On Feminism and Microcontrollers

A month or so ago, I published a paper with Leah Buechley that is mostly an analysis of how the LilyPad Arduino has been used. I read an earlier draft last year and loved it so, when the opportunity arose, I was honored to help out as the paper evolved.

LilyPad is a microcontroller platform that Leah created a few years back and that is specifically designed to be more useful than other microcontroller platforms (like normal Arduino) in the context of crafting practices like textiles or painting. Leah’s design goal with LilyPad was to create a sewable microcontroller that could be useful for making things that were qualitatively different from what most people made with microcontrollers and that, she hoped, would be of interest to women and girls.

Our paper tries to measure the breadth of LilyPad’s appeal and the degree to which it accomplished her goals. We used sales data from SparkFun (the largest retail source for both Arduino and LilyPad in the US) and a crowd-sourced dataset of high-visibility microcontroller projects. Our goal was to get a better sense of who it is that is using the two platforms and how these groups and their projects differ.

We found evidence to support the suggestion that LilyPad is disproportionally appealing to women, as compared to Arduino (we estimated that about 9% of Arduino purchasers were female while 35% of LilyPad purchasers were). We found evidence that suggests that a very large proportion of people making high-visibility projects using LilyPad are female as compared to Arduino (65% for LilyPad, versus 2% for Arduino).

Digging deeper, qualitative evidence suggests a reason. LilyPad users aren’t just different. The projects they are making are different too. Although LilyPad and Arduino are the same chips and the same code, we suggest that LilyPad’s design, and the way the platform is framed, leads to different types of projects that appeal to different types of people. For example, Arduino seems likely to find its way into an interaction design project or a fighting robot. LilyPad seems more likely to find its way into a smart and responsive textile. Very often, different types of people want to make these projects.

Leah and I believe that there’s a more general lesson to be learned about designing technologies for communities underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) — and for women in particular.

The dominant metaphor in the discussion on women in computer science is Margolis and Fisher’s idea of "unlocking the clubhouse." The phrase provides a good description of the path that most projects aimed at broadening participation of women in computing projects seem to take. The metaphor is based around the idea that computing culture is a boys’ club that is unfriendly to women. The solution is finding ways to make this club more accessible to those locked outside.

It should go without saying that we share Margolis and Fisher’s goal of increasing participation of women in STEM. That’s LilyPad’s point, after all. It it hopefully also clear that we’re supportive of, and involved in, projects working to remove systematic barriers to participation by women and other groups. That work must continue. But I also think that Leah’s work with LilyPad suggests another way forward based on addressing issues of self-selection that will affect even the most welcoming technological communities. Here’s what we say in our paper:

Our experience suggests a different approach, one we call Building New Clubhouses. Instead of trying to fit people into existing engineering cultures, it may be more constructive to try to spark and support new cultures, to build new clubhouses. Our experiences have led us to believe that the problem is not so much that communities are prejudiced or exclusive but that they’re limited in breadth–both intellectually and culturally. Some of the most revealing research in diversity in STEM found that women and other minorities don’t join STEM communities not because they are intimidated or unqualified but rather because they’re simply uninterested in these disciplines.

One of our current research goals is thus to question traditional disciplinary boundaries and to expand disciplines to make room for more diverse interests and passions. To show, for example, that it is possible to build complex, innovative, technological artifacts that are colorful, soft, and beautiful. We want to provide alternative pathways to the rich intellectual possibilities of computation and engineering. We hope that our research shows that disciplines can grow both technically and culturally when we re-envision and re-contextualize them. When we build new clubhouses, new, surprising, and valuable things happen. As our findings on shared LilyPad projects seem to support, a new female-dominated electrical engineering/computer science community may emerge.

I have a strong belief that computing can be an empowering tool and that expanding users’ control over technology is a critically important issue. Our paper argues that we should attempt to expand participation in computing by broadening the possibilities of computing, rather than only by broadening participation in extant, computing organizations, projects, and genres.

Even if computing and electrical engineering communities were perfectly welcoming (which they are not) most people (both male and female, but disproportionately female) will choose not to participate. Building new clubhouses requires creativity of its proponents and risks charges of reinforcing stereotypes and existing status hierarchies. But, executed carefully and well (as I believe LilyPad has been), it suggests ways to reach the majority of people that no "unlocking" project will ever seem relevant to.

Contribute to AcaWiki

In the process of studying for my PhD general examinations this year, I ended up writing summaries about 200 academic books and articles.

AcaWiki is a wiki designed to host summaries of academic articles so it seemed like a great place to host these things. Over the last few months, I’ve uploaded all these summaries. Since I’ve finished, I’ve continued to add summaries of other articles as I read them.

My summaries tend to be rough. I write them, run them through a spellchecker, and then post them. I don’t even reread them before publishing. I hope to improve them as I reread them over time. Of course, because I’ve uploaded them to wiki, I hope others will add to and improve the summaries as well.

AcaWiki uses Semantic Mediawiki and provides nice platform for publishing, editing, and collaboration. Although there are still ways in which the platform can be better, what is needed now is, quite simply, more contributors. I am sad to see that my summaries make up a big chunk of all summaries on the site.

So if you are a student, an academic, or anyone else who writes or has written summaries of articles or books or if you might want to do so, you should consider contributing your summaries, in whatever form, to AcaWiki. I’ve done a little work to help integrate AcaWiki and Zotero which might make things easier.

Doctoral students reading for qualifying or general examinations in particular should should consider taking notes and studying with AcaWiki. From the student’s perspective, writing summaries can be one of the best way to reflect on and learn a literature. In the process, one can create a great resource for the rest of the world. If a single doctoral student from each of twenty diverse fields of study published summaries of the 200 key articles in their area, AcaWiki would have the critical core of what is most relevant in academia. Help us build it!

FLOSS Wins

Very often, folks want to refer to both the free and open source software communities in a way that is inclusive of and respectful of groups who identify with either term. Saying "free and open source software" is a mouthful. That said, there was no been consensus on what we should do instead.

The Wikipedia article on alternative terms for free software suggests that FOSS, F/OSS, FLOSS, and "software libre" are contenders. I’ve heard all. Of course, the choice of 4+ competing alternative terms is probably worse than the problem we were seeking to solve.

In academic circles, the big debate seems to be between FOSS and FLOSS. I was always a FOSS partisan. But I’ve seen increased momentum on the FLOSS side and I’m ready to declare that FLOSS has won.

I know it makes you think of dental hygiene and I agree that it is unfortunate. It wasn’t my first choice either. But I can see where things are going. FLOSS Manuals and the folks at the FLOSS Research Group at Syracuse who launched the FLOSSHub and the associated FLOSS Papers deserve some of the credit.

If we can get over the irony of having spent so much time arguing over what was intended to be compromise terminology in the first place, lets see if we actually start talking to each other.

Principles, Social Science, and Free Software

Earlier this summer, I wrote a blog post on taking a principled position on software freedom where I argued that advocates of free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) should take a principled position because the pragmatic benefits associated with open source — "better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility [and] lower cost" in OSI’s words — are simply not always present. More often than not, FLOSS projects fail. When they survive, they are often not as good as their proprietary competitors.

Over the last year, I’ve been back at MIT taking classes, reading extensively, and otherwise learning how to act like a social scientist. My research goals, which I’m now beginning to focus on, are to help build a stronger understanding of the social dynamics in free software and free culture communities.

With a slightly skeptical view toward my involvement with groups like the FSF and my work in the FLOSS community, at least one academic tried to suggest that taking a principled position in favor of software freedom might compromise the positivist social science research program in which I am engaged. "An advocate is too biased," they said. After many months of thinking seriously about this warning, I believe that this criticism can be addressed.

After all, a principled position in favor of software freedom is a statement of how things should be, not a description of how they are. OSI will argue that open source leads to inherently better software. This statement, of course, is one that can be empirically tested and, in fact, there seems to be plenty of evidence that it is often wrong. On the other hand, the FSF’s position that software should be free is ethical in nature. One can disagree with it, just like one can disagree with any other ethical position, but it can not be proved either right or wrong — only convincing or unconvincing, logical or illogical in the context a certain set of other values that others might or might not share.

Research has shown that the vast majority of FLOSS projects fizzle. A advocate who argues that FLOSS is inherently better is left trying to explain this fact and make excuses. As a result, OSI-style beliefs can certainly be a source of problematic bias in a social scientist. However, a person who believes that software should be free is welcome to recognize that it both fails and succeeds and to ask why. A principled idealist can argue in favor of behaviors that may be disruptive, difficult, or inefficient. Indeed, Stallman has never suggested that free software will be easier or better. Indeed, he routinely asks people to sacrifice their convenience for freedom.

My goal, as a social scientist, is to understand why some FLOSS and free culture projects succeed and why many fail. I never take FLOSS’s success for granted and, in fact, believe that proprietary software may often leads to better software in OSI’s terms. Unlike an advocate who tows the OSI line, embracing evidence of the effectiveness of proprietary software is no way in conflict with my belief that software should be free. In fact, my desire to see software freedom grow becomes the driving force between trying to understand FLOSS’s shortcomings!

I am no more biased — which is not to say completely unbiased — than the person who both thinks that crime is wrong and who wants to study criminal behavior. In an analogous sense, starting out with the belief that all people are naturally law-abiding may be a problem in a way that beginning with the belief that people should be law-abiding is not. Starting from the fomer assumption, one has to explain away evidence to the contrary. Starting from the latter assumption, one can build an understanding of what drives people to obey or violate laws which, in turn, can help build a stronger society.

To me, the question is not why FLOSS will succeed. Indeed, I believe its success is an empirical matter that remains very much up in the air. For me, the question is how it might. Embracing a principled position lets us face the facts and puts advocates and practitioners in a position to devise laws, social structures, and technologies to insure that it does.