Juliane de Moerlooze
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This conversation with Juliane de Moerlooze was recorded in March 2009.
When you hear people talk about women having more sense for the global, intuitive and empathic … and men are more logical … even if it is true … it seems quite a good thing to have when you are doing math or software?
Juliane is a Brussels based computer scientist, feminist and Linux user from the beginning. She studied math, programming and system administration and participates in Samedies. 1 In February 2009 she was voted president of the Brussels Linux user group (BXLug).
I will start at the end ... you have recently become president of the BXLug. Can you explain to us what it is, the BXLug?
It is the Brussels Linux user group, a group of Linux users who meet regularly to really work together on Linux and Free Software. It is the most active group of Linux users in the French speaking part of Belgium.
How did you come into contact with this group?
That dates a while back. I have been trained in Linux a long time ago ...
Five years? Ten years? Twenty years?
Almost twenty years ago. I came across the beginnings of
Linux in 1995 or 1996, I am not sure. I had some Slackware 2 installed, I messed around with friends and
we installed everything ... then I heard people talk about Linux
distributions 3 and decided to discover
something else, notably Debian. 4
It is good to know that with Linux you really have a diversity, there are distributions specially for audio, there are distributions for the larger public with graphical interfaces, there are distributions that are a bit more 'geek', in short you find everything: there are thousands of distributions but there are a few principal ones and I heard people talk about an interesting development, which was Debian. I wanted to install it to see, and I discovered the BXLug meetings, and so I ended up there one Sunday.
What was your experience, the first time you went?
(laughs) Well, it was clear that there were not many women, certainly not. I remember some sessions ...
What do you mean, not many women? One? Or five?
Usually I was there on my own. Or maybe two. There was a time that we were three, which was great. There was a director of a school who pushed Free Software a lot, she organised real 'Journées du Libre' 5 at her school, to which she would invite journalists and so on. She was the director but when she had free time she would use it to promote Free Software, but I haven't seen her in a while and I don't know what happened since. I also met Faty, well ... I wasn't there all the time either because I had also other things to do. There was a friendly atmosphere, with a little bar where people would discuss with each other, but many were cluttered together in the middle of the room, like autists hidden behind their computers, without much communication. There were other members of the group who like me realised that we were humans that were only concentrating on our machines and not much was done to make new people feel welcome. Once I realised, I started to move to the back of the room and say hello to people arriving. Well, I was not the only one who started to do that but I imagine it might have felt like a closed group when you entered for the first time. I also remember in the beginning, as a girl, that ... when people asked questions ... nobody realised that I was actually teaching informatics. It seemed there was a prejudice even before I had a chance to answer a question. That's a funny thing to remember.
Could you talk about the pleasure of handling computers? You might not be the kind of person that loses herself in front of her computer, but you have a strong relationship with technology which comes out when you open up the commandline ... there's something in you that comes to life.
Oh, yes! To begin with, I am a mathematician ('matheuse'), I was a math teacher, and I have been programming during my studies and yes, there was something fantastic about it ... informatics for me is all about logic, but logic in action, dynamic logic. A machine can be imperfect, and while I'm not specialised in hardware, there is a part on which you can work, a kind of determinism that I find interesting, it poses challenges because you can never know all, I mean it is not easy to be a real system administrator that knows every detail, that understands every problem. So you are partially in the unknown, and discovering, in a mathematical world but a world that moves. For me a machine has a rhythm, she has a cadence, a body, and her state changes. There might be things that do not work but it can be that you have left in some mistakes while developing etcetera, but we will get to know the machine and we will understand. And after, you might create things that are maybe interesting in real life, for people that want to write texts or edit films or want to communicate via the Internet ... these are all layers one adds, but you start ... I don't know how to say it ... the machine is at your service but you have to start with discovering her. I detest the kind of software that asks you just to click here and there and than it doesn't work, and than you have to restart, and than you are in a situation where you don't have the possibility to find out where the problem is.
When it doesn't show how it works?
For me it is important to work with Free Software, because when I have time, I will go far, I will even look at the source code to find out what's wrong with the interface. Luckily, I don't have to do this too often anymore because software has become very complicated, twenty years later. But we are not like persons with machines that just click ... I know many people, even in informatics, who will say 'this machine doesn't work, this thing makes a mistake'
The fact that Free Software proposes an open structure, did that have anything to do with your decision to be a candidate for BXLug?
Well, last year I was already very active and I realised that I was at a point in my life that I could use informatics better, and I wanted to work in this field, so I spent much time as a volunteer. But the moment that I decided, now this is enough, I need to put myself forward as a candidate, was after a series of sexist incidents. There was for example a job offer on the BXLug mailing list that really needed to be responded to ... I mean ... what was that about? To be concrete: Someone wrote to the mailing list that his company was looking for a developer in so and so on and they would like a Debian developer type applying, or if there weren't any available, it would be great if it would be a blond girl with large tits. Really, a horrible thing so I responded immediately and than it became even worse because the person that had posted the original message, sent out another one asking whether the women on the list were into castration and it took a large amount of diplomacy to find a way to respond. We discussed it with the Samediennes 6 and I though about it ... I felt supported by many people that had well understood that this was heavy and that the climate was getting nasty but in the end I managed to send out an ironic message that made the other person excuse himself and stop these kind of sexist jokes, which was good. And after that, there was another incident, when the now ex-president of the group did a radio interview. I think he explained Free Software relatively well to a public that doesn't know about it, but as an example how easy it is to use Free Software, he said even my wife, who is zero with computers, knows how it works, using the familiar cliché without any reservation. We discussed this again with the Samediennes, and also internally at the BXLug and than I thought: well, what is needed is a woman as president, so I need to present myself. So it is thanks to the Samedies, that this idea emerged, out of the necessity to change the image of Free Software.
In software and particularly in Free Software, there are relatively few women participating actively. What kinds of possibilities do you see for women to enter?
It begins already at school ... all the clichés girls hear... it starts there. We possibly have a set of brains that is socially constructed, but when you hear people talk about women having more sense for the global, intuitive and empathic... and men are more logic... even if it is true... it seems quite a good thing to have when you are doing math or software? I mean, there is no handicap we start out with, it is a social handicap... convincing girls to become a secretary rather than a system administrator.
I am assuming there is a link between your feminism and your engagement with Free Software ...
It is linked at the point where ... it is a political liaison which is about re-appropriating tools, and an attempt to imagine a political universe where we are ourselves implicated in the things we do and make, and where we collectively can discuss this future. You can see it as something very large, socially, and very idealist too. You should also not idealise the Free Software community itself. There's an anthropologist who has made a proper description 7 ... but there are certainly relational and organisational problems, and political problems, power struggles too. But the general idea... we have come to the political point of saying: we have technologies, and we want to appropriate them and we will discuss them together. I feel I am a feminist ... but I know there are other kinds of feminism, liberal feminism for example, that do not want to question the political economical status quo. My feminism is a bit different, it is linked to eco-feminism, and also to the re-appropriation of techniques that help us organise as a group. Free Software can be ... well, there is a direction in Free Software that is linked to 'Free Enterprise' and the American Dream. Everything should be possible: start-ups or pin-ups, it doesn't matter. But for me, there is another branch much more 'libertaire' and left-wing, where there is space for collective work and where we can ask questions about the impact of technology. It is my interest of course, and I know well that even as president of the BXLug I sometimes find myself on the extreme side, so I will not speak about my 'libertaire' ideas all the time in public, but if anyone asks me ... I know well what is at stake but it is not necessarily representative of the ideas within the BXLug.
Are their discussions between members, about the varying interests in Free Software? I can imagine there are people more excited about efficiency and performativity of these tools, and others attracted by it's political side.
Well, these arguments mix, and also since some years there is unfortunately less of a fundamental discussion. At the moment I have the impression that we are more into 'things to do' when we meet in person. On the mailing list there are frictions and small provocations now and then, but the really interesting debates are over, since a few years ... I am a bit disappointed in that, actually. But it is not really a problem, because I know other groups that pose more interesting questions and with whom I find it more interesting to have a debate. Last year we have been working away like small busy bees, distributing the general idea of Free Software with maybe a hint to the societal questions behind but in fact not marking it out as a counterweight to a commercialised society. We haven't really deepened the problematics, because for me ... it is clear that Free Software has won the battle, they have been completely recuperated by the business world, and now we are in a period where tendencies will become clear. I have the impression that with the way society is represented right now ... where they are talking about the economical crisis ... and that we are becoming a society of 'gestionnaires' and ideological questions seem not very visible.
So do you think it is more or less a war between two tendencies, or can both currents coexist, and help each other in some way?
The current in Free Software that could think about resistance and ask political questions and so on, does not have priority at the moment. But what we can have is debates and discussions from person to person and we can interpolate members of the BXLug itself, who really sometimes start to use a kind of marketing language. But it is relational ... it is from person to person. At the moment, what happens on the level of businesses and society, I don't know. I am looking for a job and I see clearly that I will need to accept the kinds of hierarchies that exist but I would like to create something else. The small impact a group like BXLug can make ... well, there are several small projects, such as the one to develop a distribution specifically designed for small organisations, to which nobody could object of course. Different directions coexist, because there is currently not any project with enough at stake that it would shock the others.
To go once again from a large scale to a small scale ... how would you describe your own itinerary from mathematics to working on and with software?
I did two bachelors at the University Libre de Bruxelles, and than I studied to become a math teacher. I had a wonderful teacher, and we were into the pleasure of exercising our brains, and discovering theory but a large part of our courses were concentrated on pedagogy and how to become a good teacher, how to open up the mind of a student in the context of a course. That's when I discovered another pleasure, of helping a journey into a kind of math that was a lot more concrete, or that I learned to render concrete. One of the difficult subjects you need to teach in high schools, is scales and plans. I came up with a rendering of a submarine and all students, boys as well as girls, were quickly motivated, wanting to imagine themselves at the real scale of the vessel. I like math, because it is not linked to a pre-existing narrative structure, it is a theoretical construct we accept or not, like the rules of a game. For me, math is an ideal way to form a critical mind.
When you are a child, math is fundamentally fiction, full stop. I remember that when I learned modern math at school ... I had an older teacher, and she wasn't completely at ease with the subject. I have the impression that because of this ... maybe it was a question of the relation between power and knowledge ... she did not arrive with her knowledge all prepared, I mean it was a classical form of pedagogy, but it was a new subject to her and there was something that woke up in me, I felt at ease, I followed, we did not go too fast ...
It was open knowledge, not already formed and closed?
Well, we discovered the subject together with the teacher. It might sound bizarre, and she certainly did not do this on purpose, but I immediately felt confident, which did not have too much to do with the subject of the class, but with the fact that I felt that my brains were functioning.
I still prefer to discover the solution to a mathematical problem together with others. But when it comes to software, I can be on my own. In the end it is me, who wants to ask myself: why don't I understand? Why don't I make any progress? In Free Software, there is the advantage of having lots of documentation and manuals available online, although you can almost drown in it. For me, it is always about playing with your brain, there is at least always an objective where I want to arrive, whether it is understanding theory or software ... and in software, it is also clear that you want something to work. There is a constraint of efficiency that comes in between, that of course somehow also exists in math, but in math when you have solved a problem, you have solved it on a piece of paper. I enjoy the game of exploring a reality, even if it is a virtual one.