AlterConf

This weekend I went to New York City for a conference on inclusivity and representation of under-represented groups in technology. It was an amazing time.

As I mentioned in the last post, there was an intention by my mentor and I to meet up before all of the activities began.

The conference began on the Saturday. We arrived at Microsoft and checked-in. Being my first time, really, in a high-tech building. I took in the lobby room. Clean, marble, minimalist infrastructure. There was a metal gate between the front-desk and the elevators, which contained a small slit to slip in the barcoded ticket you received upon check-in.

The moment you keyed yourself in, the elevator automatically determined which floor you belonged to, and would light up a red led number against a square, glassy black partition in the wall. I was stunned by the sophistication of it.

When we arrived at the conference, we came up to one of Microsoft’s meeting floors. There was a large conference room nestled in the layout and we sat ourselves in preparation.

Ashe Dryden, the organizer of the event, and a few other folks were testing out the sound system and to ensure everything was ready for speakers. I looked around and noticed on the right-side of the room was a large projector with live-subtitles of whatever syllable, noise, and/or articulation of feelings that went into the microphone at the front. There was a stenographer! And I quickly found out there was a live interpreter as well.

The event began. A lovely introduction, acknowledgement’s and declarations that I could not believe I was hearing. It was just a year ago that I attended LaraCon, an interesting mix of tech-humanism ideas presented by many eloquent, respected developers. One talk in particular, left Kentucky with me. It was done from a woman by the name of Samantha Quiñones, in which she spoke on management, workplace culture, and intersectional feminism as they should be: unrelated. Now, to attend a full-day of it, I was grateful and even more, filled with optimism.

The first talk began. Christina González introduced her title, Opening the Internet: Looking Beyond English Dominance. It covered the issue of using only latin set characters in most websites — she began with a breakdown of the demographic of language speakers on the internet. As expected, a large percentage of users were english speakers, she said. But an equally great portion are Spanish, Chinese, Korean and more. Yet, the majority of programs can only print in unicode-8 (utf8), naturally, causing great errors with automatic printers when given an unrecognized keystroke, the inability to express accented names in registration, or the constricted the expressions of whole alphabets that aren’t represented at all.

This subsequently sprouts examples of human adaptations and group ingenuity. Nonetheless, in spite of this colourful invention to make do, many groups shouldn’t have to learn another style of writing just to conform to the latin alphabet. Should there be more characters that were widely used and accepted, it would have influence on expression in every language, even, the dominant english.

I was incredibly fascinated with this talk. The feeling of broadening of my understanding, the complexity; the interconnectedness and agency that we, as technologists, have for pushing for inclusivity in UX, design, and presentation, and ultimately expression continued throughout the day. As presenter after presenter came on to talk about the technological milieu from the eyes of those whom are often unconsidered, I felt emboldened.

I wouldn’t begin my description of this conference with “inspiring”, because I don’t believe that was the feeling the presenters wanted to leave you with. It was more so, urgent. Especially represented by Emily Roslin’s evocative talk on the The Cult(ure) of Strength. She warned us prior it would be a heavy talk.

To be honest, it’s difficult for me to discuss. It was so raw, perhaps by equivalence, as is the nature of mirroring, it disturbed something raw inside of me. She said many things in that talk, and I think plenty of people in the audience left with different feelings of depth, relation, wide to large. For me, it was the picture of what courage and strength looks like; what we pay attention to when we see a person of success. Her quote, that has found a permanent home in my mind, “Minorities are only ever remembered for the latest achievement.”

It makes me wonder of the hollowness in a body of work when that body is not accepted (read: not white, cis, male). What implications does that have for those, unlike me, who is privileged enough to contribute to open source (where contributions are public and may be widely accepted)? Or even, what does it mean for those with greater ambitions, and would rather distribute their talents into one weighty project, than distribute time and effort towards something that may not even benefit them, in terms of the picture of one’s career.

After meeting up with the incredibly, lovely, Francis Gulotta, Myles and I finished off the weekend with a good discussion on representation. What it implies, what design flaws it might as a contagion for imposter syndrome (refuted by later-stage blind reviews), the limitation of outreach, but the grand potential. We concluded that I would come up with a talk to send to JSConf EU and apply as a speaker there.

There are a lot of conferences out there. Plenty of them filled technology trends, personal anecdotes, or a compelling list of virtues to enhance so that one will become successful. It just so happens, last week I was discussing this idea with an old professor: the rampant culture of “mind” hacks, productivity, habit-building, and how they may just be another narrative to compel one to think and behave more like a white, cis, middle-class male. It meant so much to attend AlterConf, and hear from those that did not slice their identities to fit this mould, did not urge me to, and spoke wholly from their experiences and revealed their ever-important ideas.