The Habitus of Tech


„The Habitus of Tech“ is an attempt at dissecting different social structures, networks and social status within the broad and only loosely defined field of tech. It’ll combine some sociological concepts – like habitus – with cultural and societal critique, but I’m trying to explain everything, so that it’s not too advanced to understand. I might turn this into an article series, since it’s such a vast and complex topic.

What is a Habitus?
I’m using the definition of „social habitus“ as introduced and developed by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In the context of his works, the habitus is learned and incorporated early on, and closely associated with social status and structure. It includes, but is not limited to, the way we dress, talk, what kind of things we like, what we read, what words we use, whether or not we speak in dialect, what food we prefer, even the way we walk or present ourselves. Bourdieu sometimes presents habitus as something that can hardly be changed, even when shifiting in social milieu and status. I disagree with him there, I think there are instances in which habitus changes, or, better: evolves. Anyway, let’s not get too deep into sociological concepts at this point. Yet.

Why examine the tech scene?
Short answer: because it’s about time. Tech culture, nerd culture and media culture are transforming rapidly yet remain remarkably exclusive to many groups. At the same time, the tech scene often still thrives on the false assumption of an effective meritocracy, justifying the status quo and building up new entry hurdles at the same time. In my understanding, a lot of this is coming from a certain kind of habitus that is closely tied to social class and status. Not to forget intersectional feminist and anti-racist theories here, this is just another perspective that I’m hoping to combine with the other works so many great people did over the last years. And last but not least: because it’s fun. As a sociological network researcher, I looooove analyzing different cultures and milieus.

Now that we’ve clarified some things, let’s get into it. The first thing I want to write about is the re-writing of history with regards to access to computers and internet.

„When computers entered children’s rooms – Access to technology and the Re-Writing of History“

One thing I noticed in 2015 was that many people shared their stories on how they got into nerd or tech things. They shared how they used their parents‘ computers to access the internet by modem, play their first computer games and chatted in forums or chatrooms. Reading these stories – as Felicia Day for example shares in her book „You’re never weird on the Internet – Almost“ – something stuck out to me. The timing.

In one report I read, someone wrote that at the time computers entered children’s rooms, they started using the PC they had access to excessively. In 1993. I was confused and read on, but they really did mean 1993; and Felicia Day reports similar access levels to a computer at an early age during the early 1990ies. Time and time again this timeline is being shared as a typical evolution of the nerd, hacker, coder or gamer: early 1990ies, access to a computer through close family members, time and financial resources to access the internet frequently. Amazing.

(click on picture for source)

(click on picture for source)

Amazing, because that’s not at all how access to computers and internet broke through to mainstream and many many people. Most people, in fact. 1993, when according to more popular and visible figures of tech and geekdom, „computers entered children’s rooms“, only 22.8% of households in the US and only about a fifth of households in Germany owned a personal computer. For the United States, the number of computer owning households broke 50% only in 2000, more than half of the households had internet access only in 2001. Looking at the numbers more closely, another pattern stands out: the richer the household, the more likely to own a computer early on. White households, married couples, and households with higher education were more likely this household was to own a computer during the 1990ies. In short: your social status and milieu determined your access to internet, computers and technology for decades, and actually, it still does.

Changing the narrative is dangerous

The problem with the sharing of stories about how early computers and internet was accessed without even as much as aknowledging one’s family’s / one’s own privilege is that it sets up the bar unreachably high for everyone from a different social background. Taking more than two decades of experience (in 2016) with this technology as a pre-set standard excludes many, many people who only had their first shots at using a computer in school or at work in the early 2000 years. It not only shifts expectations in a way that are unattainable for many, it also works as a signal to people from the same social status: we are true(r) programmers, hackers, designers, gamers – because we’ve been using this technology for 20-30 years (depending on who you ask). It’s a chance to not-so-subtly demonstrate your social status – your habitus! – and berate anyone else for getting into this area of technology so late.

Unfortunately, this habitus and accompanying mindset of „we’ve been here first and thus more knowledgeable/experienced/capable“ is still broadly visible and rarely challenged. And it’s actually not something that comes from a perspective in which you rely heavily on data or other quantitative measures – something often associated with tech – but is rather the stereotypical bourgeoise argument when it comes to… basically anything. It’s something that can be observed in academia as well as politics, or any other area that is mostly occupied by representatives of a certain social status with larger capital access. I think it’s something that has become so closely attributed to tech culture since the „early adopters“ were privileged enough to not even question their „time = experience = knowledge = merit“ logic.

This is also visible in other contexts: when talking about making tech spaces, conferences, clubs or work environments safer and more welcoming to marginalized groups, people often counter with sentences like „we tried this in 1989 and it wasn’t necessary“. Of course it wasn’t. Data clearly shows that back then, you probably encountered mostly white, male, educated and well earning users, so of course introducing policies to open up would have been obsolete or even unsuccessful. Now that our society has found ways to grant more and more people access to technology, things have changed though. This way of deflecting is basically just the most common bourgeoise thing that could happen. Yawn.

So let’s challenge this narrative. If at all, it’s safe to say the computers only entered children’s rooms in the last decade – not least through the introduction of smartphones, the immense rise of social networks, and the growing affordability of computers and internet access. Let’s hear more stories of how people got into technology from different social backgrounds. And let’s stop acting like ancient bourgeoise classists, shall we?