Identities are breaking down all over

It’s [not] funny how often I see lamentations for the way things used to be. It’s no longer pure! Whatever it is. These new people don’t get it. They ruined it!

They aren’t true Scotsmen.

You can probably think of numerous examples. This is supposedly the driving force behind right wing populism around the world, for starters.

There’s an interesting rumination on changing identity in a recent Aeon article on “hacker”. It sweeps through the evolution from curious kids playing with technology, through “cypherpunks” and “crypto-anarchists” to the modern, bro-y t-shirt and jeans Silicon Valley types.

It really gets interesting towards the end, as the author places this change within the concept of gentrification. As more people take on an identity, some of the difference, the “disaffection” as he puts it, disappears.

Technology was stereotypically the domain of “geeks”, who harnessed its power to build an identity, community and to express themselves.

But an influx of people without those same predispositions has left it a rather muddled identity. More people have worn down the edges, making it child proof.

At the frontiers of gentrification are entire ways of being – lifestyles, subcultures and outlooks that carry rebellious impulses. Rap culture is a case in point: from its ghetto roots, it has crossed over to become a safe ‘thing that white people like’. Gentrification is an enabler of doublethink, a means by which people in positions of relative power can, without contradiction, embrace practices that were formed in resistance to the very things they themselves represent

…We are currently witnessing the gentrification of hacker culture. The countercultural trickster has been pressed into the service of the preppy tech entrepreneur class. It began innocently, no doubt. The association of the hacker ethic with startups might have started with an authentic counter-cultural impulse on the part of outsider nerds tinkering away on websites. But, like all gentrification, the influx into the scene of successive waves of ever less disaffected individuals results in a growing emphasis on the unthreatening elements of hacking over the subversive ones.

From the POV of those who lament changing definitions, there seems to be diminishing returns to people taking on a group identity. The new people don’t have the same experiences as the founders. They have other identities that may be in conflict or demand different treatment.

It reminds me of something I noticed in Coders by Clive Thompson. He gives this pretty innocuous description of what makes a coder:

More than introversion or logic, though, coding selects for people who can handle endless frustration. Because while computers may do whatever you tell them, you need to give them inhumanly precise instructions.

This fits within the framework of the Aeon article, of an identity shedding its roots as of outcasts and rationalists to one that is purely functionary.

Just like national identities that shed ethnic and cultural roots, forming instead around civic ones. Flexible enough to embrace new people with other experiences and histories.

Maybe there isn’t really anything specific in the various, changing national, regional or activity-based identities. It’s just the result of falling barriers and more people taking them on. As ever it was.

If you’re going to change the world, you must reflect it first

I find taking public transport or hopping a plane immensely stressful. Not because of the shoddy infrastructure, waiting around, or poor service. Because I’m 6″4 with disproportionately long legs in a world built by people who aren’t.

As I continue to read Coders, I’m increasingly worried how this same phenomena will play out in a world full of algorithmic black boxes. Code so complex and systems so arcane that even their creators struggle to understand them.

Techies love to talk about scale and putting their creations in front of millions. But for this to work they themselves need to be drawn from a representative pool.

Otherwise you get self driving cars that are more likely to hit black people. Or image recognition that thinks black People are gorillas.

…then Alciné scrolled over to a picture of himself and a friend, in a selfie they’d taken at an outdoor concert: She looms close in the view, while he’s peering, smiling, over her right shoulder. Alciné is African American, and so is his friend. And the label that Google Photos had generated? “Gorillas.” It wasn’t just that single photo, either. Over fifty snapshots of the two from that day had been identified as “gorillas.”

This isn’t only a Google problem. Or even a Silicon Valley problem. There are also stories of algorithms trained in China and South Korea that have trouble recognising Caucasian faces.

As a journalist with a diverse ethnic and cultural background I had trouble understanding why my editors took so much convincing to run foreign stories. With a family spread around the globe, I could see myself in the Rohingya as much as an Australian farmer.

These issues are linked – what we value, notice and think of as “normal” are all informed by our personal stories. If you grow up or work in a monoculture, that will influence the issues you see, the solutions you propose and contingencies you plan for.

But the world isn’t a monoculture. There are 6″4 people who would like to ride the bus. There will be people who aren’t like you but need to cross the street safely, or be judged fairly.

Who will be deeply offended by racial epithets, which are themselves linked to why they aren’t represented in a database.

If you’re going to try and change the world for the better, you need to be of the world. There will always be edge cases, but without diversity they will be systemic. They will be disastrous.

…why couldn’t Google’s AI recognize an African American face? Very likely because it hadn’t been trained on enough of them. Most data sets of photos that coders in the West use for training face-recognition are heavily white, so the neural nets easily learn to make nuanced recognitions of white people—but they only develop a hazy sense of what black people look like.

As always my emphasis.