thoughtwisps One commit at a time

the tableflip club

We are told to lean in to get a seat at the table. But who built the table? Who decided how many seats there are around it? Who designed the structures that support it?

A few days ago, the AI Now institute published its report on the diversity crisis in AI - opens a PDF file. Among a wealth of material, it contained an interesting passage about the work of Sarah Banet-Weiser,

As she [Banet-Weiser] describes it, “the inclusion of women becomes the solution for all gender problems, not just those of exclusion or absence. It is, of course, important to have bodies at the table, but their mere presence doesn’t necessarily challenge the structure that supports, and builds, the table in the first place”

The phrasing - the extended metaphor of the seat at the table, which the gospel of Lean In tells us to desire - remained with me. It echoed back to 2015, when someone started a tumblr called table flip dot club. “Women are leaving your tech company because you don’t deserve to keep us around.”, the manifesto begins. It goes on to describe what is essentially a big fuck-you to the politics of the Lean In movement- it’s a table flip movement. We’re done with bargaining for the smallest corner seat at the table, we’re flipping over the table and starting over.

It was a co-incidence that this same turn of phrase found its way into the AI Now Institute’s report in the form of Sarah Banet-Weiser’s words. In all of this discussion about getting more diverse voices at the table to build large data hoovering systems, we’re not stopping to ask who built the table and why? Who is keeping it propped up and for what purpose?

When we make an argument for diversity at that table, we should also be talking about the table, who built and why should we seek their approval to join the table.

This is what I am hoping the next generation of movements for inclusion in the technology industry will achieve: not just helping diverse folks get seats at the table, but rebuilding the table completely from scratch.