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By now I imagine most people who are interested in what I write about have seen Clay Shirky’s recent blog post, A Rant About Women. While the title of the blog entry itself is a bit of a misnomer (I don’t think Shirky is really ranting about women so much as he is ranting about femininity) it’s also a bit of a hot-button topic for a lot of people. I’ve read several smart critiques of the general thesis, but I haven’t seen a critique from the specific angle I would like to tackle. The assumptions that Shirky makes about the way society should be are a little bit frightening, but I’ve been thinking more and more about where these ideas come from, and some of them are more well-formulated than others, but I’m going to give it a go.

The one thing I’ve not been seeing explicitly is the idea that Shirky is taking issue with femininity. In her book Whipping Girl, Julia Serano discusses how our entire society — many feminists included — treat femininity as something to avoid. This is manifested in many ways. Consider how it’s generally okay for little girls to play with action figures, but when a little boy wants to play with a baby doll, suddenly red lights go off in his parents’ heads and the boy is punished. Or consider that when women were first allowed to enter the working world they were expected to assimilate with men. Or consider that because I’m a trans man I get certain privileges over trans women, like acceptance in more cis queer circles or the freedom to not worry about violence constantly.

What Shirky completely misses in his post is that he’s becoming part of this problem — the oppression women (all women) face in our society is not just income ceilings (or being locked out of employment altogether) or socialization into subservient roles, but that anybody who conforms in any way to that notion of femininity is viewed as weak, inferior, and, often, problematic. By saying that it doesn’t matter that his blog post asks women to be more like men, Shirky is essentially cosigning the erasure of feminine identities, which is completely and utterly unacceptable.

I think danah boyd raises a great point, too, when she points out that diversity isn’t just about arranging “diverse-looking” people in a room and calling it a job well done. (Also if we were all self-aggrandizing jerks nothing would ever get done! Too much infighting!)

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So I’ve been working on the Program on Intergroup Relations‘ course materials for the gender dialogue for some time now.  I’ve added a lot of content, but one of the things that I’m currently wrestling with is the “Authorship and Copyright” box on the main page.  The original course materials book says this:

Authorship/Copyright
All materials remain property of The Program on Intergroup Relations at the University of Michigan, 530 S. State Street, 3000 Michigan Union, Ann Arbor, MI. 48109-1308, 734-936-1875, http://www.igr.umich.edu.  Materials may only be used with permission and proper citation of their source.

Now, this isn’t as draconian as it could be, but I definitely want the work that Jene and I have done on the gender course materials to be freely remixable and re-usable (so long as it’s not for commercial purposes, and so long as the remixers and re-users are down with sharing and sharing alike.  In general I think there’s a lot for academia to gain from Creative Commons licensing, and I sort of just want to change the Authorship/Copyright box on my new gender materials to a full-fledged Creative Commons license.

I kind of feel weird about it because my work is built on some other people’s work.  And they didn’t necessarily say that their work can be remixed and re-used.  Yet I’m the one doing this set of edits, and I have explicit permission to change and mash and delete and reconfigure, so doesn’t that give me the prerogative to re-license the material with Creative Commons?

I think it makes a lot of sense.  I was excited to see that Ph.D. candidates at UC Berkeley have recently made movements toward enabling students to file dissertations under Creative Commons licenses, instead of selling their souls to ProQuest.  I believe in the availability of academic work to everybody, regardless of their place in the academy, and Creative Commons is a great step in the right direction.  danah boyd, as always, says it better than I ever could.

Long and short, IGR, as a progressive, equality-motivated organization, is getting some Creative Commons licenses for their course materials.  It’s a little bit of another kind of rebellion on my part, and considering the entire project is really pretty damn subversive, I don’t see why not.  IGR should be sending the clear message that equality is for everybody, and I think Creative Commons is a super way to do that.

I don’t think it was as truly shocking as many people seemed to think it was when danah boyd blogged about the class divide between users of Myspace and Facebook.  I think it’s a significant divide, though, and I think that many critics of danah’s work were more given over to how she wrote rather than what she wrote.  And, as someone deeply committed to social justice as well as an internet evangelical, I think we owe it to ourselves to break this down a little bit more.

Talking to a co-worker who grew up in poverty in rural Alabama was pretty enlightening for me: she hadn’t had access to a computer until she was in her late teens.  Though there’s a class divide between users of Myspace and Facebook, what proportion of young Americans don’t have regular access to a computer and the internet?  I think it’s important that they do, but people in my place seem to forget that free (and I don’t mean cost-wise, because it’s not actually that hard to locate internet access you don’t have to pay for, so long as you live in an area with a decent public library) internet access to youth is something that isn’t yet taken for granted in many places in this country.  It’s remarkably emblematic for me of the privilege we experience as academics.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, most kids who come from impoverished backgrounds, have parents who did not complete high school, and/or Spanish-speaking-only households generally only have internet access at school, which is hardly free.  Though it’s reassuring that some 92% of public school classrooms have internet access, what’s the quality of that access?  How fast is it?  How free is it?

I know that I have made a grave assumption in the past that internet usage is ubiquitous enough to carry the kind of revolution that I envision.  I think that I have been coming to terms with my privilege — NCES notes that many more youth with parents who have parents with post-graduate degrees and don’t live in poverty have internet access both at home and school — coming from my financial and eduational background.  While I still think the internet is the future, and I think that it is the last great hope for democracy in the world, it worries me that, while only 54% of Americans reported using the internet in 2001, the government and big telecom are already taking steps to restrict what should be weird and free.

Do we have a responsibility as economically privileged members of society to keep the internet free for those who are still newcomers?  What can we do to increase computer and internet literacy in impoverished areas?  How can we teach young people who don’t have consistent, free access to the internet the value of information?  I think this is clearly an educational problem, and the solutions, like the solutions to problems facing impoverished school districts, are not easy.  A first step is the provision of new, good computers and courses that encourage the use of the internet.  Unfortunately I feel like many of the people in my age bracket who are interested in education don’t seem to have an eye and a knack for the internet, and those who are technological evangelists like myself are more focused on research and academia than the hands-on work of spreading the technology we love to places which cannot afford it.

I think, though, that part of the reason we’re not so invested in this distribution is because we don’t talk about poverty in the United States.  The One Laptop Per Child project, for example, is focused on providing computers to poor children in developing nations.  And while OLPC has an admirable goal, who’s working on access to computers in the United States?  And, while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds projects to get more computers and steady internet access into public libraries across the U.S., I doubt that just computers and community-oriented literacy courses are going to change the way youth in these areas interact with information technology.

So: what do we do about this?

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