De-Brogramming the History of Computing
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De-Brogramming the History of Computing

In April 2012, the term brogrammer became part of the national consciousness thanks to a frenzy of media scrutiny kicked off by a Mother Jones article called “‘Gangbang Interviews’ and ‘Bikini Shots’: Silicon Valley’s Brogrammer Problem.”1 The piece was meant to sound an alarm about the state of the US high tech industry, but some questioned how seriously to take this latest incarnation of nerd culture.2 Was it a goof, a cheeky effort by a group often derided as uncool to reclaim social prestige through masculine posturing? Or was this new breed of fratty, chauvinist programmer a threat to an industry that has famously tried to increase women’s flagging participation since the 1990s?

The obnoxious affect of the brogrammer, rape jokes and all, was designed to provoke a new understanding of computing, but instead it seemed to rehash the old. It drew attention to bias in computing fields once again, particularly in Silicon Valley startup culture. Around the same time, Ellen Pao was filing a gender discrimination lawsuit against her Silicon Valley venture capital firm.3 Statistics about women entrepreneurs’ low rates of funding were making the rounds of the twittersphere, and several tech conferences were embroiled in debates about sexual harassment or underrepresentation of women and minority speakers.4

Elsewhere on the Internet, though originating from the same state (California) that incubated the brogrammers, a media critic named Anita Sarkeesian publicized a Kickstarter campaign to make programs about gender stereotypes in videogames.5 Noting that women in videogames were slotted into just a few, unfortunate tropes, Sarkeesian argued that discussion of stereotypes could help lead to solutions.

Within hours of her Kickstarter going live, waves of misogynistic comments, from the standard threats of rape and dismemberment to barely ironic demands that she “get back to the kitchen,” rolled in. Her home address was found and posted publicly. Vandalism of her online profiles and attempts to hack her accounts took on a ferociousness that even surprised those already jaded by the casual sexism of the gaming world.

The loosely orchestrated hate campaign came to a head when an amateur game programmer named Benjamin Daniel, using the pseudonym Ben Spurr, made a Flash game that encouraged players to beat up Anita Sarkeesian until her face was bruised and bloodied beyond recognition.6 In fact, many conceived of their cyberbullying campaign as a kind of massive multiplayer online game.6 In the same year, Jennifer Hepler, a game writer for Bioware, was also the target of an online hate campaign for her efforts to make games more accessible and game storylines more gay friendly.

Lessons from the Fringe

Both brogramming and what happened to Sarkeesian were cloaked in an affect of humor or play, both marginalized and threatened women, and both were intertwined with leading-edge technological cultures. Although exclusionary nerd cultures are nothing new, historians of computing have shown that episodes of wagon circling are usually a hallmark of newly professionalizing fields or culturally marginal skill and interest groups.7 As computing has matured as a profession, these episodes have become less stark.

But if the culture of the modern programmer in the Anglo-American world, from university CS departments to major computer companies, does not condone such attitudes, why should we care about these seemingly fringe incidents? The reason is that they show us new ways to understand persistent issues of underrepresentation, from the underrepresentation of women and certain American-born minorities to the closeting of thousands of GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer) computer professionals and students.8

Instead of being mere growing pains of maturing fields, these incidents are evidence of a replicating pattern in computing’s development. Technologies, fundamentally about consolidating and wielding power, help us manifest abstract ideals and translate goals and beliefs into physical reality. Brogrammers sought to monopolize this power through an alpha male affect in the workplace that encouraged the technological ends and aims of an “elite” subgroup. Meanwhile, Sarkeesian’s bullies tried to normalize a culture of violence and feminine submissiveness to gain power online and in gaming.

Centering Other Fringes

Commenters have focused on the misogyny, sexism...


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