A.E. Osworth, author of We Are Watching Eliza Bright, discussed their debut novel about a brilliant, self-taught, woman video game coder, the industry-pervading misogyny she faces, and the resulting violence from male gamers after reporting workplace harassment. That’s only the beginning.
In conversation with Kim Wilkens, founder of Tech-Girls and board member of Charlottesville Women in Tech.
Watch the video of this event here and read the transcript below:
RECOMMENDED BY THE SPEAKERS
If you’d like to take a deeper dive into topics related to We Are Watching Eliza Bright, the following are recommended by A.E. Osworth and/or Kim Wilkens:
- Everything is Gamergate feature in The New York Times Opinion
- No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
- Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler
- Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke
- Deconstructing CS Culture with Dr. Amy J. Ko – 2021 IEEE RESPECT Keynote (video)
ABOUT THE BOOK
“Osworth offers a sharp take on the deeply disturbing misogyny that lurks online as well as a hopeful look at combatting it.” —Publishers Weekly
“Fiendishly clever, wildly engrossing, and both dark and timely, We Are Watching Eliza Bright is unlike anything I’ve read before. Osworth is a major talent with narrative tricks to spare. I devoured this book.” —Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, author of The Fact of a Body
“This brilliantly imagined novel is a first-rate thriller, but it is also a philosophically astute, deeply funny, and generous book that defies categories in all the best ways.” —Luis Jaramillo, author of The Doctor’s Wife
Thanks to our community partners for their help in sharing this event: Charlottesville Pride Community Network, Charlottesville Women in Tech, Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center at UVA, UVA Department of Women, Gender & Sexuality, UVA LGBT Committee for Faculty and Staff
JANE KULOW: Hello, and welcome to Shelf Life from the Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.
And thank you to our community partners for their help in sharing this event: Charlottesville Pride Community Network, Charlottesville Women in Tech, the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center at UVA, the UVA Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and the UVA LGBT Committee for Faculty and Staff.
A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers. Please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize with the closed captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s book, we hope you will. For details about how to buy it from a local bookseller or check out a copy from your library, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our schedule of upcoming events and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give.
Now I’m pleased to introduce today’s speakers. A.E. Osworth, author of We Are Watching Eliza Bright, is a queer, trans, and nonbinary writer and part-time faculty at The New School, where they teach digital storytelling to undergraduates. They’ve spent eight years writing all over the internet, including a stint as geekery editor for Autostraddle. You can learn more at aeosworth.com.
Kim Wilkens is the founder of Tech Girls, a founding board member of Charlottesville Women in Tech, and cohost of the Once Upon a Tech podcast. Now a UVA education doctoral candidate after years in the classroom, she is passionate about technology, education, and social justice. You can learn more at miss-bit.com.
Austen and Kim, thank you both so much for joining us for Shelf Life. Tell us more about We Are Watching Eliza Bright.
KIM WILKENS: Oh, I cannot wait. Austen, it’s so great to meet you in person and learn more about the book and the writing process and everything. Where are you right now?
A.E. OSWORTH: I’m in Portland, Oregon. So, it is nine in the morning for me. I’ve got my coffee here.
KIM WILKENS: Awesome, awesome. Well, thank you for coming here in the morning. And I hope wherever you all are out there that you will enjoy this. Please do feel free to ask questions. I have a list ready as well. I’m not great at doing multiple things at once, so I might get to your questions at the end. But I’d love to get to those as well.
So, I guess what I just wanted to start with was how would you describe your book in a little blurb?
A.E. OSWORTH: A little blurb, okay. How I would describe it. We Are Watching Eliza Bright is a fictional retelling of the events of Gamergate, set in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. We follow Eliza and her cohort of coders at a game company. But we don’t follow them with a very neutral narrator. The book is narrated mostly by a collective of men’s rights activists, incels, and gamers that occupy Reddit. And there is a second collective narrator that appears later on in the book, and that second collective narrator is a queer and trans art commune that lives in a warehouse in Queens. So, it could not be more different. That’s how I would describe it.
KIM WILKENS: Doesn’t that sound fascinating? So, for those who may not be familiar, what is Gamergate, and why was that an important sort of starting place for this?
A.E. OSWORTH: So, Gamergate—the short answer is the sort of systematic and targeted harassment of women in the game design industry. And that’s the short answer. The long answer to what is Gamergate is—Zoe Quinn published a game called Depression Quest that got reviewed on Kotaku in totally normal ways. Zoe Quinn also broke up with their boyfriend right around the same time. And that boyfriend went on Reddit and posted a giant screed about them, and that sort of sent the Reddit people after them in really heinous ways. In fact, part of that screed was about Zoe Quinn sleeping with a Kotaku journalist in order to get a positive review. That is not how that review occurred. No such review exists. And under the guise of ethics in gaming journalism, these sort of militarized nerds began harassing Zoe Quinn. That expanded. That expanded in particular to Brianna Wu and Anita Sarkeesian, but it did not stop there. It expanded to essentially anyone who wasn’t a cis straight white guy in the gaming industry.
And I remember—so I was geekery editor at Autostraddle. And why it was important to me is I remember watching it happen—watching it unfold—because my job as geekery editor was to cover nerd culture with a queer lens. And the queer community has a pretty large history with these tactics of harassment, with stalking, with doxing—which is the releasing of someone’s personal information online. That happens to queer and trans folks with an alarming amount of regularity.
And I remember watching this going this seems to be a bigger deal than people really understand. And I was pretty constantly surprised that people weren’t talking about it more than they were. And fast-forward to 2016, where President Trump’s political strategists talk about actually using these tactics and using these people. So obviously it is not just about games, right? That’s why it was so important to me to do this book in particular. Because it really touches every part of life in this country. It is about what it means to be a woman in the workplace. It’s about misogyny. Gamergate really is about everything.
KIM WILKENS: Yeah, it’s sort of the festering underpinning of so many things. I know for myself it was Anita Sarkeesian that I was following. And she loves video games. I love video games. But she was just putting out there some of the problematic elements of video games and just got completely trashed. Yeah, it was fascinating and horrifying to watch from that perspective.
So, are you also a gamer, or do you enjoy video games? Because video games play a pretty big role in this.
A.E. OSWORTH: So, what I like to say is I have difficulty with the word gamer. And I shouldn’t. And here’s why I shouldn’t. I have difficulty with the word gamer because it calls up the characters of my collective narrator. Because when people say gamer, what they are thinking of are these hyper-masculine in this particular nerd way. Like fairly violent, etcetera. And why I shouldn’t have an issue with the word gamer is because the more folks like me who just really love—I love narrative. I’m really agnostic about how I explore stories. And there is something really, really appealing to me about games in particular because games allow you to impact the story as it is being told, and that’s really cool. So, I love games. I love video games, even though I am not super dexterous. So, any time you put me with two joysticks, man. I tried to play Dragon Age once because my best friend is like you would love Dragon Age. And she is correct. I would love Dragon Age. If I could do anything but run in a circle staring at the sky, I would love Dragon Age. But I’m not super dexterous. But I still love the stories of video games. My real heart is also in tabletop. I don’t have to do any fiddly stuff with tabletop. I just roll dice.
KIM WILKENS: Yeah. It’s a whole serious gamer or not, right? I don’t like that either. So big things that come through are diversity and inclusion and lack thereof, but your characters are pretty diverse. How did you make decisions about that?
A.E. OSWORTH: So, in particular, are you talking about Eliza and her two friends Davonte and Suzanne?
KIM WILKENS: Mmm-hmm.
A.E. OSWORTH: So how I made decisions about that. I knew that it was going to be what my main antagonist calls the Diversity Squad, where it was essentially these cherry-picked minorities in tech that were this group of people. Because as I mentioned, I covered nerd culture and technology and wrote a column called “Queer Tech” for a really long time. And one of the things that I saw in covering is that tech companies and media companies and anyone in this startup space would hire one of each minority and be like, “Here we go. We’ve created the diverse workplace.” And that was something really intentional that I wanted to portray. Is that like that is who these people are in this company. They hired like one of each. So that was where it started.
Then as I kept writing, one of the themes that I wound up discovering that I wanted to explore is each character’s intersectional marginalized identity and their relationship to safety. Because Eliza is a white woman—a straight white woman. And ostensibly, in the land of marginalized identities, this should be the safest one. This should be granted the most access. This should be granted the most protection. And her safety actually is really conditional. It exists up until the point that she makes the men angry. So that was sort of like a big thing that I wound up exploring as well.
KIM WILKENS: Yeah, that’s fascinating. Because I think me being in tech—I’ve sort of experienced that all along. So, when it became this other narrative—the Karens and all that—I’m like, oh, okay. So, there are a group that gets to experience more privilege without the sort of negating factor of being in tech.
I want to talk about the narration. When I first got the book, the first few pages I’m like, oh, I don’t know if this book’s for me because I’m not sure where it’s going. Because that’s the narration that is the Reddit crew or the Game Collective voice. And then you have the—is it Sixsterhood?
A.E. OSWORTH: Sixsterhood, yeah.
KIM WILKENS: Okay. How did you come up with parameters? Were there rules for how each of those voices should happen?
A.E. OSWORTH: Yes. The way that I particularly work—in the world of books, there are planners and there are pantsers. Planners outline everything and have all those rules at the beginning. Pantsers just go and figure out what those rules are. I am a pantser. There are rules—I did find them. And the rules that I wound up with are, for the Reddit Collective, they speak in really short sentences, and they argue with themselves. They’re not really sure which thing is correct. It is I don’t think a spoil to say that the Reddit Collective can’t see our characters at all times. So, they don’t always know what is going on, and they make some educated guesses. And the mechanism that they use to make those educated guesses is the Or operator. This happens or this happens, or this happens. And the code fires off if any one of those operands is correct. So, they are my Or operator in Boolean logic. My And operator is the Sixsterhood. They’re operating from a place of abundance, where the Reddit narrators are operating from a place of scarcity.
And so, the way that the Sixsterhood works is when Eliza encounters the Sixsterhood, they can actually always see Eliza. But that doesn’t mean that they have any better understanding of what’s going on in her head. So, the way that they operate is this is true and also this is true and also this is true. And all of those operands are true at the same time. And so that’s my incredibly nerdy thing that I stumbled upon as I was writing the book.
I do want to come back and touch on that when you started reading, it was like, “Oh god, is this for me?” Because the Reddit narrators are pretty—they say some vile things.
KIM WILKENS: Yes. Right off the bat, I’m like, “Oh.”
A.E. OSWORTH: That was intentional too. Because I think one of the problems with the manosphere, as it has been dubbed, is that we refuse to look at it and that there is this sort of place online where because it is so heinous to read and experience and watch that it goes largely unobserved. And any time where you have those sort of homogenous groups that go completely unobserved is when things start to escalate.
So, what I was doing with the Reddit narrators—I spent a lot of time reading Reddit to like osmose that voice. Like I said, I’m a pantser. I did not have those rules when I started. What I was trying to do was just analyze how these folks are talking to each other in these short, clipped sentences, in this argumentative way, with all of these occasional slurs. They use a lot of really disparaging terms for women. And how are they talking exactly and trying to like port that in. And I sat there and read it all. It was kind of hard.
KIM WILKENS: Yeah, I don’t go there because I don’t want it.
A.E. OSWORTH: So, I actually was thinking about—I saw Maggie Nelson speak on a panel years and years ago where she talked about sort of the problem and also the reasons why we would witness violence in our work. Like why we would turn and look at it directly. And there are problems with it, and there are pros about it too. And one of the things that I really wanted was to pull our attention and say like we actually have to look at this because ignoring it has not worked. It has grown in problem to ignore the misogyny that we’re just sort of allowing. We’re allowing this space where young white men are radicalized online. And it’s the same reason why I was like I shouldn’t have a problem with the word gamer because the more of us that are actually present in that space, the more the tide turns there, and the more that that really becomes a minority (albeit a vocal one). And so, it was really intentional for me to choose to stick with the Reddit narrators for a long time.
That said, the Sixsterhood erupted out of like I handed a draft of the book in, and I was like what argument am I making about community to only have those guys? And what argument am I making about the internet to only have the Reddit narrators? And that’s why the Sixsterhood exists. And it also gives us a little breathing room.
KIM WILKENS: Yeah, and I was to exist exist. So, let’s make that happen.
A.E. OSWORTH: Well, so actually the Sixsterhood—this is a fun thing to know. The Sixsterhood is based on a real place.
KIM WILKENS: Oh, yeah?
A.E. OSWORTH: Yeah.
KIM WILKENS: Cool.
A.E. OSWORTH: It took inspiration from a place called The Octagon in San Francisco. It no longer exists. I slept in their elevator shaft for a weekend while I was there.
KIM WILKENS: That would become important for those that read the book.
A.E. OSWORTH: What I like about that is the knowledge that that actually is an alternative available to us in the world. That if we are really, really beaten down by not just the Reddit narrators, right—like this is not a problem that exists only online. Misogyny did not get born online.
KIM WILKENS: Right, it just got amplified.
A.E. OSWORTH: Yeah, exactly. Like a megaphone. It’s faster, and it’s louder. If we are really beaten down by that, there is this alternative that exists where you can build community in this really intentional way, and it actually was real. It is actually a possible thing that we can do in our world to decide to build our own—whatever it looks like to us—queer art commune that lives in a warehouse. That might look different to every person, but like what is the space that will really like uplift you so that you can go and look at those Reddit spaces, so that you can show up to sort of combat these really harmful, oppressive ideological structures.
KIM WILKENS: Yeah. And it might be a place you retreat to, but you still have to go back out. Yeah, very interesting.
So, it was so interesting. Throughout the book, you highlight like this little choice. And they could be very little choices or big choices. But just it like—the story turns on a dime with these little things all along the way. Like if that didn’t happen, this whole mess wouldn’t have happened. How did you come up with those choices?
A.E. OSWORTH: So, I set a rule for myself. My chapters are super short. That’s really intentional because I’m saying all these highfalutin things, but baseline this is a thriller. This is fun to read. It’s supposed to be suspenseful. And so, I have these short little chapters to like to ratchet the tension up and up and up. But my rule for myself is that everybody had to change, or the circumstances had to change drastically within the space of each one. So, if I hit a chapter and nothing changed, I was like, cool, I have to redo this. And so, it wound up creating this like, oh, it hinges on someone walking past at the moment that—at the end of a sentence, and they misinterpret it.
KIM WILKENS: Yeah, yeah.
A.E. OSWORTH: But isn’t that like what life feels like?
KIM WILKENS: It is. It is. Except this time, you’re sort of getting that inside little, oh, look at this. Pay attention to this. And that just reminded me of something else. You talked about the narrators not really knowing what’s going on, but they do have a lot of information.
A.E. OSWORTH: They sure do.
KIM WILKENS: Do you want to talk about privacy, data, all that? You’re definitely incorporating that sort of into the book.
A.E. OSWORTH: Heck yeah. I will absolutely talk about that. So what Kim is referencing is that the narrators obviously cannot see inside Eliza’s head, and they sometimes cannot see her in physical space. But there is a major theme of doxing in this book and having one’s personal information released all over the internet for everybody to see. And so, they have really granular information about her and about people around her. Her allergies were one of the things that comes up. Where she lives is another.
KIM WILKENS: They even had some of this info before the doxing, right?
A.E. OSWORTH: Yeah. They do. Because—and I wanted to sort of display that for a couple of reasons. First, that happens. That is real. And the thing about choosing to engage with Gamergate in a fiction space instead of in like a journalistic or reporting or like nonfiction—like having to tell exactly what happened—is that I can sort of draw in everything to highlight some really important stuff that did happen. And I can do it sort of like all in one go, in a way that feels emotionally true even if it is not like, cool, this one person experienced these linear things. So that was part of it.
The other thing—and I actually haven’t really gotten a chance to talk about this at all, so thank you for this question. The other thing is that they have a lot of information, but they also still are surprised by her. Just because someone gets violated in this way doesn’t actually—like it doesn’t actually touch her. And they don’t actually have a piece of her. And it was really important for me to display that as well because, like I said, the queer and trans community has a history of being doxed, stalked, harassed in this way that is meant to scare. And this sort of expanded in Gamergate and now sort of happens like largely more regularly to more different kinds of people.
And if this happens to you, it is awful, and it’s scary, and I am very sorry for you. But they also ultimately don’t have you. They don’t have what makes you you. And that was really important for me to display here as well. There is an element of privacy.
KIM WILKENS: Yeah. Although there are versions of things that—sometimes I’d come upon a chapter and be like, “She did that? Oh, no, no. Okay, that was—I got got again.”
So, I showed you that I had made a bunch of notes, and one of the things I really appreciated—we already talked about a lot of them—is sort of the intersection of tech. Sort of the good parts and the bad parts and the ugly parts. You highlight all the parts. So, I’m going to go into some more text. But the thing that really hooked me is, after I kind of got through the first pages, then we hear from Eliza, and she’s going through imposter syndrome. And you just describe it so well. And I’m like, okay, I’m in. I like totally get that. Is that something you’ve experienced?
A.E. OSWORTH: Oh, man. Imposter syndrome—I have been told recently that I have to make friends with my imposter syndrome because it is not going to go away, and I still need to somehow find a way to function. So, yes, it is absolutely something that I have experienced.
What’s really interesting—and I am not in tech. I wrote about tech for a long time. I wrote this book that features technology really heavily. But I am in certainly a writer space. Like that is my industry. And I still feel those things. This is not something that’s unique to tech. What’s been really, really interesting is the marginalized people around me, but in particular the women around me, have come to me and been like, “I had to put this down for a little while because I’m not in tech, but this is too close.” Like it is too real.
And in particular, I’ve had a couple people—there’s a moment where Eliza experiences a bias incident. Her friend Suzanne tells her not to report it. And in particular, I have had a lot of people be like, “I had to put it down for a couple of days when Suzanne says not to report it.” Because it’s too accurate. It’s too much like what we experience. Same with the imposter syndrome. It’s too much like what we experience.
And that is also a thing that is important for me not to turn away from—to actually witness in the book. Because she feels this imposter syndrome, but the conceit of this game company that I made up is it is the hottest place to work. It is super successful. Everybody is starry-eyed about it. If you’re a super nerd, it would be like working for Wizards of the Coast. That’s what it would feel like to do. And she’s still feeling it, but she’s still there. She’s sitting in that seat, she got that promotion, and she’s still there, and she’s still doing it, and it was really important to me to make sure that we looked at that.
KIM WILKENS: Yeah. And I really appreciated that. So, another thing that came up was sort of coded language as another barrier that gets put up. I’m thinking especially of, “They have their own language. It’s like feral twins.” Two of the male coders that have worked together for a while.
A.E. OSWORTH: To be perfectly honest, that moment—the I do not understand what people—like I can see people communicating on a level that I do not have access to. Like that is really—like I said, I am a person who is adjacent to tech. I covered tech. I wrote a lot about tech. And I’m in a completely different industry. I had a really hard time accessing the level of communication that is going on. That I just am like there’s a frequency that I am not tuned in to here. And to be honest, how opaque that is is a major barrier for anyone who is not traditionally in the space. And I say traditionally in the space. And if I were being honest, traditionally in the coder space it should be women. Because that is who coded on those first big supercomputers.
KIM WILKENS: And we’re all in the tech space, so.
A.E. OSWORTH: Yeah, we cannot opt out of that tech space. We are all in it.
KIM WILKENS: Yeah, I appreciate that because I think that gets used so much. Like just as badges of honor and stuff. And also, Eliza’s back story was so fascinating because she was into games as a girl but was told this is a boys’ game, and her parents wouldn’t support her in playing games because that’s not for a young woman who’s going to be going to college. And I know that still happens.
A.E. OSWORTH: Yeah. It sure does. But that was sort of the strange, gendered experiences. Like I am not a woman, but I was socialized as a girl. So, some of those are ported direct. Some of Eliza’s history in games—that chapter in particular. I was just like, cool, I’m just journaling at this point.
KIM WILKENS: Yeah, and to me it’s so frustrating because especially I think a lot of adults discount games in their importance because it seems like playing. And you learn so much when you’re doing games: collaboration, strategy, things like that. And if the boys are the only ones doing it, they’re learning some skills that I feel like the girls do need to be learning.
A.E. OSWORTH: The thing about play—and we’re talking about kids in the chapters where they’re kids right now. But to be perfectly honest, I feel like we discount play not only when we’re thinking about education of young people but in our own like adult life education as well. You have like hit a particular heart topic for me. Like I’m also an instructor. I teach creative writing in a lot of different places, and I teach digital storytelling at The New School. And my whole pedagogy is a pedagogy of play. Because the thing about play is evolutionarily that is how we learn. We are not really different from other animals in this way. And so, to take that out as an opportunity, we’re taking out a huge mechanism for how we write information in our brains.
And it can be—like you were talking about just what you learned from playing: collaboration, strategy. But it also is—like I think about—the first thing I wrote in this book was the endgame scene at the very beginning, where we meet everybody’s characters first. So, everyone has this sort of alter ego inside the game that they play at. And that was the first thing that came to me. So, I met their characters first. And the thing about play and the thing about games is that everyone is playing through something. Everyone has made certain selections, certain decisions about that character that are something that they’re crunching on in the back. So, it’s not even just strategy. It’s not even just collaboration. Eliza has made a lot of decisions about what it would be like to move through the world as someone who’s really traditionally feminine. Whereas Suzanne has made a lot of decisions about what it would be like to move through the world—her avatar has gorilla arms and wings and is barely human. And so, what is it like to move through the world as this sort of like monster—this sort of like genderless, androgynous being. They have two different concerns, and they’re playing through those concerns just by creating the characters they create.
And what was interesting was I saw their characters first and then got to reverse engineer who they were from how they showed up in the game. I was like, cool, this is what they’re thinking about this, and this is what they’re thinking about. And as we go through the book, some of them tweak their characters. Some of them change their characters based on what they are crunching on in their subconscious at that time.
KIM WILKENS: Yeah, yeah.
A.E. OSWORTH: So, it’s also social. You learn so much more from playing than I think we give credit for.
KIM WILKENS: Yeah, and that brings up another thought of real life versus game life. You know, versus being online and how they bleed into each other.
A.E. OSWORTH: Yeah. The only time “in real life” is used has got scared quotes around it. Because the thing is it’s all real life, right? The consequences aren’t imaginary in any of these spaces. And if the consequences aren’t imaginary—if the consequences aren’t fake—then it’s not fake life.
KIM WILKENS: All right. So, here’s another place where maybe some people had to put down the book: the weaponizing of HR against women.
A.E. OSWORTH: Oh, man.
KIM WILKENS: Yeah, that was—there was some interesting things there. And just recently, somebody tweeted about how the very systems that we’ve created to protect women are often turned back on them, and that definitely seemed to be happening here.
A.E. OSWORTH: Well in particular, my opinion is that HR is not created to protect anybody but the company. And that is what I wanted to display here. The institution will never love you. And so, what would it look like—the weaponizing of HR in this circumstance—I feel like it left more questions than it answered anything. Which is like what would it look like to actually have this be handled with a sense of justice. Like what is the actual solution here, rather than just firing somebody? And I don’t know the answer, actually.
KIM WILKENS: It seemed like there was a version—the conversation seemed like a good idea on the face of it, but it’s had so many problems. Not the least of—yeah, go ahead.
A.E. OSWORTH: Well, because the mechanism is still created to protect the company. It’s not created to protect the individual worker.
KIM WILKENS: Right, and it doesn’t take into account the power dynamics.
A.E. OSWORTH: Yup. “Conversation.” Having a “conversation.” There is one person that is still your boss, and you are going to that person and having a “conversation.” You’re still going to that person as a subordinate.
KIM WILKENS: Right. Or even a peer. Because sometimes it was peers, but it was still somebody who’s been there longer is doing the thing that is egregious or whatever.
Another thing you get into is degrees of sexism and misogyny.
A.E. OSWORTH: Listen, it’s all the same underpinning, so we have to address the underpinning. But I think you’re in particular talking about the character of Delphine.
KIM WILKENS: Mmm-hmm.
A.E. OSWORTH: Yeah. My cool girl.
KIM WILKENS: And I’ve definitely heard that, right? “Well, that’s not as bad as this.” Or, you know, yeah.
A.E. OSWORTH: And playing like the ranking game.
KIM WILKENS: Mmm-hmm.
A.E. OSWORTH: I spent a long time on that character, and she changed a lot. Because I wanted to sort of show that dynamic as well, where there are people who still feel protected by the patriarchy and will do a lot to excuse it. Because that is, to me, one of the frustrating things about moving through work and moving through tech spaces, is that you don’t necessarily have an ally where you think you have one. And you need that person in there, and they’re just like, “But this is not that bad. I get this all the time, and I just like keep going.” And that person doesn’t seem to understand that, well, yes, that’s a problem. That this happens to you all the time is a really big issue, and I wish that were not happening.
KIM WILKENS: And you’ve been sort of incultured into it.
A.E. OSWORTH: Yeah. And so why don’t we try to solve it? The thing about Delphine, who makes those kinds of arguments, who says oh it’s just a joke—it’s not that bad—is that she is also being conjured up by the Reddit narrators. So, I had to—for me—a thing that I will never tell—figure out sort of like what she says, what she believes, what she actually says. And the Reddit narrators have a vision of her that may or may not be entirely true.
KIM WILKENS: Right. That’s the thing throughout this book. Is you’re like what is actually happening?
A.E. OSWORTH: That’s one of the ways it’s a thriller, right?
KIM WILKENS: Yeah, for sure.
A.E. OSWORTH: Because the thing that you think might be happening might be reversed.
KIM WILKENS: Right. And how they can be the same facts or data or whatever it is and have such different outcomes.
A.E. OSWORTH: Well, yeah. Because there are moments where you know exactly what is happening. And I am talking in particular about like the G Chats. Those are, in the narrative, pulled directly from the computer. So, we get a transcript of some things. We know exactly what the conversations are in some ways. And I think about, oh gosh, what was the book about big data that came out a couple years back? The sort of bias of big data book. I cannot think. I’ve sat next to the author of that, and I cannot remember her name, nor the title of the book.
KIM WILKENS: Weapons of Math Destruction?
A.E. OSWORTH: Yes. It was Weapons of Math Destruction. And there’s a huge part of that about like the biases that we port on to data while we’re collecting it but also while we’re analyzing it. Both/and. And so, there are some touch points where we as the reader know exactly what happens, and so do the Reddit narrators know exactly what happened. And the way that the Reddit narrators interpret those things is much different than the way the reader might, and it is much different than the way that the conversation participants would interpret what went on in that conversation.
KIM WILKENS: Yeah. Right.
A.E. OSWORTH: So, bias of big data was certainly on my mind.
KIM WILKENS: So, at the end—no, where is this? Sorry, there is a point at which you talk about almost this power, especially the sort of the creators of tech have is accidental.
A.E. OSWORTH: I mean, I would like to turn that question back on you. Do you find that to be true?
KIM WILKENS: Yes. And another thing that I recently watched was Dr. Amy J. Ko had a keynote about deconstructing CS culture. And she highlights the nineties’ CS culture and how it was a sort of safe space for white men that had been bullied and Asian men that their parents had high expectations and autistic men that like rules and stuff. And how this sort of rule-bound, objective way of thinking was their safe space. But because tech brought a lot of changes to our world and basically has taken over, they got all this power. And now they’re in this bubble that can’t sort of communicate with the rest of the world. And I thought this book really highlights that.
A.E. OSWORTH: I think a lot about the term disruption when I think about that sort of accidental power. And almost the gamification of consequences. I love play, and sometimes the consequences are real. So, a lot of that accidental power that I’m portraying in this book is about like, cool, we know you can disrupt it. Have you thought any about whether or not you should?
KIM WILKENS: Right.
A.E. OSWORTH: And I think a lot about—oh gosh, a couple years back. I cannot remember the startup’s name where they reverse engineered a bodega but took the worker out of it. With the sort of automated bodega. And I was like this is not what feels like a community. So, you’ve disrupted this, but should you have? When we’re really truly honest with ourselves about how we want to walk through the world, is this really what you want? And the answer—because of the kind of objective, rule-bound safe haven that was—is sometimes, yes, that is the world we want. But it is completely bubbled off and disconnected from everybody else.
KIM WILKENS: Yeah. So, one of the things—I loved this book and how it brings up all these issues in a way that is digestible and also interesting and compelling. But I work with young people, right? So, I’m trying to get more girls interested in computer science and technology, and I often have some issues of like am I sending them into this—what am I doing? Should I really be doing this? And how do I prepare them? So, I’m just wondering if you have thoughts about—obviously I can’t recommend this book, but.
A.E. OSWORTH: This is an eighteen-plus adventure.
KIM WILKENS: Yes. But what are ways that we can help young people be disrupters that they can be and find their space in tech?
A.E. OSWORTH: A couple of thoughts, actually. I made the joke, oh, this is an eighteen-plus adventure. When it comes to high schoolers, I actually think high schoolers really know a lot more than we’re giving high schoolers credit for. Any high schooler I have met in the last five years is like real hip to this stuff. I mean, they are on the internet.
KIM WILKENS: Exactly. Anybody can get to this.
A.E. OSWORTH: Yeah. And likely they have experienced some of this, if not watched someone experience it. So, I make the joke it’s an eighteen-plus adventure. I actually think that that’s a little more porous. I think it depends on the kid, when it comes to high school.
But I have taught in middle school. A real different population. I’ve taught middle school boys. A) I also think that is true of middle schoolers. That if you build the scaffolding, that folks can get a lot higher. But not this book, no. But I think being sort of selectively candid about one’s own experience is probably the way. And then basically saying but it doesn’t actually have to be that way. We actually made it that way. Yeah, the power is accidental. Yeah, no one thought about whether or not we should disrupt this thing. But we actually have agency over the culture of this.
So, when you are thinking about entering into one of these spaces, yeah do it with your eyes open. It’s really hard. It is tough out there. And also, if you are one of the people making the spaces, you have the power to change what the ethos, what the culture, what the priorities of that space are.
Even with all of the baggage that comes from having a marginalized identity—like even with all of that, there is strength in numbers, which we see in the community aspects of this book and which I really, truly believe. And there is always the option, as we’ve got the Sixsterhood teaching us, to make your own space.
KIM WILKENS: Yes.
A.E. OSWORTH: So, yes, you are sending young people out into the world. But it’s not just tech, right? No matter what industry any of these kids go into, they’re going to experience some of this because we are looking at it as a microcosm for the greater world here. Misogyny is everywhere. This kind of workplace dynamic is across industries. So, there’s not really an escape, but there is hope in that you can make your own spaces and you can decide, okay, in this space that I am creating, what is the priority, and how am I going to treat people, and how do I want to walk through this world?
KIM WILKENS: Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, we are out of time. This has been so great. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and sharing the book.
A.E. OSWORTH: Thank you so much. Thank you so, so very much.
KIM WILKENS: You bet. So, I’m going to read my little outro script. It’s time for us to wrap up. Thank you, Austen and everybody who tuned in. Please consider buying their book—I can highly recommend it—at your local bookseller or through links on VaBook.org. You can also check out our future virtual events from the Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. All right.
A.E. OSWORTH: Thank you, Kim.
KIM WILKENS: Bye.
A.E. OSWORTH: Bye.