Justice Is Blind (Submissions)

This post has been kicking around for a while. It started as an argument for blind submissions in tech conferences. At that point I was still assuming that tech conferences had submission processes, which they apparently don’t:

Claiming there was no/little screening (truthfully or not) means, I suppose, that we’re supposed to think of what happened as an accident. Except that conferences, and the things that happen on their stages, aren’t accidents. They’re the result of a deliberately designed selection process. You might even call it social engineering, but I guess people will only notice/buy that if the process succeeds in leveling the playing field or something crazy like that.

My first career was in academia, a field that has soooo many conferences it’s ridiculous. Academics have been flocking to conferences since tech was in short pants. Since tech was a gleam in Ada Lovelace’s eye. We’re talking, like, two centuries, at least. So for about ten years, there, I went to a lot of conferences.

When I changed careers and found out tech had conferences, too, I assumed I knew how they were run. You submit a talk idea. The reviewers don’t see anything other than the proposal content because all identifying information gets removed. That’s how strongly ingrained the blind submissions practice was in my previous career. It’s one of the few things academia does right.

As it turns out, tech had its own ideas about how to run conferences.

Tech people I knew would get rejected and grumble, “I guess you have to know the right people.”

“Huh?” I’d reply. I mean, sure, knowing people might affect results in any process. But no, what they meant and assumed (correctly) was that the “submission process” was basically just inviting your friends. And it didn’t seem to bother them that there was no chance whatsoever that the submissions were anonymous.

I was floored.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are non-blind conferences everywhere. They’re called “invited conferences” for that reason, so people don’t waste their time applying – or attending, if they’re not into hanging out with your lovingly collected social circle. And if you want to curate a conference of superstars, fine. Do that, but spare everyone the pseudo-democratic charade. Even Machiavelli would agree with me on that. Or just invite superstar keynote speakers, to bring the star power, which is what academic conferences do (inasmuch as there is any star power, I mean).

To my mind, it takes some serious cojones for a conference to ask for submissions without a stated and enforced policy, while still expecting to be treated as a serious professional event. And I don’t even understand what system is supposed to underlie this complete lack of system. Meritocracy? Except that if you really do believe in meritocracy, it should compel you towards blind submissions, rather than away from them. It’s blatantly obvious that we all have unconscious bias. This isn’t up for debate. We’ve all heard about the (literally) blind orchestra auditions, yes? The studies showing that the exact same resumé is treated differently when the speaker’s name is left on? The gentleman with the gender-neutral name who discovered this fact, unpleasantly, when he forgot to put Mr. on his resume?

Now multiply that by being able to see skin color, affect, and then compound that by just choosing the people who “feel right” (viz. how we all choose our friends) and you’re on pretty shaky ground for claiming meritocratic or systemic anything. Well, I guess it’s a system for ensuring no diversity whatsoever. For guaranteeing more of the same. For putting together an old – or this case young – boys’ network. At least the old boys have the worldliness to use double entendre, for Christ’s sake.

Taking care of our collective, unconscious bias requires that you not just invite your friends to professional events. It requires, in short, an actual process. One that is blind. It’s that easy. Make it a blind code review, or a blind pitch review or app idea review. You get the idea.

No, blind submissions aren’t perfect. When applying, you’ll be judged solely on your ability to write a good pitch (or good code or graphics or data viz or whatever) and sometimes that doesn’t pan out into a great speaker. But you know what? That’s FINE. Plenty of shitty speakers already get selected based on their personal connections. And yeah, anonymizing things is a pain in the ass. Unfortunately, even Git can be problematic in this regard, and you might even have to appoint a human anonymyzer. It’s probably the best way.

You may think it’s inefficient, but I now will gently remind you of the concept of the Greater Good, which might be worth some hassle. If that doesn’t convince you, how about supersmart physicist-turned-systems-expert Rhonda Lowry, who said, and I quote: “Diversity isn’t touchy-feely. It’s mathematical.” As in, mathematically proven to improve the odds of your favorite entity’s survival and thrival. But diversity doesn’t just happen, because it’s not the default of ours stupid primitive monkey brains. We all (again, unconsciously) tend to prefer people like ourselves. We must actively fight against this damnable, inexplicable love for homogeneity. (Plus, and this should be obvious, sameness is incredibly boring.)

As grad students, a friend and I ran a conference. Of course we did blind submissions! There was no question about it. We rejected two professors (a big deal in such a hierarchical profession) and found out only when we had to send the rejection notices. The professors weren’t happy, but we were, because the process worked. We got a damned good mix of people, from all different levels and a few countries, including a neuro-atypical person. And we had a damned good conference, and a damned good time, particularly when bringing our diversity to the Broken Spoke the last night of the conference.

Think of it as playing people roulette, if that makes it more exciting. Or think of it as ensuring hybrid vigor for your field. But really, do something different. You know what they say about doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results? Yeah. That.

Speaking of which, as much as I dislike how tech conferences are run, I’m not saying I’d rather be at an academic conference. Far from it. I still really love tech and the people in it. But I’m still disappointed by its entire approach to conferences, though. Lots of room for improvement.

And of course, if there are any conference that do enforce a submissions process, I’d like to know about them. Otherwise, I’ll just keep waiting. I have time, and plenty of coding and writing to do while I wait.