Going to Work in Mommy's Basement
June 19, 2018
Jun 19, 2018
11 Min read time
From laundry to meal prep, apps tend to mimic maternal care. Is this good for women?
This essay is featured in Boston Review’s summer 2018 print issue Once and Future Feminist. Order your copy today.
In February 2016, the Internet buzzed with news that Roosh V—a pickup artist and creator of the anti-gay, anti-feminist website Return of Kings—appeared to be hiding out in his mother’s basement. Life imitates meme: the readiest insult to sling at such men—that they live in Mommy’s basement—turned out in this case to be true. Roosh V’s violent rhetoric really was compensating for a lack in the real world. However, the troll in Mommy’s basement is no joke; he is an emerging cultural and political figure, and Mommy’s basement—or its workplace analogue in the world of tech, a theme to which I will return—is an increasingly significant incubator for conservative ideas.
The technology that comes out of Mommy's basement will never liberate Mommy from the basement. It is about control and the maintenance of power.
Of course, we must not lose sight of the fact that when we flip on the light switch in Mommy’s basement, we also find Mommy. The retreat of Mommy’s basement depends upon the devalued labor of caring associated with Mommy—not necessarily a specific mother, but “the Mother” in the psychoanalytic sense of attentive care feminized by virtue of its very diminishment. Indeed, the privilege of escaping responsibility for how much one’s care costs is a defining characteristic of masculine power. It is one of the ways patriarchy works.
The grown white man in his underwear in Mommy’s basement is the poster boy for a new identity category, the gender separatist. A composite sketch gathered from his browser history reveals a twenty- to thirty-year-old disenchanted male and video-game addict who participates in men’s rights discussion boards on sites such as Reddit and 4chan. He is perhaps an incel, having committed himself to the male abstinence movement, or else an adherent of the misogynist pickup philosophy espoused by men such as Roosh V.
A more sophisticated caricature depicts a misguided but articulate misogynist, Ivy League–educated and well versed in feminist theory. For him, the entry of women into the workplace is a feminist plot that has devalued the labor of men and created war between the sexes. Suddenly the office, boardroom, and bedroom are all terrains too difficult to navigate safely. For fear of rape allegations, he cannot even blow off steam by having sex with a woman. For the men of this “sexodus”—as alt-right darling Milo Yiannopoulos dubbed it—it is never the labor laws, a flawed economy, or the structural inequalities of free market capitalism that have created lean times and a precarious future. Rather, it is feminists, and, more recently, immigrants as well.
One can joke that the men of the sexodus can console themselves with games, porn, blogging, vlogging, and coding—efforts to program a world that cannot dispose of them. But I want to caution against such a simple understanding. The men of the sexodus know something about technology and gender that is worth examining. Consider this comment from Yiannopoulos:
The rise of feminism has fatally coincided with the rise of video games, internet porn, and, sometime in the near future, sex robots. With all these options available, and the growing perils of real-world relationships, men are simply walking away.
Women are situated here as simply another technological tool in this long line of media objects. And, now that women (as technological tools) have gotten a bit too out of hand, the newer, more containable models provide a seemingly better fit: images that do not talk back, love robots that will not complain. Or, if they do, they can be updated, reprogrammed. If women do not want to fulfill their positions within the patriarchy, the argument seems to go, then so be it—there are other technologies that will. David Levy, author of Love and Sex with Robots (2007), favorably suggests in an interview, “When you have a robot around the home whether for cooking or for sex, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have a chat with it?” We can see in these comments a deep understanding of the power of technology on gender, coupled with a hope that new technologies will distribute intimacy and care more amenably and flexibly than most real women do.
The alt-right likes to refer to feminism as a cancer unto the social. The feminist is the faultiest of technologies in an otherwise long line of technologies (“Mommies”) that have been designed for taking care of a male-dominated world. In other words, feminists are useless or uncontainable technologies, like a vacuum cleaner that has lost its suction or a dishwasher that keeps leaking.
In the summer of 2017, James Damore made headlines when his Google internal memo leaked. It outlined how the biological differences between men and women make diversity-based hiring problematic. Yet Damore’s defense of tech as a naturally male space helps us to orient our critique. Peek inside the workspaces of most successful tech companies and you will find ping-pong tables, napping pods, and bottomless snacks. That is, these spaces have a striking resemblance to Mommy’s basement. Indeed, Google’s official policy for its Mountain View headquarters stipulates that food must be within 200 feet of its employees at all times. And Google is not alone in offering napping pods; Uber does the same in its offices. Capital One Labs, the bank’s experimental software firm, goes further, incorporating themes of childhood basement adventures into its office design, building in nooks and crannies that employees can climb into to retreat.
The term “post-mom economy” surfaced to capture this moment when Uber (“Mommy, drive me”), TaskRabbit (“Mommy, clean my room”), and GrubHub (“Mommy, I’m hungry”) emerged.
What kind of work is done in this “coder’s cave” of antisocial techbro culture? What kind of world gets programmed from a position of uncomplicated safety and abundance?
About three years ago a funny quip began circulating on social media that the gig economy was now mostly composed of Mommy apps. Business Insider suggested that twenty-something techbros were wasting their talents designing technologies and programs for things they wished their Mommies still did for them: driving, cooking, cleaning, laundering. Newsweek even ran a similar story under the headlines read “Silicon Valley Needs Moms.” The term “post-mom economy” emerged to capture this particular moment in tech(bro) culture when Uber (“Mommy, drive me”), TaskRabbit (“Mommy, clean my room”), GrubHub (“Mommy, I’m hungry”), and LiveBetter (“Mommy, I’m bored”) emerged. But to suggest that these apps are designed to replace Mommy misses a key point. These services do not replicate, reproduce, or replace Mommy. Instead, they extend the maternal mandate to all other care providers and expand the realm of consumption. The labor associated with Mommy merely attaches to new bodies and figures not usually associated with Mommy, while the goods and services associated with Mommy’s care expand. In other words, the issue with Mommy is not just who is doing this labor, but the demands for this sort of labor in society.
What is wrong with that? Why wouldn’t everyone benefit? This is, after all, paid labor, the thinking goes. Now rather than Mommy at home cooking, we get a rugged cyclist weaving through traffic with his backpack of delivery. Rather than Mommy’s minivan, we have an entrepreneurial Uber driver, cast as a businessperson with a shiny new car. Rather than Mommy with a mop in one hand and a grocery list in the other, there is a TaskRabbit delivering groceries while another scrubs the floor.
Yet these gig workers are remotely accessed via logos that hide the very same personal histories, struggles, and precarious conditions that have pushed them into gig work in the first place. The gig economy is predicated on the valorization of laborers who are hustling, entrepreneurial, and innovative. But the shallowness of this praise is reflected by the fact that it is only doled out to those who are making money for the gig economy’s apps: this praise has certainly not been showered on mothers or those who give maternal care when they are hard at their work. Nor has the labor of conventional taxi drivers, deliverymen, or restaurant dishwashers in jobs analogous to gig services, but which predate the gig economy, ever register as suitable for the hyper-professional, class-mobile discourse spewed by gig apps.
Thus they reveal a problem that goes beyond a matter of gender and diversity in the tech world. The classed and heteronormative obsession with work–life balance, efficiency, and time management displayed by Mommy’s-basement apps suggest that one can escape patriarchy or gendered labor in an instant—one just needs the right app! But this propaganda obscures the inescapable realities of care work that so many women, people of color, and precarious workers undertake out of survival. A Mommy’s-basement world forecloses the possibility of a reconfigured technological future that is not based on exploiting the labor of others. And it co-opts the political potential of care as a category of feminist organizing.
Mommy’s-basement apps are telling in that they reveal that misogyny and racism in the tech industry will not be solved by diversity-based hiring and the inclusion of women alone. Scholars such as Safiya Noble, Sarah T. Roberts, and Marie Hicks have done important work in highlighting how the history of technology and technological designs are deeply implicated in upholding racism and misogyny. We might add Mommy’s basement to this mix. That these apps emerge out of Mommy’s basement can explain why the classed labor of gig work seems to escape recognition. Because it is Mommy’s devalued labor, it can be packaged and sold as labor not worth doing oneself. Because it is Mommy’s otherwise devalued labor, it has been repackaged and sold to prospective gig workers as an enterprising and innovative system of assembling and modulating work rather than old-school care labor.
Building Mommy into our devices reflects a fear of her departure. This fear, coupled with the fear of leaving Mommy’s basement, reflects the fact that, for many men, the dependence on Mommy’s care is hard to shake. And if Mommy cannot or will not provide that care anymore, perhaps a new machine can—or, if not the machine itself, a marginalized other summoned via machine. Thus the post-Mommy economy of Silicon Valley dispenses Mommy without dispensing of Mommy, while more deeply entrenching neoliberalism’s exploitative relationships. Simultaneously, this arrangement allows—encourages—app users to disengage from the social world or even think of what a sustainable life means for others.
What is patriarchy other than antisociality anyway? But it is exactly the ruse of harmless escapist media and impotent retreat that enables misogyny to guide those at the helm of the tech industries. Tech is not antisocial after the fashion of a quiet loner minding his own business; tech is antisocial because it is inimical to all that is incompatible with itself. Working with tech is never about minding one’s business. Following from Marshall McLuhan, we might say that technologies are environments that are inherently social, in which all of social life unfolds. But we must correct this sort of universalist notion within the tech industry and recognize that technologies are environments that are inherently social—at least, all that will fit. Our media technologies set the parameters of what is possible. Technologies alter conceptions and experiences of time, space, distance—as well as gender and social difference. Technologies alter what it means to be human and what it means to be in relation to one another.
The grown white man in his underwear in Mommy’s basement is the poster boy for a new identity category, the gender separatist.
The role that gender plays in tech is poorly understood in a myriad of ways. Raising the topic will almost always elicit responses about women in the tech industry. Or insiders will say something about how technology is a tool that different kinds of people just use differently or have different types of access to. Thus the notion of “gendered technology” may be taken simply to gloss the variable access to technological resources ostensibly produced by gender. Such assumptions invigorate the belief that the Internet can be an emancipatory technology for women, LGBTQ people, or other marginalized populations, as though it were a blank slate they can configure to match them perfectly, hand to glove.
A different version of “gendered technologies” is the one created by marketing execs, in which objects become gendered through design and promotion. An iPhone is made pink, for example, or is said to be adapted to women’s bodies in some way (though there is no consensus about what women’s bodies “want”: smaller devices? larger? rounder, perhaps?). In some cases, there is a related backlash, in which technologies will be critiqued precisely for how they are not made for women’s bodies, such as the pacemaker which never took her heart into consideration. Such responses call attention to an obvious paradox at the core of patriarchal society: if it is going to insist on the naturalness of gendered differences, then why do so many technologies actually ignore the differences between women’s and men’s bodies? Because it is a fallacy. The technology that comes out of Mommy’s basement will never liberate Mommy from the basement. It is about control and the maintenance of power.
None of this will be corrected by the current frantic wave of inclusion in the world of tech. That is too often just about showing good face. It is not enough. This is not to say that tech is not full of subversive actors who are organizing and pushing for a more equitable technological future. The industry is not a monolithic enterprise full of only techbros—but the future depends on more than representation, it depends on designing media environments that are aware of the social and how the social is reproduced through care. Accounting for gender and diversity in the tech industry means contending with the normative regimes of care built into our technologies. It is not enough to remedy the fact that women are being sexually harassed at Uber. Something altogether different and better than Uber must also be created. Mommy’s basement has been and will continue to be a coveted venue for misogyny. But those who dwell in Mommy’s basement can also be evicted. The first step is to serve notice that the rent owed Mommy is overdue.
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June 19, 2018
11 Min read time