The Dehumanizing Myth of the Meritocracy

Is it enough to be measured by the quality of our code alone?

by Coraline Ada Ehmke on May 19th, 2015

“In a meritocracy, the best ideas win. In a meritocracy, everyone has access to the same information. Successful work determines which projects rise and gather effort from the community.” – The Open Source Way

The Open Source movement was founded on four key principles: the free exchange of ideas, success through collaboration, shared ownership, and meritocracy. Each of these ideas is interesting in comparison to traditional, closed software development, but the principle that inspires the most fervent devotion, valued more highly than any other, is the concept of meritocracy.

Meritocracy is the idea that individuals can and should be measured on the basis of their intellectual contributions, divorced from identity, social status, gender, race, religion, or other distinguishing characteristics. It’s easy to focus on dispelling the illusions of equality and intellectual anonymity that lie at the heart of the myth of meritocracy, and in fact a vast outpouring of criticism has been leveled on this point: the assumption of equal access and information that meritocracy relies on is clearly missing in the tech community.

But there is another disturbing aspect that goes largely unaddressed: even if the myth of equal access and opportunity were true, is it really enough to be measured by the quality of our code alone?

In his Humane Development talk, Ernie Miller puts forth the idea that “We are humans, working with humans, to develop software for the benefit of humans.” His point underlines a significant problem with our already flawed notion of meritocracy: within this system, the worth of the individual is measured not by their humanity, but solely by their intellectual output.

The Evil Empire

Geometrical grid, as if outlining a crowded city.

Photo CC-BY Jared Tarbell, filtered.

Open Source is very much a reaction against the perceived ills of the closed-source software world. Linux in particular is hailed as a necessary alternative to the corporate empires of first Microsoft, then Apple. Closed-source corporations are referred to as “evil”, while others distinguish themselves with such moralisms as “Don’t be evil” (Google, who has since abandoned it) and “doing good is part of our code” (Mozilla). It’s easy and almost fun to join in the chorus of so-called rebels who work tirelessly to create open-source alternatives to mainstream software.

But in this supposedly moral division we are most comfortable with faceless adversaries. When confronted with very real human flaws in the individuals or organizations that we hold as paragons of the rebellious Open Source spirit, we dismiss them as personality quirks, if we acknowledge them at all. In the Ruby world, we insist that “Matz Is Nice And So We Are Nice,” ignoring the sexist statements he has made with regard to diversity outreach efforts. We write off Linus Torvalds’ dismissal of diversity as an “unimportant detail” and justify it based on the utility of his creations.

But why is it that we can proudly refuse to use software created by corporations whose often aggressive business policies we disagree with, but continue to adopt software written by sexists, racists, homophobes, transphobes? What makes these people immune?

It’s the idea that our humanity doesn’t matter as much as the quality of our intellectual output.

To Err is Human, to Code Divine

It’s not uncommon for the very real human inadequacies and weaknesses of our idols to be brushed under the rug. Much of the literature that we love and respect as geeks was written by extraordinarily bigoted individuals, from H.P. Lovecraft’s rampant racism to Orson Scott Card’s aggressive homophobia. But these serious flaws are generally either ignored or explained away by cultural, historical or generational differences. We hide behind the motto of “love the art, hate the artist” to justify our preferences despite the faint voice of conscience, persistent in telling us that something is amiss.

It seems that ignoring the worst of our heroes is easy, but should the opposite also hold true? Should we ignore the positive, community-oriented contributions of others as quickly as we dismiss some people’s negative attributes? Are the contributions of bad actors really superior to those who bring humane, non-code contributions to our corner of the world?

To do so underlines the dehumanizing effect of purely meritocratic thinking. One product of this sort of thinking is the division of our skills into “hard” and “soft” categories. Almost every technical conference draws a line based on this false dichotomy. Not surprisingly, marginalized people deliver most of the “soft” talks, while cisgender, white, heterosexual men deliver the more technical, “hard” talks. Value judgements are ascribed to each category of presentation: technical talks are recognized as immediately relevant, while talks addressing the humanity of our profession are relegated to interesting thought exercises or simply as useful breaks to be taken between the “real” talks.

A Utilitarian Utopia

Framework of a house that's still being built.

Photo CC-BY Georgie Pauwels, filtered.

Meritocracy is based on a utilitarian interpretation of our work. Utilitarianism as a philosophical system states that the most moral action is the one that maximizes utility: in essence, that the end justifies the means. But one of the well-noted problems of adopting utility as the primary measure of morality is that it ignores the concept of justice, as cruel actions are condoned so long as they contribute to the greater good. Inequalities or injustices inflicted upon a minority are also deemed acceptable by this philosophy, so long as they do not interfere with the ability of the majority to experience pleasure. The realities of injustice are uncomfortable to those in power, and utilitarian ideals treat the comfort of the powerful as paramount.

In its rejection of social justice, utilitarianism is essentially a dehumanizing philosophy. It objectifies people, reducing them to the level of tools or instruments for the “greater good”, which in most cases is code for whatever delivers maximum comfort. Immanuel Kant warned us against this kind of objectification, insisting that human beings are an end to themselves, not a means.

Yet this philosophy pervades the Open Source community. It is assumed that by applying rational and objective judgement to individuals within the open source world, we can somehow perfect both contributors and code. The ills and injustices of the past become relics of a bygone age of oppression, irrelevant to the present and to the future. We think that by ignoring the past, pretending that we live in a post-racist, post-sexist world, we can pave the way to a future free of the root causes of injustice. The present is a perpetual clean slate, free of influence and immune to the laws of cause and effect; the future is a utilitarian utopia in which each person is judged by their contributions alone.

The Empathy Algorithm

Interior of a chronograph.

Photo CC-BY Wilson Hui, filtered.

A core assumption of the utilitarian philosophy is the idea that we can perform a sort of moral calculus to determine what actions will foster the greater good. But understanding and predicting the greater good of a community requires an empathy and compassion that is visibly absent among many people in the software world.

In contrast to limitless empathy, a calculated evaluation of consequences also requires a limitless objectivity, the ability to reason flawlessly about the ultimate outcome of an action. The idea is that by applying pure rationality we can unravel the nest of complications and implications around a particular decision. To ascribe this sort of omniscient rationality to oneself or one’s leaders is the ultimate in hubris. We are necessarily subjective beings, regardless of how high a value we place on objectivity.

To avoid the mess and imprecision of these delicate calculations, we instead idealize a world free of consequences in which it is simply the utility of our output that is of the utmost value.

By discarding the difficulties inherent in being both objective and humanistic, leaders in the open source community ignore the moral impact of their value system and focus solely on the potential value of their creations. The comfortable elite benefit from the status quo and never have to question the circumstances that keep them in positions of power. Individuals with this power are allowed to ignore such difficult issues as social justice and equal access. These are “mere details,” problems for someone else to solve.

The Casualties of Progress

The term “meritocracy” itself was coined by British sociologist Michael Young in his satirical essay “The Rise of the Meritocracy.” In this essay, an unnamed narrator in the distant future describes the contemporary society of the United Kingdom. He observes that the greatest contributor to society is not the majority but rather a creative minority, members of a so-called “restless elite”. And while he admits that there are casualties of progress that arise from adherence to intelligence as a predominant ideal, he insists that the sacrifice is worthwhile. While recognizing that placing such a high value on purely intellectual effort may give rise to arrogance, he argues that the benefits to society make such an arrogance an acceptable side-effect of a process that creates a beneficial end.

It is a terrible irony that Young’s satire inspired a generation of makers to create a system of control that still pervades the open source world.

And who are the casualties of this “progress”? We can see their faces in the underrepresented and easily dismissed populations within our industry. They are the devalued project managers and designers; the women, the people of color, the queer and transgender and gender-variant; the socially aware and the so-called “social justice warriors.” They are, in fact, anyone who ascribes value to human traits and capabilities beyond the purely intellectual and rational.

The Struggle for Value

Heart-shaped metallic logo caught in a spider's web.

Photo CC-BY Neal Fowler, filtered.

Software development is historically driven by a population that values intelligence above all else. Within such a demographic, the worship of rationality and objectivity should come as little surprise.

The almost religious devotion to an idealized meritocracy perpetuates a system of elitism and virtual classism. It props up an advantaged minority free to spend its time catering to an idealized community of homogenous consumers. The technocratic upper class is given the mandate to ensure “progress” at all costs, and even to dictate what is and is not rational and intellectually valuable. It maintains its status through mechanisms of control including distribution of investments and wages, essentially exercising gatekeeping authority over the means of intellectual production. A privileged few are thus empowered to limit access to opportunities for advancement and prosperity.

The importance of access and involvement in the open source community cannot be denied. And as more diverse individuals, often from non-traditional backgrounds, seek entry into this community, conflicts between an emphasis on our humanity and the purely rational values of utility are inevitable.

At the center of this conflict lies the myth of the meritocracy. At stake is the very nature of our community as software developers. Will we adhere to utilitarian ideals that place our rationality above our humanity? Or will we embrace a messy, beautiful, and ambiguous world in which we celebrate ourselves as human beings first, and producers of intellectual value second?

In the end, will our value as individuals be measured by more than the quality of our code?