It’s Not Even About the Pizza, and Other Things I Want Tech to Know

Originally shared on Medium

In light of the election and our newly realized President-elect, a slew of SF tech workers have taken to hosting their own hackathons to solve societal issues with the hopes of rebooting democracy and letting all voices have a say in where we focus and make change. You see, tech workers are often praised for their innovation and ability to solve the really tough problems with engineering, so why would societal issues be any different? One such group, Reboot Democracy (not to be confused with the research-based democratic group Reboot Democracy), created an event with the following call to action:

Take a moment and read this closely. Can you see any mistakes? Remember that we’re looking at the description of an event titled “Reboot Democracy”, created, as stated in the first two sentences, to turn a person’s frustration with politics into action. As I read the description my mind jumps from question to question: Who’s frustration are they interested in? Which citizens are they solving for? What are the divisions they’re seeing in the country and hoping to mend? What knowledge of history, law, and culture do the organizers possess? Why didn’t they partner with existing advocacy orgs and policy think-tanks who’ve dedicated years to researching these problems? Why do tech bros think they’re the first to have an idea? And why are they only interested in people with certain backgrounds vs taking an intersectional approach to include a multitude of experiences and backgrounds? Do we not all exist in society and shouldn’t all humans, regardless of their skill set or occupation, be included in the revitalization of democracy? Is that not true democratic practice, relating to, appealing to, or making available this event to the broad masses of the people?

Before I dive into the problems with this type of quick-to-act behavior so common in the tech space and the impulsive desire to use tech as a solution while neglecting to understand the root problems, it’s imperative we stop for a moment and recognize that herein lies the problem: technology often seeks to solve broad issues, generally defined by themselves as urgent, and while tech claims to be well-intentioned, most tech workers and leaders pursuing such solutions fail to acknowledge their own shortcomings and actual abilities when it comes to applying technical expertise to a societal problem. More simply put: technology has the power to be an instrumental tool in the solution to our biggest societal issues if only all of society is involved in the creation of solutions, otherwise it’s merely another privileged and exclusive institution that denies entry to the masses while building a homogenous team of workers seeking to solve issues so far removed from the root problem based on zero sociological research or background. In other words: tech workers are not experts on society, and by viewing society through a tech-first lens, tech blinds itself to the real problems and fails to build true democracy.

Before moving on, let’s go back to this hackathon and learn how Google defines one:

With so many different people coming together for a marathon work session, food must be a given, right? According to Wikipedia, “For hackathons that last 24 hours or longer, especially competitive ones, eating is often informal, with participants often subsisting on food like pizza and energy drinks.” The crowd-sourced slang website Urban Dictionary backs up Wikipedia’s description with:

As someone with a dairy allergy that has sent me into anaphylactic shock, twice, I don’t mess with pizza and I won’t ever be made to feel petty rejecting it. Why is pizza the go-to food when so many people do not want it and cannot eat it?

If you’re thinking, “Well that sounds like a problem that’s only specific only to you, and you can’t expect everything to be tailored for you,” my question then is why do you think it’s just me? Do you not realize it’s a problem because it’s not something you face? And if so, why are you the norm at which I’m compared to? And why isn’t this way of thinking and acting seen as a problem or exclusive?

While you might not take my word (because let’s be real, I’ve been fighting for inclusion since 2013 and no tech spaces have given an actual damn, some going as far to say that my experiences aren’t real or representative of others, cough, Dropbox) here are some additional, reputable people and organizations with thoughts on pizza at hackathons:

  • “Pizza is the cheapest food to get, but it’s also basically the worst thing you can possibly feed someone (and not everyone eats it) — avoid pizza if you can.” — How To Run a Successful Hackathon
  • “We tried to make everyone happy and the effort was very well received. It was all about showing that things can be done differently — and killing the geek macho vibe that pizza and beer events induce!” — Spotify Labs on Diversifying Hackathons
  • “If I spend two long days in poor lighting and poor ventilation, sitting hunched over my laptop at a meeting table in an uncomfortable chair, eating pretty average catering food or pizza […] I feel like crap.” Why I Don’t Like Hackathons — YC News
  • “No one wants to eat nothing but pizza for an entire weekend. But people who don’t revel in the geek stereotype are even less enthusiastic about it. Get healthier, more diverse meal options. Your attendees might follow suit.” — Running an Inclusive Hackathon

This then raises another question: Why get any food at all if certain participants are now forced to provide their own food while attendees that resemble the organizers are taken care of? And sure, maybe organizers and leaders are thinking, “No one is forced to do anything, they choose to attend the event and they didn’t have to.” But that’s the thing: tech bros continue to create spaces under the BS advertisement of democracy, diversity, and inclusion, giving false pretenses to those looking to be included, finally, only to be oblivious to the ways their inherent bias and ignorance to experiences outside of their own prohibit the actualization of their idealized space, inherently rejecting “outsiders” and ultimately creating the very exclusive environment they claimed to be against from the start.

But I’m not even done.

Why beer? Did you ever stop and think that not everyone likes or wants beer? Beyond that, maybe some people have a history of substance abuse, or living with a substance abuser? Maybe because statistics link men and alcohol to being more prone to aggression, some people may not feel comfortable being in a space, which is probably male dominated, while trying to also be relaxed, comfortable, and productive. There’s a reason people ask for safe spaces and “safe” means many different things to different people. The point is not to disregard the very real scenarios you should help to avoid or prevent from happening but to take a moment and recognize those around you wanting to be included all have different backgrounds and experiences that need to be considered. Just, for one second, think about solving or building something with someone other than yourself in mind.

Additionally, why not practice what you’re preaching (to the choir) and create a system that allows people input to help guide the organization’s decision making to include the needs and wants of others, instead of showing entire groups of society (or your hackathon, or company for that matter) that they were not thought of or regarded during planning (or ever, really).

Hey, now that’s a novel idea!

As soon as I posted the event screenshot and my comment, an acquaintance of mine responded saying, “I’m confused. What’s the problem here?” The problem is that the entire event failed to be inclusive, which is what a democracy is, and it’s failure is epitomized in this post from one of the organizers, clearly oblivious to the fact that they just excluded various groups of people without even being aware of their exclusionary practices. It’s not just about the pizza.

Despite the fact that the event hopes to “Reboot Democracy”, the organizers and creators failed to institute any democratic practices into creating this event, therefore, subjecting all participants to be exactly that, participants in the organizers’ plans without input, leaving countless voices and experiences out of the conversation and problems to solve for. While some great projects and solutions can still certainly come from the weekend of work, the solutions will inevitably only solve for a small margin of the population, as representation and lived experiences from outside groups continues to remain almost non-existent.

The screenshot I posted above with my comment was just a quick, superficial dig at the overtly true stereotypes the tech community exhibits, and their failure to acknowledge their actions due to ignorance and an inability to admit that they often, by default, and not maliciously, overlook certain social groups.

And while a hackathon is just one event that happens over the span of a few days, the culture of the hackathon is a reflection of the bigger tech community as a whole and reveals itself as a microcosm of modern-day tech environments, meaning those excluded from this one-off event (though hackathons happen all the time) are also excluded from the existing tech ecosystems, leading to low diversity numbers, ignorant leaders, and the creation of environments now labeled hostile and exclusionary. For when someone outside of the dominant culture points out these inclusion flaws and failures (ie. me, Ellen Pao, Erica Bakerthe list could go on), the organizers and leaders often respond defensively, for worry of being labeled sexist, racist, or any other feared term, and often fire or let the mistreated employee go. This inability to give or receive feedback in turn creates a hostile environment where neither participant nor organizer feels safe or comfortable and sends a message to other marginalized groups to keep their mouths shut or suffer the same fate. The tech community then becomes a breeding ground for abuse.

Tech itself is a great primer to solve a variety of issues, but by consciously (also labeled as “unconsciously” by the perpetrators) excluding entire groups of people, tech will only perpetuate the same problems it looks to solve for. In order to create a more democratic and inclusive society, technology needs to start first with the very obvious thing it’s missing: diversity of experiences and the welcoming of the other. Until then, you can keep your shitty pizza.