I love stories of humans who have managed to develop a closer bond with the machines. The optimist in me believes wholeheartedly that humankind is that much closer to the Singularity every time a new prosthetic arm is developed! Which is why this piece by Finnish programmer Tuukka Ojala, over at the blog for Vincit, his software development company, is THE BEST.
Ojala, who is blind, describes the nuts and bolts of his working procedure. Most of his strategies offer an experience that seems closer to the way a computer might “think” than that of sighted monitor-and-mouse users. (In fact, he’s long used a screen reader that fires off what he’s working on at a staggering 450 words per minute!) Ojala says he is most at home on the command line, the most text-based basic access point to a computer’s programming. But unfortunately, too much of his working style is dictated by a lack of accessibility among his tools (which is a problem in the industry).
“[G]iven my love of the command line, why am I sticking with Windows, the operating system not known for its elegant command line tools? The answer is simple: Windows is the most accessible operating system there is. NVDA, my screen reader of choice is open source and maintained more actively than any other screen reader out there. If I had the choice I would use Mac OS since in my opinion it strikes a neat balance between usability and functionality. Unfortunately VoiceOver, the screen reader built in to Mac OS, suffers from long release cycles and general neglect, and its navigation models aren’t really compatible with my particular way of working. There’s also a screen reader for the Gnome desktop and, while excellently maintained for such a minor user base, there are still rough edges that make it unsuitable for my daily use. So, Windows it is.”
In addition to coding like a demon, Ojala has taken up the mantle of general accessibility consultant at his job: “Or police, [depending] on how you look at it.” He has ideas about how to make coding, and web pages in general, more accessible for users who are blind or visually impaired. I’m looking forward to reading more of his blog, for the inside scoop on accessibility, as well as the wonderful world of coding. (Singularity, here we come!)
As a woman in the technical field of computing (and having transitioned from a long career in the technical field of chemistry), I’ve come up against many insidious examples of sexism in my time. Oh, how often have I wanted to give the perpetrators their comeuppance — but been unable to without blowback! So I applaud in vicarious glee the ingenious solution a pair of L.A. artists cooked up.
Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer co-founded the online bizarre-art marketplace Witchsy. When developing the platform, they started detecting condescension and disrespect in emails from outside developers and designers, who were often male. Gazin and Dwyer had an inkling that these men were addressing them this way because they were young women jumping into a tech endeavor. So they invented a third, fictional cofounder, a man named (get this) “Keith Mann,” and started corresponding with troublesome contacts as him.
“‘It was like night and day,’ says Dwyer. ‘It would take me days to get a response, but Keith could not only get a response and a status update, but also be asked if he wanted anything else or if there was anything else that Keith needed help with.’
Dwyer and Gazin continued to deploy Keith regularly when interacting with outsiders and found that the change in tone wasn’t just an anomaly. In exchange after exchange, the perceived involvement of a man seemed to have an effect on people’s assumptions about Witchsy and colored how they interacted with the budding business. One developer in particular seemed to show more deference to Keith than he did to Dwyer or Gazin, right down to the basics of human interaction.
‘Whenever he spoke to Keith, he always addressed Keith by name,’ says Gazin. ‘Whenever he spoke to us, he never used our names.’”
There’s an awful lot of light being shined on sexism in tech industries these days. What Dwyer and Gazin have contributed to this conversation is concrete evidence of how ridiculous the sexist impulse is: all it took to get their correspondents to wise up was a man’s signature at the bottom of an email. Hopefully, their evidence will join the massed amount of other undeniable proof of the sneakiness of sexism, and help turn the tide. Until then, Dwyer and Gazin have said they have retired Keith — but still envision having to resort to him again.