Christina Dunbar-Hester

Download Full EssayIf “Diversity” Is the Answer, What Is the Question?

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This paper explores power and participation in digital domains by examining a wave of diversity advocacy that has been sweeping technical projects for the past decade.  These include initiatives to promote diversity in free and open source software (F/OSS) projects and hackerspaces. “Diversity” is variously construed, but most often focusing on gender.  These initiatives are important because they expose many of the assumptions and tensions that surround participatory cultures.  On the one hand, most of these projects are organized around voluntarism; in theory, everyone who wishes to participate is welcome to do so.  On the other hand, diversity initiatives form in order to address the “problem” of imbalance in the ranks of participants.  (A rallying cry within FOSS was a 2006 report showing that while academic and proprietary computer science included around 30% women, FOSS projects were 2% women (Ghosh et al. 2006).)  These initiatives represent attempts to change the terms of association that undergird technical projects; they are aimed at hacking the social infrastructure that determines how technical projects form and proceed.  Such efforts proliferate for varied, overlapping, and even contradictory reasons, including diversity as a marketplace value and “building a stronger movement,” among other reasons.  The paper argues that activist engagement with media technologies may challenge elite cultures of expertise that often accompany technology, including “universalist” notions that efface social difference and position in order to present technical practice as universally appealing and attainable.  At the same time, presenting technical practice as a main plank in attaining social equality carries risks, including mistaking “technological inclusion” for social power.