January 31st, 2007
I didn't plan it this way at all. But around mid-week, I realized that I'd scheduled the NeoFiles interview with the editors and contributors to a new book collection, She's Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff, immediately after a very controversial interview with Joe Quirk that looked at gender and geeks from a sociobiological (and some might say all male) perspective.
I didn't push this interview with book editors Annalee Newitz and Charlie Anders, and contributor Quinn Norton in the direction of nature versus nurture. I wanted to talk about their book. Nevertheless, the interview seems kind of like a counterpoint — or alternative — to Quirk's views regarding women and technology. But are women geeks the exception that proves the rule, or the vocal edge of a phenomenon that gets suppressed or ignored?
She's Such a Geek offers evidence for the latter view. It's full of personal tales from brilliant women: scientists, technologists, and gamers — and most of them recount situations in which they were discouraged, harassed, put down, and underestimated because of their gender.
I don't want to leave you with the impression that this book is a long whine. The pieces are irreverent, sharp, frequently funny, and filled to the brim with true edge-seeking geekiness.
Oh, by the way...yes, we do sometimes get silly on these shows. Get over it.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.
RU SIRIUS: I seem to remember that there were a lot of girl nerd books in the '90s. How did we get from nerd to geek?
ANNALEE NEWITZ: Actually, that was a huge debate. We originally wanted to call it "Female Nerds" and people complained. They felt like "nerd" was too negative, and that geek had been re-claimed as a badge of pride — kind of like "queer."
RU: "Nerd" is more negative than "geek"? So, is biting the heads off of chickens...
AN: I know! I pointed that out in another interview.
RU: ...I always thought that was cool!
AN: Yeah. I mean, Ozzie Osborne really made it cool. So maybe we're bringing back Ozzie — bringing back the cool-ness of geeks.
RU: I'm going to show my age now, but I remember when hippies started calling themselves freaks. It sounded more extreme, and it also meant you didn't have to do that "peace and love" stuff any more. You could defend yourself as a freak.
AN: And I think geeks do the same thing, you know? It's sort of — you can use the beaker! You can smash the beaker against the table, and use it as a weapon.
CHARLIE ANDERS: Plus Nerds are like a really yucky candy, aren't they?
AN: I like Nerds! They're sour and they're yummy, and they always come as a mash-up. You get two flavors at once.
RU: So the first thing this anthology does, right in the title, is raise the question: Why is it necessary? Why is the gender of the geek an issue?
CA: In an ideal world, it wouldn't be. But we feel that our experiences — and lots of other people's experiences — show that female geeks tend to become invisible in the larger geek cloud. So we need to highlight their visibility so that there will be more of them. And then, other women who are thinking of becoming geeks will think, "Oh! There are role models in the cloud. I can see them!"
AN: It's also about highlighting the fact that women geeks have always existed, even though the stereotype of the geek is some pale boy sitting in front of his computer monitor and not getting laid. Actually, all along, there have been tons of female geeks who are also pale, staring at their computer monitors and not getting laid. Or maybe getting laid.
RU: Lady Ada Lovelace was an early female geek.
AN: It's true. And she was right there at the inaugural moments of inventing the computer. And she was writing the first computer languages, so... In fact, our guest Quinn named her daughter Ada! [Laughter]
RU: Annalee, why don't you go ahead, and — you're going to read to us from the book... in dulcet tones.
AN: I will try, yes. People think of dulcet when they think of me. I'm going to read from the introduction that both Charlie and I wrote:
We didn't realize how sorely needed this book was until we emailed a few people asking if they knew any women who might want to write stories about their lives as nerds. Our request got passed from mailbox to mailbox, and soon it was getting blogged — BoingBoing.net posted it, and so did StarWars.com. We were excited to see a blog full of Swedish with the words "submit essays to She's Such a Geek" in the middle. Canadian Public Radio even did a feature on the buzz we'd created. Everyone seemed to share our sense that there were zillions of female geeks out there who just needed to stand up and be counted.
After the blog-storm of attention, we found ourselves with over 200 essay submissions for this book. We started joking about what we'd call the sequel. She's Even More of a Geek? The Wrath of She-Geek?
We heard from programmers at Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, and women who'd worked in nuclear power plants and flew airplanes. We read about what it was like for women to study genetics in graduate school, teach mathematics, write science fiction, and design video games.
What we found as we read these women's stories wasn't just a common love of dorky Star Trek jokes, though there was quite a bit of that. We began to see a tragic pattern to many women's lives of nerd-dom. Growing up, many of our geeks fell passionately, even orgasmically, in love with math, astronomy and life science. But as they aged, many of them found that their undergraduate degrees in science didn't lead to jobs in science — or, when they went on to graduate programs, that they found themselves isolated and unhappy in male-dominated departments.
In fact, statistics show women flourish in geeky fields — until they hit a wall. The National Science Foundation reported in 2001 that 56% of U.S. Bachelor's degrees in science and engineering went to women. But women hold only 25% of jobs in science and engineering. More women than men are graduating in the sciences, but a hostile job market and chilly graduate programs are keeping them from achieving their goals.
So we were thrilled to see so many success stories. Women had battled stereotypes and their own insecurity to become formidable gamers or leading programmers. Some, like Kory Wells, managed to toggle between their careers and families, and even teach their own daughters not to let anyone tell them what they can do.
RU: I'm interested in the percentages of women who graduate in these fields. And I've also read reports recently in newspapers that women, in general, are doing better in school than men. And I wonder, is this is a cultural thing? Men are being encouraged to be lunkheads in the current culture. There's a culture of macho stupidity. [Ironically] Men are being held back, dammit — by the culture!
CA: There might be something to that. I talk about this in my essay — like the way some of our leaders seem to equate asking too many questions — or thinking too deeply about things — with not being manly enough or not being decisive. If you're "the decider", you're not the thinker. And you're not the studier.
RU: That goes from the top of the society to the bottom — "Keeping it real." That's kind of about being stupid too, actually.
CA: I thought "Keeping it real" was just sort of about keeping the walls up and the surreality out. Like, the surreal is always at your door, and you just sort of have to...
AN: ...keep turning it away
RU: You have to keep the surrealism away?
AN: Surrealism doesn't come in unless you invite it, actually. It's like a vampire, you know? So it stays outside.
RU: You can keep surrealism at bay pretty easily by not listening to The R.U. Sirius Show.
At the beginning of the book intro that Annalee read from, she wrote about being at a conference, on a panel that included another woman [ed: Wendy Seltzer, a contributor to the book]. And Annalee, when you came on stage, the announcer said, "The only chick's here." And there were, in fact, not many women at the conference. The guy we had on the show last week, Joe Quirk, was saying he did a head-count at an "Accelerated Change" conference and there were 15% women there. And he also knew some of the people who were there; and a lot of the women were girlfriends of guys who were obsessed with this stuff. So how do you account for this? And is it fair to comment on it? Because you kind of ripped into the announcer guy for making a joke about it. But it is fair to comment on what you observe.
AN: Well, there's obviously a difference between saying, "Gee, there's only 20% women at this conference, we need to change that"; versus saying, "Dude! You guys are the only two chicks at the conference!" In fact, there were about 20-30% women at that conference. So it's sort of like what we were saying earlier. Women who do exist in technology get sort of made invisible by statements like that. And why call attention to our gender at all? Why is it even remarkable, given that we were among the 20-30% of women who were there?
RU: But at the same time, you're calling attention to the issue of gender in technology with this book.
AN: Yeah. But I think saying there's 20-30% of women here — or even saying that there are 20-30% of women in science and technology — is different from saying, "There's only two women at this conference," when, in fact, there were far more.
RU: So he was lying.
AN: He was lying! And what he was doing...
RU: ...he was making a joke through exaggeration.
AN: Well, if you'd been there and seen the looks on the faces of the women in the audience, it didn't come across like a joke. When you've heard "jokes" like that, time after time, and every single joke somehow manages to erase you from the room — at a certain point, it stops being funny.
RU: All right. I'll hang with that. Charlie, in your piece, "I am wonk, Hear me wrong" errr... roar!" [laughter]
CA: I think it's actually, "Hear me prognosticate," or "Hear Me Analyze"
RU: The piece opens like this: "I became a wonk the same time that I became a woman, so the two transitions have always been inseparable for me." Talk a little bit about those two things — becoming a woman, and becoming and wonk.
CA: I was working as a journalist at a business newspaper, and it was a very macho kind of place to work. It was very Decider-y.
RU: They were all Deciders?
CA: Yeah, it was very much, "Give me: 'Here's what's going on' in five seconds, in black-and-white...."
RU: [imitating Walter Cronkite... poorly] "And that's the way it is!"
CA: Yeah. I was covering health care, and I got really obsessed with all the minutia and all the ins and outs of the healthcare industry. I became increasingly fascinated, and it clashed with the sort of macho ethos of this newspaper, where you weren't supposed to look into things too deeply. So I got this other job where I was encouraged to be more wonky and at the same time I was able to work from home some of the time. So I started cross-dressing more and exploring a different facet of my personality. And so the love of exploring really insanely detailed topics and policy issues dovetailed with my female persona and eventually led me to become who I am today.
RU: Your piece connects wonkiness with women. And I always thought of bow-tied guys in political think tanks as being wonks. But you claim that there's a big connection between wonkiness and women.
CA: There are a lot of women who really love to crunch statistics and analyze. I talked to Nadine Strossen and she definitely felt that there was a significant female wonk culture.
RU: Now there have been controversies at — like, women's festivals about allowing...
CA: ...about wonks? They're not letting wonks in to the Michigan Womyns' Festival? [Laughter]
AN: "No Wonks Allowed!"
CA: They're going to come in and analyze our policies in detail! They're going to do all the ramifications and the feasibility tests.
AN: Actuarial tables...
RU: Exactly. They didn't want wonks in their all-women festivals... No, I read a piece in The Believer...
CA: Michelle Tea's article.
RU: Yeah. It was about how this group didn't want transsexuals at their all-women's festival. Have you taken any crap from anybody about your inclusion in this book, or do you expect to take any crap from anybody?
CA: It hasn't been an issue at all, so far, maybe partly because I'm one of the editors. I don't know many people who don't just accept that trans-women are women. So any place that's explicitly including women should and will include trans-women. That just hasn't even come up as an issue at all.
AN: I also think that geeks are more accepting of transgender women.
AN: It's because geeks are so into science. So they're really interested in this whole notion — it's like, "Oh I see! You've surgically altered your body and taken hormones. Why, how interesting! Now you're a woman!"
RU: It's very trans. Transmutation, transhuman... all those things.
AN & CA: Yeah!
RU: ...self-experimentation, all that stuff. Good! Speaking of trans, we're going to bring in Quinn Norton. Quinn, could you read a segment from your piece?
QUINN NORTON: Sure. Most of the essays in this book are about women who are making amazing contributions in science and engineering. And mine is about tabletop role-playing games. [Laughter]. The section I'm going to read though isn't actually about tabletop. It's about live action, which is like tabletop but more publicly embarrassing. And this is from a time when I was wandering around playing "Vampire." So I was out in the middle of the city, pretending to be a vampire:
One night I was wandering around downtown San Juan Capistrano early in Chaot's career. I hadn't run into any other players, and I was getting a bit bored. I thought I heard my fellow gamers' voices above me in a parking garage and decided to join them. Instead of the stairs, my little trench-coat-wearing Malkavian took to the trees. I climbed up and over to the second floor of the parking garage and threw myself quietly over the wall, coat flying behind me. I landed surprisingly silently. Turned out the voices came from two families of movie-goers — parents talking while young kids ran bored orbits around them. I, in all my weirdness, appeared out of nowhere and walked quickly by them. The parents never noticed me, but the kids did. They looked at where I'd come from, and then at me. They crouched in close to their parents and clutched one another. I looked over at them, opened my eyes wide, and gave them a slightly snarled smile.
They followed me with their eyes as I walked down the stairs. They never saw Quinn; they never even saw Quinn playing Chaot. All they ever saw or knew was Chaot, mad vampire, coming from and going to nowhere. With a mysterious grin, Chaot had given the lie to the boring world their parents described, where everything stays the same in the dark as it does in the light. I knew whatever make-believe they played next, I was going to crop up.
That moment is why I gamed.
RU: They will be thinking and dreaming and hopefully becoming vampires before you know it. Vampires have always been attractive to geeks of all genders. I guess it's the sense of otherness and being different. Do you think there's a special attraction for women?
QN: It's interesting, because Vampire is one of the first games I played that seemed to have a better gender balance than most of the others. But I don't feel like it was about vampires per se. It was because the gaming system was so geared towards role-play, and not so much about trying to figure out how to make the rules work. So it was open to a lot more people who just wanted to try out different roles.
RU: Your piece emphasizes how — in a lot of games — your interactions were with men, and that it got weird not just around gender, but also around sex itself, and around jealousy.
QN: [Laughs] Well, I don't know if this is a universal experience for geek girls, but for me there was a "Kiss me, kick me" kind of thing.
RU: Well, guys are drawn to a chick with a magnet in her finger. Inexorably. It's science! (We'll have to explain this later.)
QN: [Laughs] Ferromagnetic guys, certainly. In gaming — and in other geeky areas I've been in — it seemed like there were a lot of men who were very interested in being with a woman who could share their interests, and also very threatened by that. And so a lot of times people would be very interested in me and also slightly abusive towards me.
RU: And that kind of pushed you away from gaming. But you're back again. She's baaack!
AN: It's true! She's our dungeon-master in our current D&D game.
QN: I am. I'm doing First Edition AD&D... kicking it old school.
RU: I've heard this is somehow EFF related.
QN: Well, it's mostly EFF people — former and current people who are taking a break from fighting for our civil liberties to defeat the slave lords of the pit.
RU: Far more important!
AN: Yeah! I mean, come on. The RIAA, slave lords of the pit — it's all of a piece!
RU: So Quinn, you have a magnet implanted in your finger. Tell people about that and what happened with that?
QN: In 2005, I had a small rare earth magnet that was coated in gold, and then put in a bio-neutral silicone sheath, implanted in the tip of my ring finger. This was to give me a sense for EM radiation when I was near, say, a live power cord or a phone cord — that sort of thing. There are a few bodymodders out of Phoenix who had come up with the idea. It worked! And it was really interesting. For a while, I had a sixth sense for EM radiation. It wasn't incredibly strong. I usually had to be holding something or had to be very near it. Occasionally I would go near a phone box or something like that and it would startle me. And then the bio-neutral sheath that it was in broke. And my body attacked the magnet and it shattered in my finger.
RU: Did that hurt?
QN: Well, it infected when it broke. That hurt. My doctor tried to pull it out, and it shattered a lot more. That hurt. But my doctor was able to give me a lot of Vicodin, which made that all better.
RU: In fact, it made it fantastic!
QN: Unlike the bodymodders who just gave me a bit of ice. [Laughter] And then it was kind of all done. I didn't have the sense any more. The magnet was shattered. But then, over the course of the next few months, the magnet in my finger pulled back together again... because it's a magnet.
RU: Really? It self re-organized?
QN: Well, it's bits of magnet in close proximity. What are they going to do? And now, at this point, I can occasionally pick up other magnets. But the sense is gone because it's pretty much encased in scar tissue. When it was in a bio-neutral sheath, it was free floating, and there was a gesture I could do — I could hold up my finger and circle it with a magnet, and I could feel the magnet in my finger spinning as I did that.
RU: And you could feel other things beyond that.
QN: Yeah. I could feel bits of my computer right before I could feel the hard drive spinning.
RU: And of course you could feel the CIA tapping into your brain.
QN: [Laughs] I could feel that before the magnet!
AN: That only stops when you put the tin foil on.
RU: Annalee, you also have an implant.
QN: Yeah, we're both mutated.
RU: What did you put in?
AN: I have an implantable radio frequency identifier, which is basically a pet tag.
RU: So if somebody buys you and brings you home...
AN: ...right, they can read my serial number.
RU: But if they steal you, then they're in trouble.
AN: Right. Well, if they cut off my arm, they've got my ID number! Actually, this terribly ridiculous company called VeriChip was marketing them as secure access devices. The idea, basically, is that they're like keys that you put in your arm.
So a friendly hacker in Boston figured out a way to read the ID on the RFID that was implanted in my arm, and then re-broadcast that ID — basically steal my keys literally out of my arm without cutting it off. So we demonstrated that the whole idea that this would be a secure access device is completely ridiculous and stupid.
QN: I'm going to do an extremely mild defense of VeriChip here, because they're coming out with a thing right now that I'm really excited about. It's basically the same thing Annalee has, an RFID implant. But it also has a glucometer that gives continual readings when it's inductively powered.
AN: Well, that's fine, right?
QN: I know. That's cool!
AN: That's cool, and I'm happy for the company to be marketing its chips for all kinds of things. But claiming it's a secure device is really wrong. And that's what they were trying to do. It would be used in prisoners, and as keys, and in all kinds of situations where you wouldn't want people to be able to read your ID. And the fact is that there's no security on these chips at all. This hacker was able to literally go up to me with a homemade antenna, brush up against me, get the ID off of my allegedly secure chip, and turn it into a set of keys to break into something else.
Now, aside from the implant, I actually have a version of the RFID reader and cloner device. It was a big adventure bringing it through the airport last week.
RU: Did it set things off?
AN: It did! Apparently it looks exactly like one of the forbidden devices that you can't bring on a plane. If you could see the device, you would see why. It's basically a tiny chipboard attached to a really long, phallic antenna. And it has a bunch of white silicon slopped all over them — and a pipe horn. When I showed it to people since coming back here, they've said, "I can't believe they actually even let you put this in your suitcase and bring it on the plane!" It looks so dangerous. But it's just an antenna.
RU: Annalee, I really liked your piece talking about Wonder Woman. You write, "She's smart, commanding, and sexually appealing at the same time. As anyone familiar with mainstream culture knows, such a woman is not supposed to exist." But hasn't there really been a trend towards women who kick ass in movies and TV over the last ten or fifteen years?
AN: That's true. And what I was trying to point out in my essay — which is sort of about coming of age through geeky pop culture — is that you really only see those kinds of images in pop culture. Images of real women who are both smart and sexually appealing are rarely disseminated. But we get those images with Wonder Woman; so people like me grew up believing that, somehow, we could be both smart and attractive. But in our jobs, in our daily lives — many women feel that they're kind of given this choice — either you can be hot or you can be smart. And there's not a lot of room for women who are both. And women who are both are very threatening. Often, in media coverage of successful women who are good-looking, there are weird comments like: "Oh! And she's also so attractive!" Like, "How unusual it is that this scientist is also attractive!" And you'd never have somebody saying, "Wow! Linus Torvalds. He's kind of hunky!" You know, who cares, right?
RU: [Laughs] Is he?
AN: Linus Torvalds is kind of hunky, right?
QN: Yeah. Yeah. I'd go with that.
RU: We're establishing something here?
AN: Now we have established here, on NeoFiles — "Linus Torvalds: Hunk."
RU: The big news bullet out of this program: "Linus Torvalds is kind of hunky."
QN: And really, that's the only thing I ever noticed about him, right?
AN: I mean, when I saw him speak, I was like, "What is he?" [Laughter]
QN: "But doesn't he program or something? I don't know."
AN: Yeah. " 'Blah blah blah' about Open Source, but whoa. Check out that ass!" [Laughter] I mean, that's sort of the weird stereotype that we'd love to get away from.
RU: And then you have a section where you compare Cronenberg's The Fly with the film She's All That. (Any discussion of Cronenberg gets an A in my book.) Tell people a little bit about that. About all that.
AN: I talk about how there's this trend in films toward portraying women as either smart or sexy. And so this movie from about seven years ago, She's All That, is about this geeky high school girl. This popular boy takes up a dare to turn her into somebody who can go to the prom with him at the end of the year. He does that by taking her away from her geeky life and getting her to wear Gap clothes; and getting her to look "hot" in the terms of the film. (She actually looks way less hot later. She's just sort of a Gap clone.) But I think that's sort of a general trend in films about women who are smart. There's sort of this moment where they take off their glasses, and suddenly they're this glamorous, attractive woman.
RU: Oh, yeah. And the guy swoons.
AN: And the guy swoons, and she's no longer talking about rocket science. Instead she's just like: "Oh, well what do you want to do tonight? Shall we go to the dance?" So I was sort of protesting that. And I compared it to The Fly, because in The Fly you have a male scientist who basically wants to absorb a woman at the genetic level. It's such a great movie. I can't do it justice in two seconds.
RU: And she's a smart female journalist.
AN: She's a science journalist. Just like me!
RU: And a lot of people read into his films a horror of femininity, because everything that's gooey and soft and that you can sink into...
QN: Well, I do think there is space for the smart, pretty woman in the media — as long as she's evil.
AN: Right. That's an interesting point. As long as she's evil — or if she's being absorbed by a man. [Laughter]
RU: We need somebody like that to join our show as a co-host!
AN: I know! Maybe you could have a smart, evil, beautiful woman; and then have a smart, good, beautiful woman. And then, like, mud wrestling or something.
RU: That would be totally hot.
AN: And maybe they could be hackers too.
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