February 25, 2013

the law of raspberry jam*

catherine @ 12:10 am

A rare and very honest perspective by Shanley Kane on the fucked-up culture increasingly promoted in tech orgs and startups: What Your Culture Really Says (via @terrahawkes).

“Culture is not about the furniture in your office. It is not about how much time you have to spend on feel-good projects. It is not about catered food, expensive social outings, internal chat tools, your ability to travel all over the world, or your never-ending self-congratulation.

Culture is about power dynamics, unspoken priorities and beliefs, mythologies, conflicts, enforcement of social norms, creation of in/out groups and distribution of wealth and control inside companies. Culture is usually ugly. It is as much about the inevitable brokenness and dysfunction of teams as it is about their accomplishments. Culture is exceedingly difficult to talk about honestly. (…)”

I really do not think this person’s perspective is an exaggerated one. I have seen this culture at work in many tech orgs (who shall remain nameless) and have seen it start to rear its head in some not-for-profit orgs in the last couple of years. I have tried to have meaningful discussions regarding my feelings about this culture, what I have seen of it specifically in Montreal or elsewhere. But, as usual, I am made to understand that I bring up an uncomfortable subject and that this is the way the game is played, the way it has to be played in order to stay competitive and relevant.

I also worry about what this culture is doing for democracy and democratic institutions. I mean, I am all for enabling citizens to take control through technology and access to information (among other things). I have even modestly contributed to that objective, namely via accessibility and open data initiatives. But to be honest, I increasingly get the feeling that the “citizens” are secondary. That the industry is feeding on itself and the goal, whatever it may be, is a pretext to maintain this culture. Yes, yes, there is the question of making more and more money but that is another discussion.

And then I read stuff like politicians wanting to turn cities into startups or other politicians (who have no idea what they are talking about) practically suggesting we throw the policing of government corruption into the lap of developers. And those are just two examples but there is so much more stuff out there to give us pause. And I have to wonder. Is it a good idea handing over the development of our democracy to people who are subject to and/or promoting this type of culture? And is it even fair? I am certainly not suggesting we should leave it strictly up to politicians, gawd no, we have enough evidence of how, euh, unreliable governments are at governance. But frankly, part of me finds the idea of the tech industry (or industries) leading the way rather scary. But I guess that is a whole other subject.

Anyway, there are aspects of the tech and/or startup “culture” that are fun and promising and challenging (in a good way). But there are aspects that are alarming and perverse. And I am relieved I am not alone with my questions. I am glad that someone has the guts to bring up their questions too, and quite brilliantly I might add. It happens all too rarely. And when it does, people do not listen enough. I hope that changes.

* “The Law of Raspberry Jam: the wider any culture is spread, the thinner it gets.”, Alvin Toffler (In this case, lets fucking hope so.)

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