mark: A photo of Mark kneeling on top of the Taal Volcano in the Philippines. It was a long hike. (Default)
Mark Smith ([staff profile] mark) wrote2012-05-11 02:04 pm

The meritocracy is harmful.

First, let's start with the genesis of this post:

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.


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.
fyreharper: (Default)

[personal profile] fyreharper 2012-05-11 11:08 pm (UTC)(link)
Thanks for being one of the folks who does insist on - and hold themselves to - a higher standard of behavior. It is one of the things I love about this place :)
sara: S (Default)

[personal profile] sara 2012-05-11 11:11 pm (UTC)(link)
...we don't have a thumbs up button here, but if we did, I would be ticking it.

I can't even imagine how stuff like this would play in any sector I've ever worked in. I think mostly people would just sit there and boggle.

meritocracy is not the problem

[identity profile] 2012-05-11 11:19 pm (UTC)(link)
meritocracy is not the problem, and to be honest, a world that coddles the mediocre and tells them they're good enough the way they are isn't any more appealing than the one you set forth.

the two real problems with meritocracy are
1) the fear of not measuring up - this is not something to be feared, no one comes out perfect, not even linus as you so aptly demonstrate. not measuring up in a particular area just means you have something to work on and improve. this really comes down to fact that people don't always receive criticism well, which leads into...
2) the way criticism is doled out - there are good ways and bad ways to offer criticism. if one offers it in a bad way then one is deserving of criticism and in that way you are applying meritocracy to linus.

the ideal of meritocracy is a good ideal, but the practice is not always performed very well.
dreamatdrew: (Ragabash)

meritocracy is in fact the problem

[personal profile] dreamatdrew 2012-05-11 11:53 pm (UTC)(link)
Because if anyone bothers to point out to Linus "Hey, you're being an ass, and you could REALLY have handled that better", they are browbeaten for talking bad about "Our Glorious Leader" or just ignored. And the odds that Linus is going to listen to anyone on any subject involving code at this point are next to nil, because he has an army of people lined up to shove their noses up his rear end tell him that he is great and wonderful and perfect.

To quote the man himself, "The truth shouldn't be sugarcoated". What he neglects to think about, however, is that one does not need to coat said truth in ground glass either.

Re: meritocracy is in fact the problem

[identity profile] 2012-05-12 12:08 am (UTC)(link)
people browbeating you for criticizing linus torvalds has nothing to do with meritocracy. it has to do with placing reverence in something or someone that doesn't deserve it. if they recognized that he didn't deserve that reverence then it would be more like a meritocracy.

as for sugarcoating or ground-glass-coating the truth, calling someone a moron as he did is not "truth", it's opinion.
dreamatdrew: An orange leopard gecko half hiding behind the leaf of a 'lucky bamboo' plant, looking directly at you. (Default)

Re: meritocracy is in fact the problem

[personal profile] dreamatdrew 2012-05-12 02:21 am (UTC)(link)
it has to do with placing reverence in something or someone that doesn't deserve it
Except in this 'meritocracy', Linus is in the top tier, so /of course/ he and his statements deserve reverence.

And as far as it being opinion, an opinion is a personal truth, which isn't really the point. The point is that any you don't have to grind people down to because they do not agree with you, which is what Linus is doing there.

Re: meritocracy is in fact the problem

[identity profile] 2012-05-12 03:54 am (UTC)(link)
Except in this 'meritocracy', Linus is in the top tier, so /of course/ he and his statements deserve reverence.

perhaps i can express this better another way. there is no meritocracy. meritocracy is something we strive to achieve but never reach, much like any number of other ideals.

we fail and sometimes those failures are ugly, but the fault doesn't lie in our ideals, it lies within ourselves. the ugliness you've seen unfold would still find a way to unfold without meritocracy, people would simply find some other way to justify it.
vass: a man in a bat suit says "I am a model of mental health!" (Bats)

Re: meritocracy is in fact the problem

[personal profile] vass 2012-05-12 06:04 am (UTC)(link)
Which is more desirable to you?
a. We identify and nurture everyone's unique abilities, not just those of an elite. We also identify the skills most people could learn, and teach them to as many people as possible. More and more people become more and more skilled, creating a society in which more and more good work gets done.
b. We identify the best people, and give all the work to them. Because they're very able, they get a lot of work done. They are treated as gods for being able to do what no one else can do. They are hugely stressed because their workload is inhuman. This makes them resent the people who don't do the work even more, and they treat them with more and more scorn. Only the very thickest-skinned people are willing to push through the scorn to learn new skills, so the new elite is less about merit than about thick skins.

(By the way, confidential to [staff profile] mark: I had to open a text file to type this comment, because your comment box cuts off way before the line wrap, I presume because I use a nebook, so I couldn't see what I was typing.)

Re: meritocracy is in fact the problem

[identity profile] 2012-05-12 11:55 am (UTC)(link)
Which is more desirable to you?

you're presenting a false dichotomy. we can nurture each person's unique abilities in a meritocracy precisely because they're unique. each person can have their own unique merits, a meritocracy does nothing to hinder that.

We identify and nurture everyone's unique abilities, not just those of an elite.

meritocracy is not elitism, though it may well be an excuse to practice elitism. there are other excuses elitists could use.

Only the very thickest-skinned people are willing to push through the scorn to learn new skills, so the new elite is less about merit than about thick skins.

unless of course having a thick skin is something that has merit, something that we should value like we value being able to run fast or solve difficult problems or create beautiful works of art. perhaps having a thick skin is actually a good quality and therefore something to be recognized in a meritocracy.
vass: a man in a bat suit says "I am a model of mental health!" (Bats)

Re: meritocracy is in fact the problem

[personal profile] vass 2012-05-12 02:47 pm (UTC)(link)
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.

Re: meritocracy is in fact the problem

[identity profile] 2012-05-12 03:46 pm (UTC)(link)
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.
denise: Image: Me, facing away from camera, on top of the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome (Default)

Re: meritocracy is not the problem

[staff profile] denise 2012-05-11 11:54 pm (UTC)(link)
The ideal of meritocracy is not a good ideal. It presumes -- it's inherent right in the comment you just typed -- that the world is divided into the worthy and the unworthy and those divisions are eternal, perpetual, fixed, and unchanging.

If the open source world used "meritocracy" as "a method of encouraging and enabling everyone to perpetually bring their A game", that would be one thing (and something everyone could get behind). It doesn't. The concept of "meritocracy" as used in the open source world is a way of saying that most people except for the chosen few are unworthy of time, energy, effort, and even basic courtesy. It is a poisonous, insidious model that immediately discounts everyone who does not behave exactly in the way that the thought leaders of the society behave and value. It is a form of groupthink that is enforced vigorously, unhesitatingly, and with swift sanctions against those who do not adhere to it.

And it is shitty and sad, and the fact that so many people think it's something to be praised and encouraged is enough to make me despair.

Re: meritocracy is not the problem

[identity profile] 2012-05-12 12:15 am (UTC)(link)
It presumes -- it's inherent right in the comment you just typed -- that the world is divided into the worthy and the unworthy

that is not what meritocracy is, that is merely an interpretation. meritocracy is the recognition that some things are better than others and placing value accordingly. to interpret that as worthy vs. unworthy is a false dichotomy.

the rest of your comment seems to be about the practice of meritocracy (and it's regrettable depths), rather than the ideal.
deborah: The management regrets that it was unable to find a Gnomic Utterance that was suitably irrelevant. (gnomic)

Re: meritocracy is not the problem

[personal profile] deborah 2012-05-12 12:07 am (UTC)(link)
Meritocracy is not about not coddling the mediocre; the idea that our real world meritocracies are based on merit is a myth, in open source as much as elsewhere.

As Mark point out above, "merit" here is defined as "72-column line lengths" -- in other words, it's defining merit as "conformance to community standards as agreed upon by a small group of people who -- it is clear from that thread -- don't like Junior coming in to play with their toys". That's not merit.

Re: meritocracy is not the problem

[identity profile] 2012-05-12 12:37 am (UTC)(link)
the idea that our real world meritocracies are based on merit is a myth

again, that speaks to the practice, not the ideal.

As Mark point out above, "merit" here is defined as "72-column line lengths"

from my reading, that is actually an oversimplification of how merit was being evaluated. that being said, linus' evaluation of the merit of another human being (as opposed to his evaluation of the merit of github) appeared to be entirely personal and perhaps even vindictive. i, for one, wouldn't place any merit in that evaluation of merit.

does that make me one of the people who simply don't care? perhaps. i don't revere the man. i don't think his opinions matter all that much. if someone doesn't like what linus has to say then they shouldn't listen to it. take a cue from rudyard kipling's "If" ("if all men count with you but none too much") and take linus and his ego with an appropriately sized grain of salt.
exor674: Computer Science is my girlfriend (Default)

[personal profile] exor674 2012-05-12 12:13 am (UTC)(link)
If it wasn't too much work, I'd totally look into running a *BSD on my netbook about now <_< ( Okay, that's probably a bit of an over-reaction but )
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[personal profile] princessofgeeks 2012-05-12 12:24 am (UTC)(link)

I was saddened all over again reading all the glowing obituaries of Steven Jobs for this same reason. Yes, he was a visionary. A fantastic marketer. But apparently he was also really cruel and hard to work with.

Let's emulate just the good stuff. Not the bad stuff our leaders do.

[personal profile] space_dinosaur_blue 2012-05-12 12:34 am (UTC)(link)
While these trends are a society wide problem, it sure seems to be particularly nasty in and around geekdom. Geekdom includes the technologist, I guess.

There's some sort of social memetic that values acidic communication and outright cruelty in the name of "efficiency". The thinking seems to go something like this... why 'bullshit' around with being nice, when we can be mean and aggressive, and shame or drive away all the pathetic annoying people who are holding us back?

Geeks often seem to adopt this method of social engineering with a kind of self righteousness. They are, after all, 'smart people'. Who is better justified in picking up a giant stick and beating on stupid people than the ones who are legitimately intelligent?

vass: A sepia-toned line-drawing of a man in naval uniform dancing a hornpipe, his crotch prominent (Default)

[personal profile] vass 2012-05-12 06:06 am (UTC)(link)
I suspect that for a lot of geeks, it goes something like this: "social skills do not come easily to me. Therefore social skills are not valuable. I will not work to acquire them."
pauamma: Cartooney crab holding drink (Default)

[personal profile] pauamma 2012-05-12 11:08 am (UTC)(link)
One thing I'm wondering (about the message you quoted near the top, not other LT quotes further down): I don't see anyone in that thread (before that message) with "Joseph" as their username or first name, so I'm not sure who he's actually attacking, unless he misread (or is deliberately mangling) jaseemabid (Jaseem Abid)'s first name.
jeshyr: Blessed are the broken. Harry Potter. (Default)

[personal profile] jeshyr 2012-05-12 11:43 am (UTC)(link)

And thank you for saying this - too much hurt is done by people ignoring those like Linus as they abuse others. It's good to see people I look up to are speaking out when this stuff happens :)
dani_the_girl: (Default)

[personal profile] dani_the_girl 2012-05-13 01:39 pm (UTC)(link)
Thanks for calling this behaviour out - this post here is one of the reasons Dreamwidth is a great project.
Edited 2012-05-13 13:39 (UTC)

This is an example of leadership failure

[identity profile] 2012-05-15 05:49 am (UTC)(link)
Pure and simple. Tolvalds demonstrated a leadership failure. A quality leader *never* acts in this fashion. I have a low tolerance for amateurs in a leadership role... for all the reasons this just demonstrated.

Terrible. I hope that guy absorbs this, recognizes it for what it is, shrugs it off, and continues to contribute.

Thanks for this post. It needed to be called out.

3 Thumbs Up from Me!

[personal profile] jazzyjj 2016-12-26 10:42 pm (UTC)(link)
My Mac's battery is running low, but I'll try to be brief here. This post really got me thinking about something. Long story short, this exact thing seems to be happening to a large extent throughout the blindness community. I use the term "community" loosely here. I honestly think the reason for this has to do with a lot of peoples' comfort level at the mere fact of being blind/visually impaired. I could honestly write all night about this, but I won't because my charger is in my apartment and I'm not currently in my apartment. But needless to say, I totally agree with this post. It's a crying shame that people of differing abilities are being treated like this. Long live Dreamwidth!

I'm editing this reply now that I'm back in the pad. The primary reason I chose to create a journal on Dreamwidth was the accessibility of your platform with Apple's on-board screen reader on the Mac. But I have also found everybody to be responsive and mature here. My primary motivation for posting a comment here in the first place was something that has been happening over on AppleVis, a website for discussion of Apple's screen reader and screen magnification. There's a link to AppleVis over at my journal, for those interested in taking a gander at the site. It seems that for whatever reason, nobody is responding to my queries over there anymore. I suspect this is in part due to what I previously mentioned here, i.e., the comfort level of a lot of people with low or no vision. Please note I'm purposely not including myself when I say that. I was born blind, and have always had a very supportive network of family and friends. But I think the other part of this has to do with a certain user over there who constantly makes spelling and grammar errors, and thinks absolutely nothing of it. I've been on Dw since 2014, and I've yet to see a single error like this. So it appears that you not only take all the administrative stuff very seriously, but you also let very few if any spelling and/or grammar errors slip through the cracks. Don't get me wrong: I'm fine with one or two mistakes like this here and there, but repeated instances of it are not okay.
Edited (added some thoughts.) 2016-12-29 03:02 (UTC)