The problem with meritocracy

Everytime people discuss the hacker community and its diversity, I see someone waving the “meritocracy” argument. “It is not our fault those minorities are not well represented, if they knew more stuff or did more stuff, they would have a better status”.

It is easy to see how that argument would be flawed, as meritocracy is a power structure, and whenever a power structure is created, after some time it tends to reinforce its own community. But that is not my point right now.

I realized that the idea of meritocracy is so deeply ingrained in the hacker mindset that we lost sight of what was important. I can see how that idea is appealing. Once you prove you know stuff, people will recognize you, and that will be enough to motivate you to learn. Except it is not. The meritocracy is just another way to exclude people. Once you consider someone’s status by how much you perceive they know, things go downhill.

Some are good at faking knowledge. Some know their craft, but do not talk that well. Some are not experts, but have good ideas. Some would like to learn without being judged. Everytime you dismiss someone’s opinion because of their apparent (lack of) knowledge, everytime you favor someone’s opinion because of their apparent knowledge, you are being unscientific and unwelcoming. You are not a hacker, you are just a jerk.

Somewhere along the way, people got too hung up on meritocracy, and forgot that you hack for knowledge and for fun, not for status. It is all about testing stuff, learning, sharing what you learned, discussing ideas and helping others do the same, whatever their skills or their experience. Status and power structures should have nothing to do with that.

Guess what? I pointed out that bad behaviour, but I am guilty of it too. I have to constantly keep myself in check, to avoid judging people instead of judging ideas. That’s alright. Doing the right thing always requires some effort.

5 thoughts on “The problem with meritocracy

  1. The problem with “lack of diversity” as an accusation is that it’s usually just a way to say “too many white men”. And those who levy this kind of accusation usually think of diversity as a bunch of people who look different but agree with each other. That’s the kind of diversity that only goes skin deep. Frankly, I can do without the contribution of people who focus excessively on sex and race and other characteristics, and often enough it’s people from outside the community who come with these accusations.

    And then you have people who use their own supposed “diversity” as an excuse for a lack of social skills. When I want to be part of some group I try to fit in instead of trying to make the group change to accommodate me. There was this thing on the LKML where Linus defended his management style to an Intel Developer [1]. I think he makes a valid point that maybe in the spirit of diversity, his approach is equally valid.

    I don’t think the hacker community lacks a diversity of ideas. In fact the diversity is mind boggling.

    With regards to meritocracy, bias and personal preference creeps in everywhere, it’s unavoidable. But I wouldn’t worry about it to the exclusion of other factors. And your point about fun and knowledge is also an excellent one.

    [1] http://marc.info/?l=linux-kernel&m=137391223711946&w=2

    • You are right, the diversity problems centers too often around “too many white men”. But that is not the only problem. In any group, a common culture tends to emerge (be it some common music taste, inside jokes, people coming from the same school, etc), and that is ok. but if that culture becomes the criteria in accepting new members, it is a problem.

      That is the point I was trying to make: the hacker culture is primarily one of sharing and fun, but people focused on the idea of meritocracy while forgetting that some people are not looking for recognition, and just want to learn.

      As a side note, I tend to dislike using Linus Torvalds as an example, because even if I understand why he behaves that way, its behaviour has been used too much for cargo cult (“if I insult people like Linus does, I’ll be seen as competent”), and this has destroyed more projects and people that he would have been able to abuse alone.

      I largely prefer the “be nice” approach, it is always easier on my mood 🙂

      • You are right, the diversity problems centers too often around “too many white men”.

        And the problem is, you can’t really defend yourself against this because your perspective is just brushed aside as invalid. Even though those who level these accusations usually display a stunning lack of diversity in their ranks.

        But that is not the only problem. In any group, a common culture tends to emerge (be it some common music taste, inside jokes, people coming from the same school, etc), and that is ok. but if that culture becomes the criteria in accepting new members, it is a problem.

        Why is it a problem? I mean it can become a bit too incestuous and too exclusive and the project starts stalling or it’s so esoteric that it’s of little use, but other than that?

        I’m doing it for fun in my free time, the primary object for me is to enjoy it, positive effects to the rest of the world are secondary.

        And the question is, if someone doesn’t fit the culture, why accept him/her for the sake of diversity?

        As a side note, I tend to dislike using Linus Torvalds as an example, because even if I understand why he behaves that way, its behaviour has been used too much for cargo cult (“if I insult people like Linus does, I’ll be seen as competent”), and this has destroyed more projects and people that he would have been able to abuse alone.

        Well the LKML example was more about people trying to fix something that isn’t broken for political reasons, and that particular developer also used pretty underhanded tactics to achieve her goal. Notice that Linus didn’t attack her personally. The difference in leadership styles is an example of diversity.

        You often have people come at it with this sense of entitlement, that their feelings and sensibilities need to be accommodated because that’s the way it was in school and that’s the way it is in their corporate job.

        The way Linus does it seems to work for Linux, and I think his reasoning is sound.

        But it’s important to differentiate, it’s not aimed at newbies or people wanting to learn. You often see newbies treated poorly, and it’s seen as a “rite of passage” of sorts. That’s something I choose not to engage in. But I can’t prevent it either. As someone who grew up a little too much on the nerdy side I’m pretty much used to taking abuse. If you’re engaging in online communication it’s pretty much something you’ll have to face.

        I largely prefer the “be nice” approach, it is always easier on my mood

        It’s similar for me. It always takes something out of me if I have to act like a dick at times. But being nice usually yields inferior results.

      • The “rite of passage” idea is spot on. Why would people need to prove themselves when they do not know anything yet? Why would people need to show their credentials to have their opinions considered?

        Unfortunately, people like that kind of structure.

      • The “rite of passage” idea is spot on. Why would people need to prove themselves when they do not know anything yet?

        I think part of it is that people need to prove their willingness to put in some efforts by themselves. Many times there are people who are fine mooching of your effort. I used to help people out a lot on IRC with database problems, and you often see people burning out because they heard similar questions many times before and then unload on the next poor guy. Maybe there is a better way?

        Working with newbies can be mentally draining, impede your own effort. So you need to be economical with it.

        It’s not really specific to hackers though.

        Why would people need to show their credentials to have their opinions considered?

        Because it saves time. I may have good ideas on jet propulsion, but NASA won’t ask me for advice before building a rocket 😉

        You may miss out on the occasional good idea, but also on a load of crap. Like for example this:
        http://www.hastac.org/blogs/ari-schlesinger/2013/11/26/re-feminism-and-programming-languages 😉

        But I think we’re rather tame on those things compared to others.

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