Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Ada Initiative vs. Violet Blue Over a Cancelled Talk at BSides

Recently a hew and cry rose up from the hacker community because a noted feminism in technology group, the Ada Initiative, advised the BSides security conference to cancel a talk by noted sex-educator, hacker, and feminist Violet Blue. There has been a great deal of back and forth on the subject of the cancellation that amounts to a great deal of she-said-she-said and clarifications.

The timeline follows pretty much via the accounts of the participants. First, the Ada Initiative spoke to the cancellation claiming that Violet Blue’s talk was off topic and thus should not have been done. In response, Blue posted her own experience when the BSides organizer cancelled her talk after receiving a complaint from the Ada Initiative. The Ada Initiative quickly developed a clarification of its involvement in the cancellation. Finally, the BSides SF organizer “verbal” published his own experience that led to him choosing to cancel Blue’s talk.

TLDR background; Violet Blue was going to give a talk about sex and drugs at a hacker conference, the Ada Initiative complained to the organizer, after some discussion between Blue and the organizer the talk was cancelled.

The end result of opposed viewpoints and hacker conference culture

The opposition in philosophy between the Ada Initiative and Violet blue can be summed up succinctly, but may be best to compare them side-by-side.

The Ada Initiative’s coda statement is thus (emphasis theirs),

Discussing sex creates a “sexualized environment” which many people take as a signal to treat women as sexual objects rather than as fellow conference attendees, resulting in a higher incidence of harassment and assault of women. Too many women have been raped at technical conferences; we should do everything we can to prevent future rapes.

Sex in many societies is strongly tied to the objectification and humiliation of women. Many people are unable to separate “talking about sex” and “saying derogatory things about women,” and take the introduction of one for permission to do the other. While many pro-woman, sex-positive people and communities exist, most technical conferences are not safe spaces for discussion of sex.

Simply put, even the world’s most pro-woman, sex-positive, pro-consent talk about sex is likely to have negative effects on women at a technical conference.
And Violet Blue’s thesis is thus,
I fear that hacker culture risks becoming disconnected from high-risk or controversial information sharing. I fear that hacker culture risks losing the fight to prove wrong the harmful idea that information equals advocacy. I fear that hacker culture risks harm to itself when people are allowed to label things as wrong or bad but not be held accountable to also explain why.
What appears to be going on is two different methods of applying feminist theory to conference culture. The argument by the Ada Initiative is that any discussion of issues involved with an at-risk group (i.e. women) at technology conferences endangers women further and therefore cultural discussions of this sort should not happen. Violet Blue’s argument conveys that by not discussing a thing not only does it not cause the problem to go away, it obfuscates negative effects and sweeps them out of sight therefore promoting isolation and ignorance instead of attention to the problem.

It is obvious that the Ada Initiative is in the wrong here and walks right into Violet Blue’s rebuttal.

Advocating shutting down discussion of hacker culture at a hacker conference will tend to do exactly what Blue suggests it will: further alienate members from the ability to discuss things that directly affect hackers in relation to taboo subjects.

By calling for Blue’s talk at BSides to be shut down the Ada Initiative demonstrates a misunderstanding of the very culture they’re trying to mingle with. Perhaps this might make sense for tech-only conferences that focus on hardware, technology, and the principals of that technology through the context of corporations and brands; but this sort of suppression doesn’t function for conferences that are frequented by hackers and developers.

In the clarification on the Ada Initiative’s involvement in getting the talk cancelled, the group makes pains to point out that it does not oppose harm reduction talks or talks about sex--instead that off-topic talks involving sexuality are dangerous to women at these conferences. The crux of arguing that the Ada Initiative is doing the opposite of their stated mission is that they are incorrect about the “off topic” nature of the talk itself for the given audience.

Hacker security conferences are about code and people as much as they are about technology.

Code, politics, and social culture mix tightly between hackers as they’re a community who depend heavily on one another for contacts, highly complex interrelations build between hackers that quickly become inseparable from who they know and how they code.

To claim that talking about hacker culture at a hacker conference is off topic is representative of an outsiders misunderstanding of hackers in general and what directly affects them as people. A number of talks at security conferences do involve how people act directly as well as how to speak to the press, how to engage with one another about discovered vulnerabilities, and sometimes how to interact with police and other authorities. It seems that a talk about how hacker conference culture interacts with itself.

It’s time to talk about the necessity of feminist talks at conferences

As a culture, hackers are already an at-risk population and women are a minority. The treatment of women in hacker culture is extremely poor right now, but that fortunately doesn’t chase them away. In fact, there are numerous notable hackers who are women and even historical figures who led to modern computer science (Ada Lovelace, the namesake of the Ada Initiative among them.)

Hackers are people and technology integrates as much with gender, romance, sexuality, and even death as it does with the advancement of careers or the production of new code.

A security conference is exactly the place where the topic of how we remain secure ourselves when seeking sex or love (especially amidst our own culture.) Noting that many hackers are also engage in risky behaviors outside of coding that involve parties, overwork, and drug use alongside all the other usual human needs and necessity.

Suppressing this sort of talk for this audience does that audience a terrible disservice that strips from them the ability to express or define how they should behave as a culture with respect to their very nature as humans. It denies both women and men a chance to speak about their experience with that culture in how they interrelate and keeps these taboo subjects swept under the rug and hidden from view.


Anonymous said...

Your post distorts the Ada Initiative's point of view but cutting out the very next line in their post:

"At the same time, discussion of sexual topics is vitally important to women’s rights and well-being. We strongly support discussion of sex and related topics when it is on-topic and done in a woman-positive way."

Kyt Dotson said...


This is mentioned in the post and also reflected in the concept of what it means to be "on topic" (much of the center of the failure here). Furthermore, interested parties arew able to use the Internet can follow links, if they're so inclined to understand context.

Anonymous said...

I don't really see how sex and drugs could possibly be an appropriate talk for a technical conference.

Kyt Dotson said...


…and you’re convinced by every argument from lack of imagination, especially those that show a lack of reading comprehension?