Let’s Talk About Race: Pattern-Matching Is As Real In Tech Media as It Is In Silicon Valley

How a conversation about race in tech got co-opted by white dudes.

(Photo: Business Insider)

Twitter attempted to have a conversation about race and the tech industry yesterday. The loudest voices?  White men on either side of the argument shouting each other down. What got obscured along the way was just how much pattern-matching plays into the lack of diversity in the tech industry and the people who cover it and how that holds all of us back.

They almost made Jamelle Bouie’s point for him.

In a feature for The Magazine, Mr. Bouie examined why the mastheads of tech blogs like The Next Web, The Verge, Engadget and Gizmodo were overwhelmingly white and male. Rather than “overt racism,” he found a prohibitive combination of dependence on unpaid internships–and the network effect of a wired boys club whose members sometimes seem to be talking solely for each other’s benefit.

Technology has become just as pervasive as the Valley had always hoped, Mr. Bouie noted:

Gadgets are used by everyone. African Americans and Latinos, for example, are huge Internet users. They use Twitter and Facebook at higher rates than whites, they’re the most likely to use their cell phones for Internet usage, and the cell phones they buy are — for the most part — smartphones.

But so many of its gatekeepers are cut from the same cloth, limiting “aspects of their perspective.”

(For the purposes of his argument, Mr. Bouie focused on African-American and Latino writers: “In no way does this discount the real problems of access and representation for Asian Americans, but compared to African Americans and Latinos, they have much more representation in technology journalism.” It’s an important distinction. “Who Has It Worse,” has to be the most divisive game ever marketed to minorities. But we all know there is a difference. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to themselves or doesn’t spend much time at tech events.)

I’ve never been discriminated against as a tech reporter because I’m Indian. At least I don’t think I have. It’s impossible to say, really, because there are a number of other factors that make me counter-to-type for a tech blogger. In addition to not being white, I’m not a dude and I didn’t come from a family that had any interest in technology or media. It wasn’t until I was 26 that a small J-school scholarship, student loans, and a semi-patient live-in boyfriend helped balance the cost of living in New York City with the limited income of a low-paying magazine internship.

The problem with identifying racism is that it seldom happens in isolation. Often it’s a confluence of factors that inspire people to see you as enough of an “other” to underestimate you, ignore you, deny you access, or simply not want to help.

Silicon Valley, however, does not respond well when its virtue is called into question. Unlike Wall Street, say, the tech industry cares what you think of it. It wants to be seen as a bootstrapped meritocracy–until the VC check arrives–open to all exceptional individuals and beholden to nothing but the disruptive tide of innovation ushered in by its gadgets, services and apps.

To imply otherwise is to call into question the hustle–the defensive posture of a “crush it” culture, which helps obscure both self-doubt and the fact that success can be capricious.

Mr. Bouie’s essay followed a similar line of reasoning to the one we’ve heard about the lack of black and Latino entrepreneurs and investors. (“I don’t know a single black entrepreneur,” Michael Arrington told CNN in 2011 before recanting his statement, claiming it caught him off guard.) Substitute “inability to find funding” for “unpaid internships,” but the network effects and pattern-matching stays the same. Mark Zuckerberg becomes a billionaire and suddenly Ben Horowitz feels comfortable crowing that Andreessen Horowitz “likes to invest in college dropouts with insane ideas going after tiny markets with no way to monetize.”

Another recent discussion, this one about sexism faced by women working in gaming, devolved into making fun of male tech writers somehow. Trust me, male tech reporters do not need any more attention. There is already an entire phalanx of marketing and PR professionals–by and large capable women–who make them feel special. That whole dance is about as gendered as a Budweiser commercial.

Still, why is there so much attention being paid to the people covering tech when the industry itself faces very real race and gender gaps? As Melissa Gira Grant recently wrote about girl geeks vs. boys kings, “the unpaid and underpaid labor of women is essential to making that machine go, to making it so irresistible.” Besides a touch of solipsism, it’s likely because the media has such entrenched discrimination problems of its own. It’s not just tech bloggers who are mostly white men. In 2006, The Observer looked at the magazine world’s vanilla ceiling. No one could believably argue that much has changed.

It’s a pity that the conversation around Mr. Bouie’s article degenerated into piling on his most easily dismissed detractor, Jason Calacanis. In the same breath that he invoked the emergence of post-race society, Mr. Calacanis assigned a percentage of Korean-ness to his daughter’s face. Imagine being that child and then let’s all move on.

Perhaps a better way to encourage more diversity in tech reporting is to look at why diversity is important. As Mr. Bouie noted, the homogeneity of voices has lead tech writers to sleep on Pinterest’s popularity with women and dismiss concerns about how App.net might lead to white flight because of the Twitter competitor’s $50 fee.

What’s more, the proliferation of apps, gadgets and services–coupled with the metastasization of the often complacent tech press–has amplified the noise-to-signal ratio.

A report last month claimed that of the 430,000 odd apps that will debut in the iOS App Store this year, most will go unnoticed. Gatekeepers can influence which products get attention and adoption, which in turn can affect funding.

Venture capital firms sometimes talk about pattern matching, the act of identifying traits of successful entrepreneurs and companies in order to replicate their wins. Even an industry that prides itself on innovating, it seems, actively seeks to propagate the status quo.

That might also be the reason why, when we read about how black people use Twitter, it’s so rarely from their own perspective.

Thus far none of the posts related to this week’s controversy have shown up on Techmeme, so no points on the leaderboard for trying to talk about race. And the biggest beneficiary to all the ink spilled might be Marco Arment, the bomb-throwing developer behind The Magazine. Here’s hoping that changes.

Let’s Talk About Race: Pattern-Matching Is As Real In Tech Media as It Is In Silicon Valley