Open Source Meritocracy Is More Than a Joke

Open source's belief in meritocracy deserves criticism, but it also deserves some respect.
Posted December 23, 2014

Bruce Byfield

In January 2014, Github removed the rug in its office's waiting room in response to criticism of its slogan, "United Meritocracy of Github." Since then, the criticism of the idea of meritocracy has spread in free software circles. "Meritocracy is a joke," has become a slogan seen on T-shirts and constantly proclaimed, especially by feminists.

Such commentary is true — so far as it goes, but it ignores the potential benefits of meritocracy as an ethos.

Anyone who bothers to look can see that meritocracy is more of an ideal than a standard practice in free software. The idea that people should be valued for their contributions may seem to be a way to promote fairness, but the practice is frequently more complicated.

I've discussed the problems with meritocracy before, and nothing has changed since then. As a moment's thought might show, contributing to a project is no guarantee that you are fit to make strategic decisions, although perhaps it gives you the right to try.

Even more importantly, meritocracy is often undermined by undue influence — who you know, and your popularity or fame, or lack of both. Like the capitalist myth that anyone can be successful by their own efforts alone, meritocracy can easily be used by those with status and power to protect their position and guard against outsiders. It can be used, too, to reinforce existing prejudices, and prevent inexperienced newcomers from being accepted, while tolerating others for contributions made years ago that are no longer relevant to the current situation.

At the same time, the assumption that meritocracy is real can be used to stifle criticism of distinctly unmeritocratic behavior. In other words, the myth — like any other sustaining idea — can be used to reinforce the opposite of what it is supposed to represent.

Such inconsistencies deserve to be pointed out as they happen. However, the fact that the practice is imperfect does not necessarily discredit the ideal itself.

Meritocracy as Myth

In the case of free software's meritocracy, its frequent abuses do not mean that it is never practiced. Among project contributors who have worked together for some time, it exists in many places — admittedly, sometimes only briefly. In free software, the idea and practice is the natural result of the fact that credit is an important form of payment, even for those on salary. At its best, meritocracy is the recognition by your peers that you are talented and have things to contribute — a motivation that is responsible for many of the accomplishments of free software.

Meritocracy is a myth in the anthropological sense, not a lie or a mistaken assumption, but a common value that binds a community together. Like socialism or a religion, it motivates and gives direction to those who believe in it. It tells them, too, the purpose of their actions, and how they should act. Just as importantly, it tells a believer who their peers are.

From this perspective, meritocracy is the myth that binds free software contributors together. It identifies them as being different from the proprietary programmers who work only for money. It justifies the sharing of code, because the sharing tells all that you are a contributor, and not just middle management or a marketer, hanging around with no real understanding of what is happening. It inspires contributors to do their best and to do what conventional wisdom says is impossible because they trust their own abilities and the abilities of those around them.

Without the myth of meritocracy, it is safe to say, free software would not be the force in technology that it is today. Other values, such as sound business practices, may rival it here and there, but in the end meritocracy remains at the heart of free software because it promises that by following your bliss (as Joseph Campbell puts it) you can succeed while making important contributions.

Taking the Joke Seriously

Yes, the reality falls short of the myth. But that is the nature of all myths. The fact that mouthing meritocratic platitudes can be used to undermine the myth is not a reason to belittle the myth itself. After all, most suffragists did not reject representative democracy because it did not allow women to vote. Instead, they fought for their right to participate, believing that their participation would make a difference. And the suffragists were right (or, at least, more right than wrong).

Instead of proclaiming meritocracy a joke and alienating those for whom it is a motivating force, its critics should fight for the existing pockets of meritocracy to become more inclusive and truer to their beliefs. In doing so, they can only make the practice more closely aligned with the ideal.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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