Baldur Bjarnason

... works as a web developer in Hveragerði, Iceland, and writes about the web, digital publishing, and web/product development

These are his notes

Cultural deafness and controversy in tech debates

I worry about the effects the US cultural dominance of tech has on web developer discourse. I worry about how deafness to cultural variation stifles understanding and dialogue in tech.

An honest description of a developer’s career journey of going from server-rendered HTML to SPAs and back will be dismissed as cynical and combative if the tone doesn’t match the narrow definitions of the west coast tech scene.

Attempts to critique and bring historical context into a discussion will be seen as argumentative—seen as attempts to start a flamewar—if your rhetoric doesn’t match the cloying upbeatness of your average San Francisco software startup.

We may all be writing in English, debating in English, and working in English, but the web dev scene is thoroughly multicultural even though online discourse doesn’t seem capable of taking that into account.

In many Nordic cultures combative and confrontational rhetoric is normal. We often speak in absolutes and rely on the listener to adjust the meaning based on their assessment of context.

Translated over to anglophone social media, we get seen as hostile, angry—verging on abusive.

In our native languages, we rely on metaphor and cultural references to set context and guide readers to the nuance we intended, but that’s hard to translate to the North American anglophone culture that is studiously context free.

Take that problem and multiply it by the number of non-English languages on the web. An infinite variety of misunderstandings, all with the same root cause.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a figure as controversial in tech as DHH just happens to be Danish. Nor does it surprise me that non-Anglophone voices continue to be rare among the ‘influencers’ of tech discourse, both in books and online, while at the same time they are well-represented among those who write ‘influential’ code.

The easiest way to remedy this is to simply retreat, have our own tech discourse in our own languages, but that’s also a good way to have no influence at all, globally. Or, we could just let our code speak, but that’s also a good way to lose all influence because code tends to become influential through discourse. Or through funding, which in turn you get through discourse and connections.

Web dev culture is an anglophone culture.

We can’t change that.

But maybe we should, at the very least, try and make it less American.