat me like one of them, rather than “the woman in the group”, and many are old enough to remember when they worked on teams that were about one third women, and no one thought that strange. Of course, the key word here is “old” (sorry guys). Most of the programmers I like are closer to my father’s age than mine.

The new breed of open-source programmer isn’t like the old. They’ve changed the rules in ways that have put a spotlight on my sex for the first time in my 18 years in this community.

Maybe Sons’ underlying message is this: We treat girls and women unfairly when it comes to computers and technology. But the main problem is not individual cases of prejudice. It is an educational system and a technology culture that puts women at a disadvantage from an early age — primarily by having very different expectations for women and men. Is that right? If so, then it is clearly very unfair.

Sons has an interesting perspective, and I wonder if it matches what you have seen in the tech world — in school, in online communities, in the workplace.

UK gov now ‘prefers’ open-source development

The government of the United Kingdom has taken the first major step (among the main government superpowers of the world) in creating the prototype for an “open source” country. Okay – maybe that’s a little bit of an overstatement – but when Richard Stallman performed his free software song for the first time, I certainly don’t think he had anything this major in mind.

A little background first: for the past couple years, the UK government has been working hard to create guidelines for governmental software development  – The Digital by Default Service Standard . These guidelines were first developed basically to reduce the amount of cruddy software condoned by the UK government (i.e. software that isn’t easily adaptable or shareable). Another main reason that the UK was seeking to create this resource for governmental software developers was to reduce – if not eliminate – the chance of becoming locked in “to some mad oligopoly outsource” – Liam Maxwell, CTO.

This article caught my attention because I was readying about Richard Stallman at the time and it instantly made me think of the 4 principles of free software.  However – this is the first time an entire country is going to change their mode of operation from commercial to open-source software. While I’d like to say that this is the perfect plan and that everyone should follow suit, a feeling in my gut says that the government’s restriction to use only open-source software might undermine the integrity and flexibility that we all associate with the term ‘open-source’. Maybe commercial software is needed to keep a professional standard to code by while open-source software fills the in-between needs of the people.  Either way – this is going to be a great experiment..  What do you guys think?

3-d printed high-capacity magazines

In class Monday we talked for a moment about whether and how news stories about new technology could be ethically significant. I said that if technology changes the ways we live and interact with each other, then a new piece of technology might be very ethically significant.

Here is a great example. Forbes has an interesting write-up about Defense Distributed, a group using 3-d printers to create high-capacity ammunition magazines. (See also this article at The Verge.) People are using 3-d printers to print high-capacity magazines to hold bullets for assault rifles. Magazines holding more than ten rounds used to be banned. Since the Newtown shooting, there is growing support for banning them again. Well, how effective would a ban be if people could just download the design and print one from home?

Of course this issue goes well-beyond just gun magazines or even firearms in general. 3-d printing promises to allow DIYers to manufacture things that, up to now, have had to come from large factories. In many ways, this should be great. But what about people who want to manufacture something illegal or dangerous?