Does the headline “How to Explain Bitcoin to Your Dad,” seem ridiculous to you? I hope so, because the headline “How to Explain Bitcoin to Your Mom,” somehow passed muster with the New York Times recently.
If that’s not crazy enough, the explaining to Mom was done via cartoon panels, rather than a traditional story. Obviously, there are lots of graphic novelists doing sophisticated work. But it’s hard not to see the message, in this case, as, “We have to make Bitcoin super-simple – like a cartoon! -- to make it accessible to our most unsophisticated readers. Like, you know, moms.”
Granted, Bitcoin, an electronic proto-currency, can take some explaining. But the supposition that those who haven’t had children are automatically more qualified to pontificate upon it than those who have is ageist to the core. Youth trumps a lot of things, but when you’re trying to explain a somewhat complicated technical matter, youth is of no import whatsoever. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there, a generation younger than I, who can explain Bitcoin perfectly well, to their parents or to anyone else. But their age has nothing to do with it.
Then there’s the tired old trope that women – moms, particularly – are especially and hopelessly out of the loop. That’s as infuriating as it is unoriginal. “Mom jeans,” and “mom haircuts” have long been part of the popular lexicon, and neither is a compliment. My favorite online riposte to the Times’ Bitcoin headline comes from @lisamacintire on twitter: “My mom was a futures trader, thanks.”
As a finance and technology reporter who now writes mostly about entrepreneurship and small business, I’ve spent my fair share of time trying to explain new technologies, and I can personally attest that confusion over the new new thing transcends gender. My favorite and most exasperating moment was over a Thanksgiving dinner in the early 90s, when a frustrated male in-law asked me, “What’s with all this dot-com crap?” My relative was under the impression that when he typed “broken septic system” into Yahoo or Alta Vista, the computer was somehow raiding his neighbor’s collection of home repair CDs. Not quite.
Now, it’s Bitcoin. Among the many people who don’t “get it” is my husband. Yet his lack of understanding (or caring, frankly) isn’t going to be reflected in the popular media anytime soon, nor is it going to be attributed to his gender or the fact that he has kids. He’s in sales, and he works mostly with professional audio hardware and software. That takes a fair amount of tech savviness, and he can say “dongle” with a straight face, which I’ve never quite managed. The reason he doesn’t understand Bitcoin is simply that right now, it’s irrelevant to his life. When I explain it to him, he only listens with one ear.
Ironically, in this one particular case, he fits into the most pernicious stereotype about moms: That technology is meaningless to us, and that innovations in the business world don’t apply. Consider, just for a moment, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer or Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who are both moms, and it’s clear just how ridiculous this is. I’m sure Mayer and Sandberg have wiped their share of snotty noses – as have countless dads – and yet somehow, they still have the brain power to run huge tech companies. I’m pretty sure they don’t need anyone explaining Bitcoin to them.
Yes, those of us with newborns often spend a few months, or maybe a bit more, in a sleep deprivation-induced haze. After my kids were born, I still managed to read the news every day – but just barely. Although it may not feel that way, the truth is that for many professional women, baby boot camp lasts just a few months. What few men ever stop to consider is that that’s about the same amount of time many Wall Streeters are required to take as so-called “garden leave” in between gigs. No one assumes that, while on garden leave, these alleged masters of the universe suddenly lose all interest in business or commerce.
Plus, moms have professional reasons to keep up with or create the latest tech iterations, be they fads or game-changers. Not just Mayer and Sandberg, but Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman, Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, and Wall Street giant Sallie Krawcheck, among others. If they’re not up to speed on this stuff, and if they don’t push technology forward, huge corporations will suffer, American competitiveness will decline, and masses of people may lose their jobs.
Plus, who will explain Bitcoin to their kids? -- Kimberly Weisul
April 9, 2014
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Illustration from "How to Explain Bitcoin to Your Mom!" by Rami Niemi and Rachel Abrams