Friday, May 28, 2010

Discrimination by Default

Lawrence Lessig says that code is political - code has values. (16) Code also has binary values. 1010101010101. In the most literal of senses, the bits of information that make up all code are built on dichotomy: on/off, 1/0. Just like black/white or male/female. No room for indecision or shades of grey.

Zero has been troubling for sometime now, most famously in the paradoxes of Zeno of Elea who is credited by Aristotle with creating dialectic argument. How can being be many? How can something be nothing? And was zero a number or a separation? Although some form of zero has been in use for thousands of years, including an early form of binary similar to Morse code created by the Indian scholar Pingala, the Persian mathmatician Al-Khwarizmi was the first to define zero as a numeral 1500 years ago, and rules governing the use of zero first appeared in Brahmagupta’s book “The Opening of the Universe” in 628AD.

Although Leibniz calls zero “an amphibian between being and non-being”, (17) he also hoped it would convert China to Christianity through the power of union between zero and one, nothing and god, seeing as how everything falls in between. If this is indicative of the potential power of 1s and 0s then believing them to hold the power to permanently ascribe gender is nothing unusual.

The power of binaries at the deepest level continues a discourse of difference between male and female, rather than a unity or trinity or something else altogether. As Baudrillard said about language, meaning is derived as much through absence as presence. We understand dog to mean ‘not cat’. Signs are situated within a web of meaning and the ‘not’ is as important as the ‘is’ for our understanding. This powerful gravitational force prevents us from achieving escape velocity from the gender well.

Evelyn Fox Keller as a practising scientist writing about gender, notes that the dichotomies that encode our thoughts limit our thinking. For example, no one searched for mobility in the ovum because of the assumption that male/female correlated to active/passive. The binary mindscape we inhabit is inhibitory.  (18)

And in the digital world, our Weberian bureaucracy, we are compelled to answer to our sex over and over, regardless that it is either neither here nor there or immediately obvious under the circumstances. Default values. The iron cage of rationalization has enclosed us with the ‘irrationality of rationalization’. (19)

The International Standard ISO 5218, Information Technology - Codes for the representation of human sexes, specifies:
0 = not known
1= male
2= female
9= not applicable
“No significance is to be placed upon the fact that “Male” is coded “1” and “Female” is coded “2”. This standard was developed based upon predominant practices of the countries involved and does not convey any meaning of importance, ranking or any other basis that could imply discrimination.” (20)

This standard is, by the way, used in several national identification numbers, including China and France. Many nations use other techniques to separate citizens numerically by sex. eg. Bulgaria uses odd national identification numbers for females and even numbers for males, Estonia reverses the polarities. 

Our constant self identification as ‘gendered’ epitomises Foucault’s notion of governmentality. The sadness to me is the disappearing Ms. Ms is resistance to being defined by marital status, which means loss of self possession and second class citizenship in many countries. One or two small letters that signify a large battle.

When I google Ms, I get many results for either Multiple Sclerosis or Microsoft. I have noticed in recent years that many database forms have dropped Ms out of the list items. When I’ve insisted on being Ms, it frequently makes no difference. Even the Hon. Carmel Tebbut, my local female MP, has ignored my request to be Ms and sends me Mrs letters.

As I teach web and database design, I realise just how little thought goes in to the creation of default fields. All the effort goes into the tricky parts like the relationships. Not the easy bits like what sex or title someone is.
As Lu-in Wang says in her recent book about race and law, “Discrimination can occur by default because discrimination is the default.” It is a self fulfilling prophecy. (21)

Discrimination is biopolitical. Code is political by default not just design.

(The Internet Architecture of Gender / to be continued....)

16. Levy, Steven. “Lawrence Lessig’s Supreme Showdown” Wired Magazine Archives. Retrieved on 27 May 2010 from

17. Padua, Sydney. “2D Goggles” Retrieved on 27 May 2010 from

18. Keller, Evelyn Fox. “Gender, Language and Science”. (1996) Templeton Lecture Sydney University. Retrieved on August 15 2009 from 

19. Ritzer, George. “Sociological Beginnings: On the Origins of Key Ideas in Sociology”, (1994) McGraw-Hill: New York pp154

20. ISO 5218:1977 International Organisation for Standardisation Retrieved on 15 April 2010 from

21. Wang, Lu-in. “Discrimination by Default” (2006) New York University Press: New York


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