The age old nature versus nurture debate presents itself to me as a question writ large on a giant billboard at the side of the road. Orr, my eighteen year old son zooms by on the way to the rest of his life. Four months ago he left for college. What part of this curious, creative, earnest, effort avoidant young man is a product of the upbringing we provide him in organic Berkeley? What part is simply his true nature shining through. Nature verses nurture was presented to me in a segment of the Hidden Brain podcast that I’d been listening to on my early morning bike rides to give me something to think about. Pod-host, Shankar Vidantam, is a thoughtful storyteller with an incisive mind and matter-of-fact discipline.
Today he discussed sex and gender, and to what extent our genes or our upbringing form the basis of identity, personality and ability. He set the frame for a science-based discussion with the brouhaha caused by the recent firing of a Google engineer James Damore who posted a memo to an internal message board arguing that women may not be well represented in tech because they are biologically less capable of engineering. His firing made him a cause celebre for the “nature” crowd. He took umbrage in the science that shows that women are simply different to men and claimed that he was innocently acknowledging undeniable differences to better identify solutions to the technology gap. The “nurture” people countered with science of their own.
First up was neuroscientist Dr. Deborah Son who has shown that testosterone masculinizes the brain. For counter-point Vidantam talked with historian Jo Paoletti who has been keeping track of baby fashions to show that assignment of pink and blue to little girls and boys is actually quite random. Finally Lise Eliot’s neuro-plasticity studies are cited to support and nature AND nurture position. As I listened to what felt like a futile back and forth, it struck me is how directly the design consciousness framework that I’ve been working on illuminates this intractable debate.
Design consciousness, in a nutshell, suggests that design practice is the expression of an evolutionary instinct we acquired while hunting and gathering on the African savanna. By our own creativity we adapted ourselves to our environment, and our environment to us as a sort of short-cut to Darwinian evolution. Our long climb from primate to person, Ardipithicus to Homo-designer, has been a co-creative story between our nature and the culture we have created to make our lives safer, more abundant and more pleasurable. Design consciousness arises when we wake to ourselves as a creator species able to use our tremendous technological prowess to design the world of our dreams or at least the one that we can best imagine.
Arguments about sex or race or any other facet of our socialization where we are confined within a fixed box presumed to have been made for us by a higher power, or evolved by nature, out of our reach, all miss the point. We have always had a large hand in making ourselves the way that we are. It doesn’t make sense to argue about how we are made, or even how we will evolve. Rather we are waking to the possibility that we can make ourselves, and the society we live in any way that suits us. Sexists aren’t sexist because they mistakenly believe that women are different from men with regard to their ability to write code, nurture babies or fix cars. They are sexist because they insist that there is something sacrosanct about the sex and gendered differences we have co-created so far and we should preserve them whether we like it, or not. How might we re-design gender so that every one of us has the opportunity to live a life of dignity and creative, generative fulfillment, however that fits the individual?
Not only is gender a social construct that we can remake anytime we want, but sex is too. So is work, jobs and the social roles we all play. It makes no sense to say that women aren’t well disposed to working in the tech industry because it assumes that the tech industry, where all the well paying and powerful jobs are, is itself fixed and the skills that were employed at its foundation will continue to be needed in perpetuity. The tech industry would be nothing without the supposedly feminine inclinations to empathy that it takes to shape technology so that it serves people well, and does no harm.
It is insulting and frankly, shortsighted, that the only qualities allowed for in the normative view of the tech industry are mechanistic and binary. This leaves out the nuanced values that I hold dear as a designer – harmony, ease, delight, comfort. As a designer who has been a close observer of the tech industry since I entered it in the 80s, there is no doubt in my mind that the tech corporations that have embraced softer qualities for their products have created the lion’s share of market value. Apple is an obvious example with the touchy-feely success of its products, from the smiling “hello” of the Macintosh computer, to the iPod and iPhone that have feminized technology by Dr. Son’s definition – by turning computers into a fashion accessory for keeping up with your friends every moment of the day. Facebook isn’t a tech company as much as a place to hang out, socialize and share selfies and health tips.
Neuroscientist Lise Eliot summed up our capacity for change by design. “What we can do is we can say, what kind of society do we want to have?… In our society, we’re always striving for greater equality, and so we need to think about how to maximize the brain potential of both genders as opposed to slot them into these limited roles that really don’t allow them to express the full range of humanity”.
It is by design of the world we would love to live in, and not estimation of the status quo in the terms of the past, that we will transcend the darker impulses of the human spirit. I want to live in a world that is diverse in every measure of our humanity, rich in qualities and blended across boundaries of definition. Life is simply richer that way. Nature has taught us that it is more resilient too.
So let’s create the world that we intended for my son Orr and the generations that succeed him; where power jobs are well done by people with loads of estrogen, and where men are able to show that we care too.
Read my Design Consciousness manifesto HERE.