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Children of Men, Gender, and Library IT

Last night another liberrian and I went to see Children of Men, a dystopian extravanganza based on P.D. James’ 1992 novel where the core premise is that humans have been infertile for eighteen years.

One of the questions this movie explores is “What would a world without children look like?” The answer, it appears, is a world that is grey, grim, pugilistic, and thoroughly patriarchal. It is a world where women have very few roles and little voice, and in scene after scene are betrayed, killed, imprisoned, or relegated to minor roles.

Even Kee, the young woman whose pregnancy bodes hope for the world, is swept along with events, occasionally offering her opinions but largely following the lead of the in-groups fighting to use her for their varied and none-too-noble aims (with the exception of Theo, one of the most gentlemanly scoundrels to have come across the screen in decades–and even he is initially pulled in to Kee’s plight for coldly pragmatic reasons).

One of the subtexts of the previous discussion about DSpace is that open source software is software by and large designed by and for men. (That last point has a dependency: you believe that OSS tends to be developer-oriented.) Dorothea hinted at it, I was thinking it. Too much OSS is, in a way, Software of Men: grim, grey, and–for those who have ever attempted to ask a newbie question on an OSS list–pugilistic and thoroughly patriarchal. You either are part of the in-group or you are a “fugee” (Children of Men jargon for ‘refugee’–a major subtext of the movie is the treatment of immigrants). If you are a fugee, God help you; you are no equal to the developers.

Now, before you think this is going to drift into “Command line execution is from Mars, GUIs are from Venus,” I know plenty of women who think in code–women for whom a command line is bliss–women who are geek from the git-go. (I keep referring to the “guys” in my department, even though several of us, including me, are female.) I am also not going to describe us as the kinder, gentler sex–not after working in libraries for fifteen years.

But I will ask this of you, ye who are of the geekish inclination. Go see Children of Men, and then think about software development. Who do you want building your software? What kind of world do they come from?

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  1. Greg Facincani wrote:

    Hi Karen,

    Our IT Department is gung-ho for open source software. They are actually one of the cutting edge governmental agencies that are trying to lead the way in the OSS world (and actually have been written up in various journals about their work). Bring up any problem, and they can find an open source solution.

    At least one that works for them.

    They are a small department and can only handle so many things at one time and this being a State agency, there are always wildfires that have to be dealt with. But that leaves our development way down the list. It isn’t that I can’t do all the low-level grunt work that OSS demands, I don’t have time to do that and the rest of my job. Also, the way the IT handles all its coding, you really have to be part of their office to make sure that it flows into all other applications.

    And a lot of our library’s resources are tied up in Inmagic [you remember that from the EPA in NY, don't you : ) ] and although it is proprietary, there are ways to tie in with OSS systems. It will happen when IT and the Library finally get together and hash it out. Until then we just keep on keeping on.

    And I don’t necessarily see this as a male v female thing. Two of our top OSS programmers are women and they love the nuts and bolts of the systems and getting them to work. I see it more of a technical persons view of governmental information v the end users view of governmental information. And when you are in the library, you deal with the end users a lot and our end users range from the kid doing a report to high powered attorneys who want answers yesterday. One of our missions is to aid the IT department when they roll out a new public application. We will kick the tires on it and search it and use it like it will be used for real. One of the stumbling blocks has been, that rather than beta test any of these apps, they go live to the public before we have looked at it. And even after usability issues have been pointed out, the app “works” and another project has started to smolder and needs attention.

    Another problem is that many IT people have a business model view of information which is fine but does not always work for government information. I try to remind those in IT that government information is not business information. Unlike the business world where if I don’t find what I want from Yahoo I go Google. Or if the library catalog doesn’t do what I want, I can go to Amazon. If someone is looking for something about the Rhode Island Tax Department, they can’t very well go to Connecticut’s web page and find their answers. . .

    Stop me know before I stay on my soapbox all day.

    Good Luck with the new gig.

    Monday, February 5, 2007 at 10:30 am | Permalink
  2. . . . but Karen, are you implying that proprietary software is _not_ designed by and for men? Or perhaps you mean software — period — is designed by and for men.

    If that’s the reality, then I offer this: doesn’t the OSS world have better potential for more women-centered development. It seems to me that with OSS, women only have to contend with a male culture where as with proprietary, women have to deal with culture _and_ a glass ceiling.

    Of course, the issue with support is pretty basic. I am not sure of the female experience of asking for OSS support, but my male alias hasn’t exactly turned these guys into sweethearts. The bare truth is that those boys out there would rather be dealing with development issues and see support as something they have to do to encourage people to use their products. In fact, to them, asking for support implies (to them) that they have developed wrong. Fragile male ego and that stuff, ya know?

    But back again to the OSS movement. There’s nothing wrong with adding a kinder nicer support to the project by simply adding a comment or two to help the situation. I mean the mules may be grumpy, but they also aren’t getting CEO salaries for doing what they do.

    Monday, February 5, 2007 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  3. Tom Barber wrote:

    Based on the few posts of yours I’ve read related to OSS, you sure have a weird way of drawing conclusions. I wish you’d stop creating a dichotomy between OSS and proprietary software in instances when the negative experience you’ve had has nothing whatsoever to do with the development model that happened to be used to create the software.

    And just for the record, saying ‘I’m not anti-open source’ doesn’t mean that your posts don’t reflect your actual opinion on the topic. It’s obvious to any reader your posts on OSS have a decidedly negative overtone.

    Monday, February 5, 2007 at 8:14 pm | Permalink
  4. Dorothea wrote:

    With proprietary software, development and support can be constrained to be courteous toward women.

    No such constraints exist in OSS, as Ryan’s final sentence implies. (“I ain’t gettin’ paid, so I ain’t gotta do squat for you! Including treat you like a human being instead of T&A!”)

    That means that yes, there is potential for women to become OSS leaders, but said potential is substantially unrealized because of the misogyny of standard hacker culture.

    You’d think that matters would be different in libtech, because librarianship is a majority-female profession. DSpace shows what *could* be: it’s got several women in the committer group, and two-three more in secular (non-dev) leadership.

    (And I notice that after my post of a couple days ago, the pace of answers have already picked up on dspace-tech. I’m not at all sure that would have happened in an OSS project without women.)

    Unfortunately, however, DSpace is highly atypical of library OSS, which tends toward gender ratios and behaviors more like OSS in general. I’m not sure how to improve this, frankly. I’d like to know.

    Tuesday, February 6, 2007 at 9:08 am | Permalink
  5. I have to admit that I first thunk “oh maybe women out there would rather get involved by providing things like support and documentation for OSS projects.”

    I think this would be a *good* thing because I find that female writers are usually better for techie sorts of things, but it goes back to the idea of men “making space for women” rather than seeing women as essential to all parts of a positive service. OSS can’t be thinking about “making space for women” if it is going to have a long-standing part in the world. Take the Code like a Girl post by Kathy Siera, there’s a lot about code that men do not do well.

    I always try to encourage colleagues around me (who, because libraries are what they are, are mostly women) to learn just a touch of code. Funny enough sometimes I get “no. I’m not a linear thinker.” And other times I get “no. I’m too much a linear thinker to understand object oriented stuff.”

    Heh. Myself, I know just enough to be dangerous.

    Wednesday, February 7, 2007 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

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