By Chris Oldwood

Overload, 27(153):20, October 2019

People claim politics should not be discussed in polite circles. Chris Oldwood reconsiders.

Welcome, to the real world.
~ Morpheus (The Matrix)

Whenever I hear someone mention privileged people on TV it tends to be in reference to some upper class twit that went to one of the famous British public schools and has now found themselves in a compromising situation. The term ‘privileged’ is almost always used as a pejorative because it implies that the person has had access to the best education and support that money can buy and yet they have still managed to make a complete mess of things. Even if they haven’t done something considered illegal, the chances are they’ve done something immoral or unethical instead, probably using their privileged status to gain access to the kinds of ‘services’ outside the reach of the general population either due to its cost, or clandestine nature.

I never went to Eton or Harrow and don’t have a drop of royal blood in me, so I definitely wouldn’t consider myself part of that kind of privileged society. I’m perfectly happy to snigger at their hapless mistakes and frown upon their illicit deeds as much as anyone else. But not that long ago I came down to earth with somewhat of a bump when I discovered how incredibly privileged I really am. I don’t mean I suddenly discovered I was a hereditary peer or heir to a long lost rich relative, just that I realized the term ‘privilege’, like so many things in life, actually forms a sliding scale. It seems I haven’t really been paying attention to how it affects both me and, more importantly, those I come into contact with directly, or even indirectly, through the virtual medium of social networks, forums, etc.

My cosy bubble burst when a tweet from a rather well-known (and often highly respected) member of the software engineering community got injected into my feed, which stated that politics just weren’t that important. This was at a time when there was an ongoing discussion about whether it was desirable or not to keep politics out of a person’s timeline that was normally reserved for more technical content. As someone who sympathized with this separation to some degree (at the time) I was somewhat intrigued to see the replies. One of the first in the thread lambasted the original poster by stating that only someone in such a privileged position as theirs could even afford to ignore politics.

And in that moment I started to comprehend where I too sat on the scale and the wave of discomfort caused me to ponder what side-effects my ambivalence might have had on others. In my naivety I would have liked to believe that my decision to eschew politics in the workplace would ensure my impartiality and therefore keep my life simple. After all, one of the many reasons to become a freelancer in the first place and remain a ‘lowly’ developer was to endeavour to remain near the bottom of the food chain and free of organisational concerns. Instead I’m now becoming uneasy that my choice of ignorance has in fact led me to become complicit, to some degree, through inaction. To discover someone has suffered when it might have been within my power to help is unsettling.

As a middle-aged, white, heterosexual, British male it appears to be incredibly easy to remain oblivious to what is going on to many less privileged souls, both in the workplace and in supposedly ‘social’ settings. By unconsciously reinforcing the patriarchy through tending to follow the overwhelmingly male technical leaders and ‘influencers’ you could easily be forgiven for not seeing first-hand much of the direct (and indirect) abuse and dismissive behaviour that so many other people inside (and outside) our industry suffer from. Lest you think it’s implausible that someone can remain in the dark for so long, the world of programming provides the perfect escape, especially when one is lucky enough to get into it at an early age through the privilege of a computer at home. With so much interesting stuff to learn, it’s all too easy to prioritise one’s education efforts around the latest tech stack instead of, say, reading The Psychology of Computer Programming .

Hence, is it any wonder that we get seduced by the apparent logical ‘utopia’ of the Meritocracy when we strive for technical excellence to the detriment of our other skills? I’ve undoubtedly been guilty of choosing the ‘best’ person for a job by focusing too heavily on technical merit which has probably been reinforced by various biases that come from my own more privileged background. For example, I know in the past I’ve looked far more favourably on those candidates that have shown an interest in programming outside their working life.

It was well over 10 years before I met my first female programmer; none other than the editor of this very journal. Such was the status quo of working in a male dominated industry that I completely failed to notice the spelling of ‘Frances’ and incorrectly used the male spelling in our first few email exchanges! I might have tried downplaying this kind of faux pas in the past, as I would have other spelling mistakes, but I now see it as the result of laziness on my part – the very least I can do is pay attention and address someone correctly without making assumptions about their gender. Details matter, especially when the repercussions reinforce such an imbalance.

By making a special effort to listen to conference talks on diversity, inclusion, mental health, etc. and through following other people that freely mix their technical and personal experiences, I’m slowly turning more of my unconscious incompetence into some form of competence. The Geek Feminism Wiki [ GeekFeminism ] has been an excellent starting point, especially the topics of micro-aggressions, silencing and derailment which tend to be quite subtle in nature. Hopefully, along the way I’ll try to balance out my technical and social skills somewhat more evenly so that I can use my new found position of privilege to better effect.

With thanks to Jez Higgins, a fellow middle-aged white dude.



Chris Oldwood is a freelance programmer who started out as a bedroom coder in the 80’s writing assembler on 8-bit micros. These days it’s enterprise grade technology in plush corporate offices. He also commentates on the Godmanchester duck race.

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