See everything is just sex, except sex, which is power. - Janelle Monáe, "Screwed"
Aaron S. Bayley
"Tune in, Hook up."
That was the original slogan that Jawed Karim, Chad Hurley, and Steve Chen came up with for their new dating platform in 2005. Except today we don't know it as a dating platform—we know it as YouTube.
Chen and his friends were so desperate for content they offered to pay girls twenty dollars to upload videos of themselves; when that didn't work, they were forced to come up with a new strategy. In 2003, Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg launched FaceMash, a precursor to Facebook which enabled people to compare side-by-side images of two female college students and determine which one was more attractive. In 2011, Stanford University fraternity brothers Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown launched Snapchat, a time-sensitive video- and image-sharing app famously and controversially used for sexting, bullying, revenge porn, and documenting rape. Before it shut down in 2017, Yik Yak, the anonymous messaging app created by frat bros Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll, was used as a tool for facilitating cyberbullying and casual sex on college campuses. In 2015, Yeti - Campus Stories was launched, a hybrid of Snapchat and Yik Yak infamous for documenting the hedonistic partying, drug use, and sex of spring break, and screenshotting nude women.
What YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, Yik Yak, and Yeti all have in common is that their male creators were all influenced by an app developed in 2000 called Hot or Not. The brainchild of Berkeley graduates and Silicon Valley engineers James Hong and Jim Young, Hot or Not is a rating site that allows visitors to compare photos of two women and vote which one is "hotter." Writes Nancy Jo Sales in her 2016 book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, "Much of the culture of social media is, in a way, an ongoing expression of 'hot or not,' liking or rejecting people and things, and the physical appeal of women and girls."
Coding has been all the rage at least since the release of the 2010 film The Social Network, which dramatizes the creation of Facebook and the Machiavellian machinations of Zuckerberg. Three years later, Hour of Code was launched to introduce students to computer science and coding. Its tagline: "Learn computer science. Change the World." Across Canada and the U.S., school boards scrambled to add coding to the curriculum and cash in on the tech trend. With a focus on creating the digital classroom, educators sought to prioritize STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects over the customary analog skills of reading and writing. School boards forged philanthropic alliances with corporations, with the latter greatly influencing and controlling curriculum development.
In 2015, the Toronto District School Board partnered with Google, and tech industry buzzwords like "digital learning tools," "data," "app," and "tech guru" soon proliferated. Positioning themselves as the arbiters of cool, teachers viewed themselves as "rockstars" and enthusiastically registered to become Google Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified; some even vowed to "go paperless." Crucial skills like critical thinking, collaboration, and innovation were talked about and promoted as if they never existed and had no merit outside of the world of digital technology. School boards allocated much of their budgets for laptops, tablets, online textbooks, Interactive White Boards (IWB), and a bevy of Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology (SMART) devices. In March of 2020, the Ontario government pushed online learning for students, with Education Minister Stephen Lecce stating, "We believe that online learning provides a multitude of benefits for students, particularly when it comes to diversifying the course offerings and really embracing 21st century learning." On June 23 Lecce tweeted, "After a decade of stagnation, our government unveiled our new elementary math curriculum focused on real life learning—from financial literacy to coding—that will help our kids succeed."
No one would argue that financial literacy shouldn't be an integral part of the math curriculum; it's about time the government made it a mandatory component. But the messaging that coding and software development represent the future isn't entirely accurate. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, computer science jobs will grow 19% by 2026, and in Canada, software developer is still considered one of the top careers of the future (promising startups in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal make Canada a potential Silicon Valley of the north). But there is a greater need for people in the service and health care sectors in both Canada and the U.S. Equipping students with coding skills and sending them out to find jobs in an over-saturated market benefits corporations by increasing competition and cutting the cost they are willing to pay for workers. Knowing how to code doesn't guarantee a successful and fulfilling career, especially if you are pursuing it just to keep up with the Joneses.
This isn't to say that children should not be taught coding and computer programming, especially when these areas pique their interest. Technology should be used in schools, where appropriate, as a tool to facilitate learning, whether it's helping children to read and write, teaching them about important historical events, or creating simple algorithms for multiple-choice answers. In 2013, President Obama addressed America's youth during Computer Science Education Week on behalf of Hour of Code, stating, "If we want America to stay on the cutting edge, we need young Americans like you to master the tools and technology that will change the way we do just about everything," and "No one's born a computer scientist but, with a little hard work, and some math and science, just about anyone can become one." His message seemed to be that if you want a career as a chef, farmer, teacher, painter, poet, actor, writer, athlete, caregiver, cake decorator, wedding planner, or auto mechanic, you need to know how to code. Also, that a career in computer science is inherently more valuable and desirable than a child's own interests.
The crucial question educators need to be asking is: Who decides what our children are taught, and what are their motivating factors? The answer isn't teachers, students, or parents. It's neoliberal governments who seek to banish public schools and make education more profitable through outsourcing and privatization, and it's corporate philanthropists who donate to school boards and expect a return on investment. Writes American author Megan Erickson in Class War: The Privatization of Childhood,
For corporate education reformers, the animating purpose of technology in classrooms is to more efficiently develop human capital, to make some people smarter, faster, and sort out the rest into the discard pile of American capitalism: low-wage labor. Because industrial capitalism makes us all, workers and capitalists alike, dependent on the market for acquisition of the basic necessities of life, we live dominated by market imperatives.
Capitalist economies implicitly subscribe to the sexual division of labor, where men use tools and do work of value (in other words, work that generates money and is included in the measure of a country's gross domestic product [GDP]), while women do household work that is not performed for money and thus is excluded from the GDP. This patriarchal doctrine of separate spheres for men and women is incongruous with a progressive society, yet its spirit is sown in schools across North America. Boys benefit overwhelmingly when ministries of education, schools boards, school administrators, and teachers prioritize coding and computer programming. The popular mythology of Silicon Valley, writes Sales in American Girls, "is a place where boy geniuses create magical communication tools which bring us all closer together, tools which prove so irresistible to masses of people across the globe that the boy geniuses earn millions of dollars—money with which they then invest in the ideas and futures of other boy geniuses."
The gender gap in tech is born out in the data. Emily Chang, author of 2018's Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley, found that women make up only 25% of computing jobs, and women-led startups receive only 2% of funding for venture capital (in Canada, it's 5%). Another study projects that by 2022, women will make up only 22% of computer science jobs, down from 37% in 1995. International non-profit organizations like Girls Who Code and Code 2040 seek to dismantle systemic gender and racial barriers in the tech industry by creating opportunities for girls who are black, Latinx, and from low-income backgrounds. But once interest and opportunity are created, where do they go from there? The world of tech entrepreneurship is dominated by men, men who were once boys in middle and private schools. These spaces are fertile breeding grounds for toxic masculinity, where sexist values and attitudes fuel the lopsided power dynamic of "brogrammer" culture.
Only just recently, Silicon Valley was, to use social media jargon, trending. And not because of some hot new startup or app, but because of growing public complaints of sexual harassment by female colleagues working in an environment that promotes gender-based discrimination and intimidation. In June of 2017, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned after it became apparent he was aware of sexual harassment allegations at the company and did nothing. Before Kalanick left Uber, 215 claims were examined, resulting in 20 employees being fired for harassment, discrimination, or bullying. That same month, venture capitalist and Binary Capital co-founder Justin Caldbeck announced he was taking an indefinite leave of absence after being accused of sexual harassment by female entrepreneurs. Caldbeck issued a statement which read, "To say I'm sorry about my behavior is a categorical understatement." Then Dave McClure, co-founder of the investment firm 500 Startups, apologized for making inappropriate comments and advances to women in his workplace. His apology came via a post, which started with, "I'm a creep. I'm sorry." Finally, at the end of June, Evan Klinger, a software engineer at Apple, was filmed in his car calling an Asian woman a "bitch" and a "fucking Cambodian nigger" after she called him a "white prick" for honking his horn at her and her daughter, who were on bicycles.
The fact that the modern cradle of technological innovation is also a bastion of moral depravity should shock no one. The so-called bro culture which echoes loudly throughout the Valley is a product of an industry dominated by young privileged males. Bro culture has no fixed definition, but it is generally seen as a subculture of arrogant, amoral white males who view women as sorority girls and manage their business as if they were operating a frat house. But bro culture is facilitated by fragile male politicians in positions of power who project their fantasies and insecurities onto public policy. Seduced by the narrative of two guys in a college dorm creating exponential wealth in a matter of hours, they promote pro-business STEM jobs while cutting funding for jobs deemed "suitable" for women—like teaching and nursing.
Is it any surprise, then, that a workplace with such a high percentage of white entitled males, would produce anything other than misogyny, bigotry, and racism? The teenage girls Chang spoke with for Brotopia were excited about careers in coding, but business often gets done in bars, parties, hotel rooms, and college dorms. Since about 75% of tech jobs are held by men (there exists a gender bias against code produced by women; an industry joke goes that startups led by women are "non-starters"), moving up in the tech universe often means women must be willing to place themselves in uncomfortable and vulnerable positions. And we wonder why more young women aren't interested in coding and computer programming.
What is most disturbing, however, is that these so-called boy geniuses are imprinting their values—or lack thereof—into the DNA of our cultural tools. Technology is not neutral. In much of our social media platforms, from YouTube and Snapchat to Instagram and Facebook, the desires of young, sexually charged male programmers are baked into the technology. It's no accident that these platforms are so proficient at exploiting girls and women and lead to image concerns (from body shaming to body dysmorphia), bullying, and sexual assault. The young men of the tech world are masters of their own universe; they create the stage and conditions—the wireframes, code, and algorithms—on and by which young women perform. They have no desire to allow women into the boys club as co-creators. Women are merely the entertainment, the Kim Kardashians and Charli D'Amelios of the world who operate on the opposite end of the lens, subject to the ever-scrutinizing eye.
In 1985, my parents bought a Commodore 64 computer and a Star Wars-branded coding book because, according to my father, computers were the future. I had to spend one hour a day with that book, and I couldn't have cared less about the lessons taught by C3PO and R2D2. Over the past several years, I have taught 12- and 13-year-old girls who are exceedingly bright in math and science, reading and writing. Not one of them expressed an interest in coding, and that's totally fine. I have also taught gifted 13-year-old boys who love to read and write and play hockey and can't stand video games. That's fine too. Today, just like in the 1980s, children are told that technology is the future. They're told they must embrace the 21st century by learning how to code. But we shouldn't be telling children that "everything is computers now" so they need to get on board if they want a rewarding future. That's disingenuous. Instead, we should expose students to a variety of careers in a variety of industries and teach them that they—and not just the ones celebrated on the covers of Business Insider, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal or that make the Fortune 500—are worthy career choices. But first we must structure society to value purpose as much as profit. Surely, there are more meaningful and productive endeavors for our children to get excited about and involved in than the creation of private messaging apps.
Girls in middle school are exposed to toxic masculinity on a daily basis: when they hear their male peers asking each other "Smash or pass?"; when boys belittle Greta Thunberg by calling her "fucking ugly" and Emma Watson for being a "social justice warrior"; when boys make fun of synchronized swimmers, gymnasts, or Harry Potter, or ask them to "send nudes." When unethical and intimidating behaviors of mostly privileged white males go unchecked, it sends a clear message to girls that boys can behave badly without consequence. Girls carry these assumptions into adulthood, and many young women don't even bother seeking careers in male-dominated industries. For this to change, girls need to see themselves as women in positions of power: as politicians, surgeons, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Who are the female role models to inspire young women?
Education authorities are worshipping technology as a means to an end, instead of wielding it as a tool to teach children—especially boys—values, integrity, and character. What use is technological innovation when only a small percentage of people benefit from it? The screens we scroll are the mirrors we hold up to girls and young women. Are we showing them what they want to be, or what men want to see? Culture critic Neil Postman was prescient about a lot of things, but perhaps no more than the observation he made in his 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology: "What is clear is that, to date, computer technology has served to strengthen Technopoly's hold, to make people believe that technological innovation is synonymous with human progress."