AlterConf: Is Diversity a Luxury Item in Tech?

[Sketchnote by Angela Wyman]

Last month, I had the privilege of speaking at AlterConf, a new conference which aims to highlight topics of diversity and representation in gaming and technology. My significant other Chris, always more aware of what’s up and new on Twitter and the Internet, sent me a link to the RFP, and I decided to submit a talk about how witnessing micro-aggression at the media lab sensitized me to issues of inequity in technical fields, how I got involved with the media lab’s diversity committee as a way to constructively cope, and how I’m reading through a list of books from mid-twentieth century– books that were major influences on civil rights movements throughout the world– are helping me shape a theory of the colonial influence on local and global startup scenes. For this, my media lab friend and colleague Praveen Subramani was a great help in explaining some of the subtleties of the Chilean startup scene, where he was based for a year before returning to the U.S. To work at nest.

I didn’t expect the conference’s acute attention to accommodation, from asking people to state their preferred pronouns on their name tags, to closed captioning, to single occupancy bathrooms, to make such a difference in my feeling of inclusion. But it really did– the conference felt like that rare combination of a space that is both very professional and very safe, not just for me, but for all the attendants, who covered a broad set of topics on race, gender, and physical disabilities. In particular, David Peter’s talk on being a deaf designer really opened my mind to the biases and assumptions I exhibit with others. I applaud conference organizer Ashe Dryden, a tech veteran who’s experienced and wanted to take action against discrimination in the tech industry, for organizing such a thoughtful event.

This event was the first time I’ve publicly presented my thoughts on the colonialist underpinnings and my own experience of diversity in tech, so it ended up being a bit of a hodgepodge. Since the conference, I haven’t had a chance to make much more progress on my reading list– right now I’m working through of Simone de Beauvoir’s writing– or develop my research much further. But it was great to have the opportunity to informally introduce some new thoughts amongst welcoming colleagues. I ended my slideshow with an image of “Micro Aggression,” a term that many at the forefront of equal rights know to be defined as a subtle incident of discrimination that can accumulate in an environment, from a person, or from a group, and can be an indicator of underlying bigotry or ignorance. Try running a web-based image search on this term, and you get very different pictures– of the World Wrestling Entertainment-branded toy of tiny fighters! Micro Aggressions Unite!