January 23, 2020

Luis Villa’s Licensing Year in Reviewharassment made the list, and should have

My friend and colleague Luis Villa published a review of 2019’s open licensing developments. Highly recommended. Just don’t believe anything he says about me.

My biggest takeaway was a link to a piece about harassment of women candidates for the Open Source Initiative’s board. Having put the OSI behind me, out of inbox and out of mind, I’d only heard whispers, secondhand. I suppose I should have expected the usual gore in the details. But it’s still unpleasant seeing the inevitable spelled out in print. Even though, in the end, the women won.

I’m no fan of the Open Source Initiative. I think it’s past saving—and wonder what we’d save it for—even with the likes of Pam Chestek and Elana Hashman on board trying to prove otherwise. But all that’s rather beside the point of calling bad behavior what it is. None of the new board members deserved that shit. Not individually. Not as women. Not done up as “social justice warriors” or whatever other thin archetype served the harassers’ moral convenience.

My full public support behind the board’s statement in favor of more and different. Read it. Share it. Think about it. It’s nice and short.

Yes, the statement’s also general. It leans hard on a few newish terms of the moment, especially “inclusivity”. But that reflects the myriad ways folks affected have got the stick. One does not capture a systemic, manifold pattern of unfairness in a pithy list of specific infractions. A pithy list of specific infractions shortchanges the magnitude of the problem. Moreover, if new words help people identify and express their grievances, that’s Words: 1, Bullshit: 0. I’m far more interested in listening to what these folks say “inclusive”, “toxic”, and “equity” mean, from their experience, than in stealing those words out of their mouths for the sake of some stiff lexical minimalism at flagrant odds with the history of the English language.

It’s overdue. The open source faithful has long indulged itself as a trend setting counterculture with the bones and cards to play at the big questions facing society. For individuals, against bureaucracy. For pragmatism, against law. For upstarts, against Microsoft, or Oracle, or whoever we’ll hate for the next five minutes. At its loftiest, for freedom, against tyranny. But from any outside point of view, the orthodoxy is dizzyingly diverse, the philosophy freshman grade, the ethics self-aggrandizing and thin, the politics armchair, and the grandeur highly delusional. When car people or gun people or other wonks trade in heady words like “freedom” without blinking, laughing, or skipping a beat, we roll our eyes.

Hackerdom as we know it now is a subculture. That subculture drew from a very narrow, shallow pool of genes and life experience. It is now a subculture in decline.

Gone is the brief spark of techno-futurist whiz-bang that facilitated confusing Internet correlation with Internet causation, inverting the causation to make a reconstructed hackerdom the cause rather than an effect, and glossing over the dubiousness of its broad social and economic claims. Society no longer gives computer people free rein, in hopes they’ll come up with something good the rest of the world can use. They came up with something good—the Internet—and built towering economic behemoths around it—Big Tech—which society now regards with suspicion and well earned weariness. We see this in the rash of computer and Internet related regulation, in perfect foil to the explicit deregulation of hackerdom’s heyday. Free faith and confidence are no more, because what hackers do really matters now.

In the end, early-2000’s open source UNIX people didn’t blaze an enlightened path for the Internet-connected, convivial culture of the future. They can’t tell us how we should relate to the greater problems people who don’t give their lives to computers have to care about. Rather, hackerdom holds a stronger claim to Patient Zero status for the kind of insular, self-absorbed, self-perpetuating stimulation circle that has now trolled its way into popular consciousness in more overtly political form.

To say it the lefty way: old guard open source doesn’t tell us how to cavort online without tumbling down the selective, isolation-reinforcing spiral that breeds an alt-right. It’s closer to alt-nerd, a niched, foreshadowing precursor that contributed a few key runs to the playbook early on. Kith and kin back in rural Texas can of course substitute the bête noire of their own political persuasion. Maybe that’s “software freedom warriors”. The point is the same.

Despite our best efforts to get better at making more of our kind, rather than making programming easier or less necessary to learn, online software development has welcomed new participants faster than any clique could hope to indoctrinate them. Arguably, that’s been true since Internet privatization. Self-aware culture creatures have readily acknowledged the fact, because nothing rallies troops like a sense of embattlement.

Not so the rising waves of apparent apostasy. Even those who have graduated established traditional schools of hacker thought—FSF, Debian, Red Hat—find the ideology faltering on contact with an expanding slice of the outside world. The outside world encroaches ever more often. Society is no longer in a mood to leave programming alone in its room with the machine, tying up the phone line, hoping it will come up with something good. Neither are most programmers. Confusing well informed dissenters for the uninitiated—if only they knew, they’d have to agree—is symptomatic. That can only work so long.

I keep returning to these quotes, which came across with such force in earlier days:

Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch.

— Eric Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar

Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.

— Eric Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar

Those mantras, coupled with a willingness to get very high on our own supply of hacker-grown political, ethical, and philosophical theory, write a recipe for insular monoculture. Which is what we had, even before Raymond:

“This is it … this is where I belong…” I know everyone here … even if I’ve never met them, never talked to them, may never hear from them again … I know you all …

— Loyd “The Mentor” Blankenship, The Conscience of a Hacker, 1986

When monoculture goes, it goes quickly. Unfortunately, we should probably expect more harassment, brigading, sockpuppetry, social media gaming, and ham-handed brinksmanship—all in evidence within open source long before social media went mainstream—as the pincers of the new, unconverted masses and veteran dissent begin to close. We should expect more gory harassment stories in 2020.

I write all of this with no small twinge of personal pain. There is more autobiography in the darker parts of this history than I’ll ever be comfortable admitting.

I know that I’ve contributed to a sense of unwelcome, and worse, for others in, around, and approaching open source. I have succumbed to force-fitting a lot of deep, squishy problems into tractable oversimplifications for the sake of feeling good about having all the right, rigid answers. If specific missteps weren’t so haunting, I’m sure they’d be overshadowed by concern for all the times I screwed up without noticing. But the faults I can’t forget sting all the more for my own rare but memorable experiences of bullying, discrimination, injustice, and sleight. Taking a bit of what I’ve given doesn’t make it a wash. It makes it worse.

So I write from no peculiar authority. I know my own story, I don’t fudge the facts, and I don’t question the code. When I fucked up, I fucked up, and I was wrong. In that continued recognition lies my sole moral qualification.

But in a strange way that perhaps shouldn’t seem so strange at all, I feel I might have more to offer precisely because I’ve come at least partway through, rather than sailed blissfully by, some of these troubled waters. And that’s what I’d offer here, to those suffering bad behavior, and to those themselves behaving badly, or who wonder if they might be.

Beware condemnation without redemption. Call it out, but it give it somewhere to go.

With nowhere to go, people doing or facilitating wrong, many of whom don’t know or notice at the time, will question the code. They’ll come to believe they were justified, if not affirmatively right, by some tortured moral calculus. They’ll have to.

On whatever side, be willing to be wrong. Morally. Intellectually. In matters of practical judgment. Otherwise, any gifts you may have in those areas go to thorough waste. Specialization is for insects. Consistency is for machines. And frankly, it’s a lot more fun being curious than right. And not just about licenses.

Here’s to a happier hacking, hopefully, in 2020 and beyond.

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