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Gatekeeping and why language matters

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This is the second in a series of posts about gatekeeping in Information Technology and other fields.

Negative terminology

The language we use matters. In the first post I wrote that a number of words we use by convention need to be phased out, especially if they have negative connotations. I used Michele’s example of “foo” and “bar,” a set of variable names that seem to be common in computer science. I first heard them when I attended university and a friend there used them without any context (I was a journalism student).

FUBAR stands for “F*cked Up Beyond All Recognition.” To use this term in a class on programming makes no sense. Purists will leap to the defence of the word “foo” stating that it has a longer history than that, but no one can deny that when combined with “bar,” it is now deeply entwined in that military acronym. If you say “foo” and “bar,” all I can think about is a loud U.S. Army officer shouting at someone.

This is a very plain example of commonplace words that carry negative (and in some cases deeply offensive) connotations, and yet we find them worn as a badge of honour. When my friend Siviwe first used foo and bar in an explanation about parameters in a bash script on FreeBSD, I was so distracted by the connotation that I called a halt to his explanation. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

Racism and sexism

Casual racism is encoded into our jargon. How many of you have heard someone refer to networked computers as “master” and “slave”? Using the word “slave” in any context these days is awkward, even more so when associated with the word “master.”

Thankfully, we’ve seen how this terminology is problematic, and in SQL Server availability groups for example, we talk about “primary” and “secondary” replicas without losing any meaning or understanding. Although some replacement words may not be easy to remember, at least the intention is there to be mindful of context. The Internet is democratising access to technology, so we will find more examples of words used in mostly white, mostly male areas that need to change. (This also extends to some words or phrases that are prefixed with the word “black.”)

Meanwhile, sexual innuendo is widespread in fields like technology and industry. While there are some technical terms which have sexual connotations (“floppy disk,” “male” & “female” connectors for example), this is more to do with how women are spoken to, especially in male-dominated spheres. Women are judged by how they look, how they dress, how they speak and sound, even how they wear their hair. When women make a mistake, they are chastised. Men are judged by what they do, and when they make a mistake they’re given another chance. Machismo is heralded, even if it is detrimental to an organisation. Women who show even the slightest ambition or pride are judged harshly. It’s as simple as that. This ComputerWorld article from over a decade ago explains well what struggles women face in technology.

Ironically, women were fundamental to the science of Information Technology as we know it today. When the word “computer” used to refer to humans performing calculations manually, many of these jobs were performed by women. Women who changed the world include Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Susan Kare, Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, Katherine Johnson, the women of ENIAC, Annie Easley, Karen Spärck Jones, and so many others. This list would be longer if women were credited appropriately.

It is time that men show a modicum of respect to the women they work with. Mentorship is key. Being respectful of the language they use around women. Not objectifying them. Not reducing them to a single, negative trait. Not judging them by a different standard to men who behave the same way. Not interrupting women when they speak. Acknowledging their contributions before the very same thing is said by a man and loudly endorsed. And not getting in their personal space without permission.

Idiot users

This is a pet peeve of mine, mainly because I used to behave this way myself. It’s like the smoker who quits cigarettes and becomes the most anti-smoker you know. Technical Support, where a large percentage of us in the technology field start our careers, is often where we have to deal with people of all backgrounds — notwithstanding their technical ability — when our own social skills are still developing. This is unfortunate. While I readily admit that some people should not be allowed near computers, they are far outnumbered by hard-working humans who just want to do their work and are being stymied by a device that isn’t working the way they want it to.

Technical Support is a microcosm of the larger problem of gatekeeping in technology, where too-young mavens perform magical feats with fast-moving fingers barely touching the keyboard or mouse, while their customer is left wondering what happened. Technical Support people do face challenges which affect their happiness (mainly to do with budget constraints and time management), but that is not an excuse to treat their customers with disdain.

Here is the Chief Technology Officer of Amazon, Werner Vogels, calling regular people idiots:


There are numerous examples of this trope in technology. The Bastard Operator From Hell (BOFH) was a fictional character who hated the non-technical people in his organisation and called them losers (a pun on “luser,” a low-level user or non-privileged user on a computer system). The problem here is that Simon Travaglia invented a character that people aspired to be, which missed the point entirely.

Technical writing

Have you ever read a piece of text so dense that you had to go over it many times before it even started to make sense? Here’s an example, taken from Wikipedia:

A univariate distribution gives the probabilities of a single random variable taking on various alternative values; a multivariate distribution (a joint probability distribution) gives the probabilities of a random vector – a list of two or more random variables – taking on various combinations of values. Important and commonly encountered univariate probability distributions include the binomial distribution, the hypergeometric distribution, and the normal distribution. The multivariate normal distribution is a commonly encountered multivariate distribution.

All I wanted to know was the probability of a coin toss coming up heads. Meanwhile, this piece of text is so impenetrable to me that I gave up entirely. This problem exists in more than just technology. Science and medicine are struggling with anti-intellectualism right now, where people see big words and their brains shut down. I can totally relate. I’ve been interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) most of my life. I am a published technical author, I’ve taught at high school and college level, and I was raised English-speaking, but it still makes no sense to me. I read that last sentence as saying the normal thing is a commonly encountered thing. Normal things are common? You don’t say…

I am at risk of writing another ten thousand words on this topic, so I need to pause here. Stay tuned next week for my thoughts on inclusivity.

In summary of this week’s post, gatekeeping starts with the words we use both intentionally and unintentionally, whether they define terminology or describe the people we work with. Everyone starts out with zero knowledge. We owe it to our colleagues to share what we know in a way that is easy to understand, while treating them with respect.

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.