Tech Ethics, Roaming Autodidacts, and the White-Male Effect

The internet’s “condition of harm” and its direct relation to risk is structural. The tech industry – from venture capitalists to engineers to creative visionaries – is known for its strike-it-rich Wild West individualistic ethos, swaggering risk-taking, and persistent homogeneity. Some of this may be a direct result of the industry’s whiteness and maleness. For more than two decades, studies have found that a specific subset of men, in the U.S. mostly white, with higher status and a strong belief in individual efficacy, are prone to accept new technologies with greater alacrity while minimizing their potential threats – a phenomenon researchers have called the “white-male effect,” a form of cognition that protects status. In the words of one study, the findings expose “a host of new practical and moral challenges for reconciling the rational regulation of risk with democratic decision making.”

Source: The Risk Makers. The nuclear, auto, and food industries… | by Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly | Sep, 2020 | OneZero

That reminds me of Tressie McMillan Cottom’s observations on “roaming autodidacts”.

A roaming autodidact is a self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, culture, history, and markets. The roaming autodidact is almost always conceived as western, white, educated and male. As a result of designing for the roaming autodidact, we end up with a platform that understands learners as white and male, measuring learners’ task efficiencies against an unarticulated norm of western male whiteness. It is not an affirmative exclusion of poor students or bilingual learners or black students or older students, but it need not be affirmative to be effective. Looking across this literature, our imagined educational futures are a lot like science fiction movies: there’s a conspicuous absence of brown people and women.

Source: Black Cyberfeminism: Intersectionality, Institutions and Digital Sociology by Tressie McMillan Cottom :: SSRN

I very much resemble the roaming autodidact. Tech and open source are full of us. It took longer than I’d like to admit for me to recognize the white-male effect in my own thinking. “A form of cognition that protects status” is an apt summary, especially for roaming autodidacts who’ve lived and believe the meritocracy myth.

See also:

Autism, Trauma, and Stress

This recent study on autism and PTSD offers some relatable paragraphs about stress and trauma.

It is well documented that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experience high rates of psychiatric co-occurrence, with other conditions—attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and depression being the most commonly diagnosed (Joshi et al., 2012). Recently it has been suggested that individuals with ASD are at an increased risk of experiencing potentially traumatic events and being significantly affected by them (Haruvi-Lamdan et al., 2018; Kerns et al., 2015).

A review that examined trauma and PTSD among adults with intellectual impairments discussed the difficulty to differentiate between stressful life events and traumatic events, and argued for broadening the examination of different types of events and experiences that may potentially be perceived as traumatic (Martorell & Tsakanikos, 2008). Another review, by Kerns et al. (2015), indicated that individuals with ASD may experience a variety of stressful situations (e.g. intense sensory stimuli, changes in routine, medical ordeals) as traumatic. Various characteristics of sensation, perception, social awareness, and cognition, which are unique to individuals with ASD, may determine which events would be experienced by them as traumatic. A recent article discussed this issue and focused on traumatic subjective perception of three groups of patients who are at risk to developing PTSD, one being ASD (Brewin et al., 2019). The authors argued that these groups’ PTSS are often overlooked and suggested adding an “altered perception” subtype to PTSD criteria in the future. Specifically, it is possible that social stressors are a significant source of vulnerability for individuals with ASD (Haruvi-Lamdan et al., 2018; Hoover, 2015). Several studies suggest that social demands are more often appraised as stressful by individuals with ASD compared with typical individuals (Gillott & Standen, 2007; Jansen et al., 2003). Individuals with ASD experience greater social isolation and distress compared with their typical peers (Tani et al., 2012). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that some social interactions are experienced as particularly stressful, and even traumatic, among this population.

Source: Autism Spectrum Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: An unexplored co-occurrence of conditions – Nirit Haruvi-Lamdan, Danny Horesh, Shani Zohar, Meital Kraus, Ofer Golan, 2020

Via:

Glad to see a topic important to the community getting some research and validation.

Related:

In other words, autistic people are indeed traumatised by a wider range of things than the teams were expecting. And diagnostic teams should be considering PTSD after a wider list of possible triggering events.

Source: Ann’s Autism Blog: Autism, Bullying, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Behaviour. The links?

People who enter services are frequently society’s most vulnerable-people who have experienced extensive trauma, adversity, abuse, and oppression throughout their lives. At the same time, I struggle with the word “trauma” because it signifies some huge, overt event that needs to pass some arbitrary line of “bad enough” to count. I prefer the terms “stress” and “adversity.” In the book, I speak to the problem of language and how this insinuates differences that are not there, judgments, and assumptions that are untrue. Our brains and bodies don’t know the difference between “trauma” and “adversity”-a stressed fight/flight state is the same regardless of what words you use to describe the external environment. I’m tired of people saying “nothing bad ever happened to me” because they did not experience “trauma.” People suffer, and when they do, it’s for a reason.

Source: Psychiatric Retraumatization: A Conversation About Trauma and Madness in Mental Health Services – Mad In America

This scene is quite similar to how I experience an autism sensory overload. When sounds, lights, clothing or social interaction can become painful to me. When it goes on long enough it can create what is called a meltdown or activation of the “fight-flight-freeze-tend-befriend” (formerly known as “fight or flight”) response and activation of the HPA axis; a “there is a threat in the environment” adrenaline-cortisol surge.

This makes seemingly benign noises a threat to my well-being and quite possibly real physical danger to my physiology. Benign noises become painful, and if left unchecked, enough to trigger a system reaction reserved for severe dangers. This is what days can become like on a regular basis for myself and many on the spectrum.

“Let me stick a hot poker in your hand, ok? Now I want you to remain calm.”

That is the real rub of the experience of sensory meltdowns. The misunderstanding that someone with Autism is just behaving badly, spoiled or crazy. When the sensory overwhelm is an actual and very real painful experience. It seems absurd to most people that the noise of going to a grocery store could possibly be “painful” to anyone. So most people assume the adults or children just want attention, or they can’t control their behavior. In work situations I get accused of all kinds of things. And when I leave a noisy situation like a party to step out to take a break, people will notice that I’m “upset”. They will assume or worry that I must be upset at something or someone. And that’s just if I do take a break. If I can’t take a break or get my life out of proper oscillations and can’t avoid noise or sensory/emotional overload, then I can get snappy, defensive, irritated and under very unfortunate circumstances even hostile.

What the stress of noise means, in the autism’s world of an over-sensitive physiology and ramped up stress experiences, is that that pain is warning of us of real damage being created in our bodies. So this anxiety and reactivity isn’t necessarily just perceived but is actually happening. We are not being overly dramatic or a brat (what those with Autism are often accused of). Damage to our physiology is what noise can actually do.

Source: Autistic Traits and Experiences in “Love and Mercy” The Brian Wilson Story – The Peripheral Minds of Autism

Neurodiversity Employee Resource Group at Automattic

Members of Automattic’s neurodivergent community launched this ERG in 2020 to support neurodivergent Automatticians, serve as a resource for Automattic at large, and promote the principles of neurodiversity.

Source: Employee Resource Groups – Automattic

I’m happy to say we have a Neurodiversity ERG at Automattic.

Some of our goals:

  • Advocate for neurodiversity-related improvements to hiring and team practices across the company
    • Work with TalentOps to review and improve onboarding for new hires and new team leads by adding neurodiversity resources
    • Be a resource for team leads, meetup planners, etc. to ask questions, so that it’s not entirely on team members to educate
  • Support our neurodivergent community internally
    • Provide resources for neurodiverseomatticians to learn more about their own neurodivergence
    • Promote ERG members’ accomplishments
  • Support our neurodivergent community externally
    • Put together resources for awareness days/months
    • Bring in neurodivergent speakers for internal talks
    • Attend, sponsor, and support neurodivergent-in-tech events
  • Examine internalized standards regarding competence, communication, and other traits valued at Automattic which are expressed differently by neurodivergent people
  • Stand in solidarity with groups who often overlap with us: physically disabled and mentally ill people in particular

Some things an ERG can help with:

At 90 percent of the companies I examined, ERG members helped new employees to get comfortable during the onboarding process. Studies show that the first 60 to 90 days of employment are a critical time for any new hire, and they can be particularly challenging for members of traditionally underrepresented groups. That short window of time can mean the difference between whether an employee stays for the long run or leaves the organization before the year is out. ERGs can be leveraged to acclimate employees and engender a sense of loyalty and belonging to their new company.

These groups can also be great partners for identifying gaps in an organization’s talent development process.

Many companies also successfully use their ERGs to improve the organization’s leadership development process, to drive results, to forge relationships, and to ensure alignment between their business and diversity strategies.

Source: Are Employee Resource Groups Good for Business?

Employee Resource Groups have evolved from employee support networks created to achieve diversity and inclusion to a strategic resources that enhances business outcomes in the following areas:

  1. Involve employees in recruitment and talent management efforts
  2. Offer leadership development and mentoring opportunities
  3. Capitalize on the knowledge of diverse employees to create consumer sensitive branding and product development
  4. Create an engaged and inclusive work environment
  5. Promote your organization as an employer of choice and community partner

Source: Employee Resource Groups: A Strategic Business Resource for Today’s Workplace

Cultural competence is a business imperative that can no longer be ignored and employee resource groups must serve as the engine to make us all smarter about the future that awaits.

Source: 7 Ways to Enable Your Employee Resource Groups into a Powerful Advancement Platform

A big downside of ERGs that we hope to avoid:

We joined the ERG because we needed help, but we became the help.

Source: Black employee groups in Silicon Valley find that their unpaid second job just got harder – The Washington Post