This was economist Thomas Schelling’s insight way back in 1969 — just one of many examples of “unknown knowledge” that exists in the world today. His Spatial Segregation Model takes a few simple premises and shows that a set of quite tolerant people, who genuinely prefer to live in a diverse neighborhood in terms of race, income, and other factors, nevertheless end up self-segregating into clusters of like individuals — as follows:
Slight preference for homophily: 30%
We set up a fairly dense environment with a low preference for similarity — people are quite tolerant and are only looking to have 30% of their near neighbors be similar to them:
But when we run the simulation, we end up with an equilibrium state where individuals are surrounded by 75.2% similar neighbors:
If we run the model with a 50% preference for similar neighbors, the outcome is even more stark: the agents achieve equilibrium at a whopping 87.7% similarity:
There’s something those of us in marginalized groups know instinctively, having lived lives long in opposition to a dizzying continuum of Absurd Moral Authority: from outright violence, to secretive “technical” manipulations of statutes designed to erode or remove rights, to vague and carefully unstated “wink wink nudge nudge” moments from individuals of authority who had some power to constrain us — whether it’s a boss (or potential boss), a teacher, a community figure, and/or perhaps most guttingly a family member.
We know the sting of being scolded for even daring an attempt at upsetting the Tautological Supremacist Meritocracy: “If you weren’t worthless, you’d already be here by now!”
The British thought we would just roll over too
But we should remember one of the primary reasons that we as a nation even won our independence in the first place:
The British Parliament thought the colonists full of hot air — that a few shows of military force would quickly crumble the upstart radicals in their quest for representation and rights. But battles at Lexington and Concord only fueled further the sentiment that the colonies were inhabited by an occupying force that must be resisted.
It was widely thought to be insane to stand against the world-renowned military force of the British Empire — but the Continental Army under George Washington doggedly turned the fact of underestimation to their advantage via innovative battlefield strategy. The motherland, finding it difficult to raise sufficient troops to fight against their own former countrymen, hired German mercenaries to fight against the colonists — further deepening the resolve of the Americans to throw off an oppressor willing to bring foreign assassins to bear in a dispute formerly perceived as a conciliatory process of achieving the basic rights of citizenship that colonists’ forbears once enjoyed in England. The British overestimation of Loyalist support — combined with the general mistreatment of those who did cross the “revolutionary picket line” — only added to the troubles faced by a predominantly naval power slogging through a lengthy land war over vast territory.
Diversity does not preclude uniting to face a Common Enemy
We may feel stronger in our own foxholes, but there comes a time when the whole choir must sing together. Now is that time.
And perhaps it is dangerous to use the language of war, and of conflict — or perhaps it may help us to better identify where our Common Enemy lies. Our Common Enemy is not the down at heel rural Trump supporter who lashes out at us in fear, and in retaliation — though their words are often hateful, these people have been misled.
It’s a very old story — older than Trump; older than George W. Bush; older than Reagan or Nixon or Coolidge or Jackson or Johnson. The wealthy white elite has a centuries’ old playbook of dangling so-called Christian morality in front of those whites left most destitute by the former’s economic policies — and winning.
We are watching reruns.
This time, fascism and foreign influence have been added to up the ante — keeping even the most blasé among us glued to our seats.
The framers of our Constitution deliberated, debated, and agonized over the most ideal structure to support a broad pluralist power, in concerted opposition to the monarchies and aristocracies of the past. Many were shocked by — and fought bitterly against — the unprecedented act of beginning such a governing document with the words, “We the people.” But 85 Federalist Papers later, our sovereign power was enshrined in the document that still governs our ambitions today — and acts as a backstop against those who would wield tyrannical power in our name.
Our Common Enemy is tyranny, and we must learn to recognize where it lives, and how it acts. Even — perhaps especially — when that domicile is the White House, and that act an act of Congress.
Our Common Enemy is the long litany of elected officials who act in their own best interests at the expense of We the People. It is the slew of slick sycophants currying political favor with the powerful, who continually rewrite the rules of the game the Winners have already Won many times over, to accelerate the gaping gulf of inequality that threatens democracy, liberty, justice, and most certainly peace.
Without Justice there can be no Peace.
And those who wield injustice have vastly underestimated the swaths of citizenry who can see through the ruse; who have heard the old story and seen its outcomes; who are tired of having to wage the same struggles for rights and respect over, and over, and over again.
But the tired gain strength through camaraderie in adversity; through simple acts of kindness; through humor, and through love.
These are tools the tyrannical cannot access. Stand, and wield them, in the name of We the People.
For every thoughtful, measured perspective on the gigantically thorny problem of Diversity in the Valley, there has to be at least 10 angry white dudes who feel entitled to take a shit all over the idea that being more inclusive has to involve, like, actually learning to be inclusive — or really, making any changes at all.
There are “values” far more pressing than equality, they say — EFFICIENCY! ALPHA ELITISM! SHAVING OFF ANOTHER 5 MINUTES OF SOME FULL STACK ENGINEER’S TIME (by outsourcing it to someone poor who should feel lucky to have the opportunity to schlep around the dirty laundry and fetch the burritos of Today’s World-Saving Heroes — preferably someone brown) so that someone, somewhere else (outside of the Valley, one presumes) can do all the theoretical Morally Good activities that serve as the philosophical prop that is supposed to justify the tech industry’s frantic, breakneck pursuit of getting filthy fucking rich the mission critically important “time-saving efficiency” that has literally the rest of the world economy scrambling to catch up in its wake.
Ergo, in response to an interview with Slack engineer Erica Baker — whose 20% work-time role in contributing to company diversity strategy later in the thread apparently renders completely invisible her 80% role Writing Code with the Big Boys — this fellow feels he has an obligation to weigh in:
Yes, Kevin. TELL ME MORE about how I would be treated in an interview with you as hiring manager. One thing’s for sure, I could be completely confident that you lack a shred of skepticism about whether my qualifications make me “The Best” candidate in the self-fulfilling prophecy of your own perception.
Nevermind all the actual data that is finally beginning to show what the reality of nature already knows: DIVERSITY WINS. Being inclusive of a multiplicity of experience and perspective (which come along as a byproduct of the heuristic we can make use of — demographical appearance — as a rough approximate solution to our complete inability to objectively measure anything meaningful about the internal complexities of real people) makes companies stronger and more resilient.
Diversity makes companies moreantifragile by embracing the comparative disorder that is counterintuitive to the homogenous systems and societies we keep inanely trying to collectively build despite all the evidence of their abject failure throughout history. Our friend in Idaho is proof of this point: the dominant assumption that diversity definitionally reduces efficiency, thereby reducing profit.
Beyond being flat out wrong when you look at the data (which, curiously, diversity always seems to be a special case where otherwise ruthlessly data-driven engineers don’t dare to tread), this carries with it the hidden assumption which is the self-fulfilling prophecy that actually proves Erica’s point: the fundamental skepticism that people who aren’t white and male can possibly be The Best. That the only way they ever get a seat at the communal, lunch-ordered-by-bot-and-hand-delivered-by-poor-non-alpha-elite-coder-people table is by the magnanimous grace of some Do Gooder hiring manager or recruiter slavishly following regulatory orders from the government — and not by their own merit.
The plank in our own eyes
Part of this has to do with the historically definitional white male privilege that, for some reason, we’re still arguing about in our supposedly enlightened and modernized society whose blinders prevent the deep self-examination of our human past required to truly make progress. As if the human tendency to Other were somehow wiped away with the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) Fourteenth Amendment (1868) Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Civil Rights Act (1964) Voting Rights Act (1965) Loving v. Virginia (1967) Fair Housing Act (1968) Community Reinvestment Act (1977) end of the carceral state (TKTK).
Having grown up a person saddled with two X chromosomes my whole life with almost no choice but to wrestle with this reality from every single angle intellectual and emotional, I at least finally understand the fundamental psychological biases that lead to this kind of abject refusal to deal with our own skewed perspectives — opting instead for ratcheting up ever more impressive shouting matches to peacock about how our dizzying intellectual prowess is surely proof enough of our obvious objectivity.
We are all wrong. And I’m no different.
I know that we desperately want to believe in our own superiority, both to everything that came before us throughout history (the “illusion of progress” we cultivate — despite no such guarantee existing in the natural world — only adds to this effect) and to our fellow humans. Elitism is the ultimate -ism.
It subsumes racism, sexism, religious fundamentalism, and all forms of tribalism that each have, at their roots, the core premise that whatever group I’ve chosen to join up with (or been allotted to by random lottery) is clearly and objectively The Best Group. It’s the undeniable tautology of naive realism that leaves us trapped in the pathetically, perennially distorted view that “I know best, and by the transitive property of awesome, all the groups I consider myself a part of are therefore clearly also The Best (else, why would I be part of them?!).” This automagically relegates all the groups with which we don’t identify to the bottom of the heap: obviously inferior, as anyone can see!
Combine this native human bias with the delirious modern cocktail of vicious neoliberalism and aggressive techno-utopian libertarianism, and it’s a formula in which People Who Don’t Appear White and Male are definitionally suspect because of the statistics we’re blanketed with ever day that tell us they are under-represented in fields like technology.
“If this is so,” says the mind of a brilliant and inarguably logical engineer, “it can only be because their Rugged Individualism hasn’t endowed them with the skills to pass muster. It’s a shame, really — at least Other People, somewhere else who care about human beings more than machine learning are concerned with this dilemma (so I don’t have to be: after all, I’m really fucking busy saving the world so STOP BOTHERING ME with this irrelevant claptrap distraction already! AND WHERE IS MY GODDAMN BURRITO?!?! It’s my Soylent off day!!!) — but honestly I have no choice but to treat The Next Brown or Curvy Data Point I See with some measure of statistical skepticism.”
Lack of diversity is a self-fulfilling prophecy
Therein lies the rub. When we take an observation about the “way things are” and leap to the moral conclusion that this is rightly so — that things ought to be this way, because clearly they are this way for some reason — we commit the logical fallacy that so consumed Hume: the idea that we can derive what ought to be from what is, also known as the fact/value problem.
I don’t think most white male engineers would go quite so far as to claim that their industry must remain homogenous to succeed (although clearly some do, like our friend Kevin, who apparently believes that diversity is definitionally both inefficient and a straight ticket to the business failure shitter — and that our only moral interest in the problem is spurred by the meddlesome interference of that old bugaboo The Government). Instead, in Silicon Valley it tends to take the form of justifying inaction: they might provisionally admit (over an artisanally-prepared, locally-sourced (from a Tenderloin window box herb garden) cocktail at Bar Crudo, or perhaps a Blue Bottle americano) that the problem of diversity may warrant some moral scrutiny, but not by them. They are just way too busy swimming for the shores of a Better World (so long as a Better World enriches them and their investors, natch) to be bothered with this issue that they perceive as not having the slightest effect on them. In times like these (which seems to be All Times), we simply can’t afford the moral luxury of anything but lifeboat ethics.
Right? Well, wrong — unless we’re not troubled by the absurd logical paradox of making ourselves subject to both the zero-sum philosophy this requires and the free market ideology of infinitely available value creation that is supposed to be driving the entire economic party bus (with karaoke) we’re riding in. So, we have to decide: which is it? Is there economic opportunity for all, or do the pathetic losers who fail to become startup founders get left at the curb? And if so, who will sing the songs of their people?!
Our own worst enemies
A reference to the old saw that “attitude is everything” is appropriate here. Because one of the few things more exasperating than the unexamined privilege of ignoring the issue is the endless infighting that those of us in marginalized groups do with each other over what the solution should be.
…where to even start? Let me explain… no, there is too much. Let me sum up: this comment from some random white dude who loves extreme sports begins and ends with the outrageously outsized entitlement of trying to tell Slack how to run its own goddamn business, from atop his lofty perch of Somewhere That Is Not Anywhere Even Remotely Near being an actual employee of Slack with some potentially arguable skin in the game, much less a leader or decision-maker within the company.
I mean, Jesus. This is what we’re dealing with. A worldview so vehemently opposed to the idea of apparently even discussing the matter of diversity (in case some terminology or phrase or godforsakenly challenging idea might be construed as controversial and somewhere, someone might possibly be offended — like the entire LGBT community he tries to lump me in with and in a follow-up comment — without a shred of irony! — attempts to claim he was only “speaking for himself” when demanding both a public apology and insinuating that Erica Baker the Slack engineer should literally lose her job for daring to state an opinion while black (p.s. we’ve truly come full fucking circle now, haven’t we?!)) that people feel compelled to spend their time offering free, unwarranted, and undoubtedly unwanted “business advice” to the company THAT PRESUMABLY KNOWS BETTER ABOUT WHAT IT IS DOING than Richard Fucking Burton The Third of His Name!
How can you even hold such a logical paradox in your head, much less lay it out in a single paragraph: the idea that somehow, bizarrely, Slack itself not only lacks the control over whether or not Erica Baker may be “let go for similar remarks” (I mean, who would be doing the firing in this case?! Is there some vigilante regulatory-required Anti-Social-Justice-Warrior in tights and a cape flying around Silicon Valley waiting for bat signals sent from comments on TechCrunch to swoop in from outside the company and authorize her termination?!), but may also be on such shaky ground from some available success metric (I assure you it’s not. It’s one of the few blindingly amazing success stories of recent memory and continues to be one of the fastest growing enterprise startups Of All Time) that they might just have to resort to taking the advice of some Totally Irrelevant Troll about what their fucking brand should be?!?
I. JUST. CAN’T. EVEN!!! (can you?! if so, better abandon all ye hope of ever working at Slack.)
Just goes to show: we’ll cling to whatever flimsy life raft of privilege we think we’re on, even as the Leaky Lifeboat (not to mention the Queen Friggin’ Mary) sails past, breathing a sigh of relief that we don’t seem eager to hop on and capsize it.
Everyone calm down. But be prepared to leave through the eastern gate
Now let’s ask ourselves: if we believe we’re striving ever more harriedly toward a Better World, then what the heck does that world even look like? Close your eyes and picture it: what do you see? Are people happy in this world? Do they seem to go about their lives effortlessly and with graceful purpose in the human-connected face of god (for lack of a better term… so far), or are they still scurrying to and fro in the franticness of Trying To Get There?
Do people treat each other well, and with respect despite their differences, and in the face of overwhelming obstacles and risks we will have an impossible time solving from within isolated bunkers — or are they still spewing vitriol at each other over their gleefully intentional mischaracterizations of each other’s intentions?
Do they exhibit peace in the struggle, or are they still trying to shout each other down inside of every comment thread and social media exchange on the internet just to win a tiny provincial shadow of an urgently important argument about who has The Best Idea on how we can live in peace and harmony with each other, and how to impose it on the rest of those poor, lazy suckers who simply aren’t as gifted as the elite leaders who so grudgingly bear the wearisome heavy burden of Saving The World whilst being rewarded ever-so-handsomely with Real Non-Inflation Eaten Wages, lucrative stock options and liquidation preferences, artisanal cocktails, and Magically Appearing Burritos?
If we don’t even know what it looks like, then how will we know what values we should be working for, or recognize if and when we’ve arrived?