The Brogrammer as Free Speech Martyr

The tech world produces a lot of genuine rebels. Pax Dickinson isn’t one of them.

Business Insider's Pax Dickinson's bio photo.
Pax Dickinson

Courtesy of Business Insider

Frank Zappa super-fan Ben Watson once defended Zappa’s repugnant “Jumbo Go Away” (“Jumbo gotta go/ Or your eye will get black/ When I give you a smack”) by saying, “This is a document of other people’s behavior.” But without any context, a mere portrayal of macho attitudes doesn’t make any critique. It just reiterates and reifies them.

That’s about where Pax Dickinson stands with his tweets that recently got him fired as chief technology officer. After his dismissal from Business Insider (with which Slate has a content-sharing partnership), Dickinson wrote an essay for Medium in which—in addition to promoting his startup Glimpse, an “encryption based ephemeral picture messaging app”—he claimed his tweets were satirical. Stuff like: “aw, you can’t feed your family on minimum wage? well who told you to start a fucking family when your skills are only worth minimum wage?” And: “can’t use ‘slutbag’ anymore? where the hell am I supposed to keep them then?” And: “Would like to see anyone who thinks technology has a man problem stop using any technology made by men. Good luck with that.” Edgy!

But to get an even sharper idea of Dickinson’s gall, simply consider this: In his earnest Medium apologia, he proudly writes, “I’m happy to point out that for the last three years and until yesterday I reported to a woman”—without admitting that his tweets are why she quit. On Thursday, his Glimpse co-founder Elissa Shevinsky repudiated his tweets and quit the company. Shevinsky is possibly the only person who could have convincingly defended the notion that Dickinson is a “performance artist” with a “faux-brogrammer alter ego,” in the words of one of his supporters. She did not, yet he still invoked her to defend himself. His “faux-brogrammer alter ego” would have tweeted, “Look, I even work with women! I worked with this woman until today when she up and quit for no reason, the crazy bitch!” Presciently, Shevinsky wrote an article just last week, “That’s it—I’m finished defending sexism in tech.” Any thoughts on it you’d like to tweet, Pax?

It’s not a crime to be an asshole, but neither is it a crime not to want an asshole working for you—or worse, you could work for him, since Dickinson’s type populates the executive realm in greater proportion than in the programmer world. Many tech geeks fancy themselves outlaws of one sort or other: the fearless nonconformist who dares to question the status quo whether it offends you or not. But there’s a big difference between a genuine risk-taking activist like Aaron Swartz and a self-flattering poser like Dickinson or TechCrunch Disrupt judge Elias Bizannes, who said that anyone who criticizes the makers of joke app Titstare is “as bad as the majority of American’s [sic] who thought Al-Qaeda was in Iraq and hence one of the stupidest wars of recent memory, all thanks to taking things hook line and sinker due to the media.”

Given such self-righteousness, it’s unsurprising that Ayn Rand is popular among the posers, because she made faux-outré superiority complexes seem alluring. Sure, Dickinson may enjoy such controversial fare as “Howard Stern’s Negligee and Underpants Party” and he may have pierced his penis—which inspired him to ponder “whether it has made it easier to get women (the curiosity factor) or more difficult (the fear factor)”—but that doesn’t make him Noam Chomsky.

I imagine that on some level Dickinson knows this, which is why he drags Glimpse, his new startup with “NSA-proof encryption,” into his apologia to bolster his cred. It’s no matter that the NSA’s encryption-breaking powers were only revealed days before his dismissal, and so Dickinson’s claim had at most hours of analysis behind it. “I’m living proof that … the intersection of social and cryptography is so relevant to freedom of speech and expression right now,” he writes. “My opinions may be controversial but it should be obvious from my reputation that I won’t back down to NSA bullying.” (Shevinsky also said that he is “one of the few people with the chutzpah to stand up to the NSA.”)

But if this were really true, Dickinson would have placed Glimpse out of reach of the United States government, as, for example, iVPN has has in Malta. “IVPN is a registered private company in Malta where logging customer data is not mandated. Should laws change, we’ll move,” iVPN says. In a world where genuine secure mail providers like Silent Circle and Lavabit are shutting down due to government pressure, Dickinson’s braggadocio is empty posturing, all the more offensive because he’d rather make a quick buck off a flashy startup than actually stand up for the principles of privacy and free expression that he’s invoking. But then he’d have to leave all that Silicon Valley startup cash.

His posturing, in fact, is not so different from that of National Security Agency chief Keith Alexander. Many have called for Alexander’s resignation amid the ongoing NSA scandals—maybe he should join Glimpse! A recent Foreign Policy article reveals that he’s quite the tech wannabe, having used taxpayer money to build a Starship Enterprise–like “bridge” for his command center, complete with doors that go whoosh. (A better-versed tech geek would have had the doors dilate.) He brags about his computer game skills, yet the game he plays is the Sudoku of desktop apps, Bejeweled Blitz—it’s like a self-described card shark telling you he’s really great at Old Maid. Alexander evidently fooled people who know even less about tech than he does into thinking that he was a superhacker to whom ordinary rules don’t apply—he can collect all the data he wants and no liberal’s gonna stop him!—but he’s playing the same empty provocateur as Dickinson. The rebellious poser is indifferent to how he rebels; the rebel just needs to believe he’s different and therefore better. And if the rebel gets rich and powerful in the process, all the better. He is still a rebel, and now more people can see how cool he is.

Zappa at least went fully independent, founded his own record label, and generally owed nothing to anyone. Patton Oswalt could never hold on to a corporate job either, but unlike Dickinson, Oswalt is funny enough to make a living being amusing. It takes a very special sort of entitlement to play the bad boy and think you can be CTO of Business Insider, as though the right to be a walking HR nightmare were enshrined in the Constitution. Dickinson’s own political theory, however, is designed to make him look cooler than his foes:

Under democracy, a simple emotional argument inevitably defeats a complex logical argument. Hence, feminism. —@paxdickinson, March 23, 2013

No, Pax. Hence, you.