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Mark Smith's Journal

Work related musings of a geek.

The meritocracy is harmful.

[staff profile] mark
First, let's start with the genesis of this post:

https://github.com/torvalds/linux/pull/17

The whole thread is worth a read (in the sad train wreck sort of way), but I want to call out one particular quote by Linus Torvalds. If you aren't familiar with him, he's the guy who started Linux. He's widely respected and revered in the circles of Open Source and technology and what-have-you.

> Btw, Joseph, you're a quality example of why I detest the github
> interface. For some reason, github has attracted people who have zero
> taste, don't care about commit logs, and can't be bothered.
> 
> The fact that I have higher standards then makes people like you make
> snarky comments, thinking that you are cool.
> 
> You're a moron.
> 
>                    Linus


This is unacceptable behavior on a peer to peer level, let alone from someone who wields as much power as Linus does. Publicly humiliating someone is ridiculous and speaks to a broader problem in the world of open source and technology in general.

If President Obama were to speak like this to someone, it would be extremely damaging to him politically without some very immediate and strong damage control. Power puts a certain onus on you to behave "above reproach" in ways that normal people are not held to. (Although, IMO, normal people should hold themselves to such a standard -- it's just that the public generally won't.)

Returning to this particular issue: what do you think will happen next with Joseph here? I expect there are two likely outcomes: either he will abandon his interest in open source/kernel development/technology and go somewhere else where he will be appreciated and be able to grow and learn, or he will continue on and learn to fight fire with fire and perpetuate this nonsense on to other people. After all, everybody wants to be Linus Torvalds -- the guy is famous and incredible! -- so clearly this is what we should all act like, right?

The excuse that many people offer here is that this is all a meritocracy. I.e., if Joseph had been worthy (note that this is defined here as "uses a 72-column line wrap boundary"), he wouldn't have been the subject of such an outburst! Everybody can learn from this and Joseph can go be a better man and eventually he will have a place in our society built on our noble ideals of ranking-by-IQ! It'll be awesome!

But in reality, what have we built here except a different way to wage war and hurt each other? Instead of guns and bombs, we use our voice: the pen is mightier than the sword.

Do we really want to be the proponents of a society that accepts and encourages such treatment of our fellow men and women? (Oh, sorry -- just men. We don't really have women here because we have built a system on Othering and exclusion and harassment and we consider it acceptable and then stand around wondering where all the women went. But that's a topic for a different day.)

When put in those terms, though, you probably disagree with me. "No way! That's now how it is at all!"

But look around. Linus Torvalds, arguably one of the most powerful men in open source, just descended from his ivory tower and graced us with his presence and wrote what he did. And nothing will come of this because nobody cares. Well, nobody who matters cares. If you have any doubt, let's go back to something from February, where Linus said this:

Whoever moron thought that it's "good security" to require the root password for everyday things like this is mentally diseased.

So here's a plea: if you have anything to do with security in a distro, and think that my kids (replace "my kids" with "sales people on the road" if you think your main customers are businesses) need to have the root password to access some wireless network, or to be able to print out a paper, or to change the date-and-time settings, please just kill yourself now. The world will be a better place.


(Source: https://plus.google.com/102150693225130002912/posts/1vyfmNCYpi5)

If you look at the bottom of that link, you might note that Linus has gotten over 6,400 upvotes for suggesting that some people should go kill themselves. I went and read through many of the comments and could only find four that called him out for his text. Out of hundreds of comments from people agreeing with him or otherwise finding what he said to have some sort of merit and worth.

There is something extremely wrong with the world of open source and technology when this kind of behavior from one of our leaders is considered acceptable. It's heartbreaking, honestly.

What I'd like to end this post with is some sort of solution, some way to fix the problem. But I don't know what it is and I don't know where to find it. Instead, I will just do my damnedest to make sure that my little corner of the world, Dreamwidth and the other projects I touch, hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior and expectations from our contributors and staff.

Thanks for reading.
12.05.2012 02:47 pm (UTC)

Re: meritocracy is in fact the problem

vass: a man in a bat suit says "I am a model of mental health!" (Bats)
Posted by [personal profile] vass
meritocracy is not elitism
Do you actually know what 'meritocracy' means? It sounds like you think it just means a society in which merit is recognised and valued. That is not correct. The suffix '-cracy', from the Greek -κρατία, means power or rule. Democracy doesn't mean 'we like people,' it means 'rule by the people'. And meritocracy means a hierarchy with the most meritorious at the top. Government by merit.

One of the important questions this concept raises is "Meritorious at what?" The best coders? The best at governance? The thickest skins?

Having a thick skin is a very useful trait. Being resistant to physical damage is also a very useful trait. But most decent societies move on beyond "let's go around punching people in the head, and the person who loses consciousness last shall be our leader." Mainly because this doesn't actually select for the most damage-resistant people, it selects for the people who don't mind being punched in the head and actually like punching other people in the head. Everyone else leaves sooner or later.

Maybe you think that's an implementation problem, and that if we just find a better way of selecting for merit then things will work out. Maybe you don't mind the attrition rate we're getting from the current method, because (as you keep saying) there will always be assholes. But what I and other people in this thread keep telling you is, open source as it is right now is a broken, dysfunctional system.
12.05.2012 03:46 pm (UTC)

Re: meritocracy is in fact the problem

Posted by [identity profile] https://me.yahoo.com/a/NgO6flxx0ZboB7dfDM12BDmiGuHRv47U#a7c01
And meritocracy means a hierarchy with the most meritorious at the top. Government by merit.

this may be technically correct, but the context of this discussion is not government. there are many situations, at all levels of society, where decision-making is delegated to a central point within a particular scope. just as democracy is applied outside the strict confines of our process of government, so too is meritocracy applied to other things than just government.

One of the important questions this concept raises is "Meritorious at what?" The best coders? The best at governance? The thickest skins?

i should think that would be up to the people involved to decide on based on the context in question. meritocracy and democracy need not be mutually exclusive. i for one would hope that in a democracy the people would choose who would be the leader based on merit in the context of what they hope to accomplish rather than some irrelevant criteria.

i could certainly try to assert that having red hair and glasses is the most meritorious quality, but that would be inconsequential if nobody agreed with my criteria.

But what I and other people in this thread keep telling you is, open source as it is right now is a broken, dysfunctional system.

i'm in no way disagreeing with that evaluation. but as i keep telling people in this thread, the problem isn't meritocracy. the problem is the assholes (as you so colourfully put it). a democracy certainly doesn't eliminate the assholes, nor does a monarchy, nor a theocracy, nor any other system of rule. meritocracy isn't causing the assholes to be assholes, nor is it enabling the assholes to continue being assholes, it's just the excuse they happen to be using to justify being assholes. the thing about excuses and assholes is if you take away one excuse they just pull another one out.

blaming a system for the actions of people, rather than blaming the people themselves for their own actions, is not going to accomplish anything. this is especially true when that system does not actually have anything to do with those actions - if people said they were being assholes in the name of aliens we wouldn't blame the aliens, would we?

meritocracy is merely their excuse. stop believing their excuses.