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Rethinking controversy - what if those words don't mean what we think they mean?

Rethinking controversy - what if those words don't mean what we think they mean?

Talk at PyCon Ireland 2016.

Certain words, like certain people, have a habit of being found at the scenes of trouble.

Daniele Procida

October 25, 2015
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Transcript

  1. Daniele Procida
    Rethinking controversy What if those words
    don’t mean what we
    think they mean?

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  2. All about me
    Daniele Procida
    [email protected]
    EvilDMP on IRC, GitHub, Twitter, etc
    Django Project core developer
    Django software developer at Divio

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  3. http://django-cms.org

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  4. Information and communications technology
    I used to be a high school teacher, and for a while I taught a subject called ICT - Information and
    Communications Technology.
    “Communications”, because (apparently) it included fax machines.
    There were various odd things about all this, but one particularly odd thing was that as far as I could tell, none of
    my colleagues were in the slightest bit interested in any of those three concepts, or what the words might be
    about.
    But I love words, and I think that these words are particularly interesting. What they have come to mean has
    shifted and slid over time, in ways that are sometimes quite troublesome.
    That makes them even more fascinating to me, because I like troublesome words as much as I enjoy
    troublesome people.
    It’s interesting to be around them and you can always learn something new.

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  5. political and moral controversies
    If you do pay attention to the moral and political controversies of our industry, one thing you’ll notice that is
    remarkable is the extent to which they are controversies about words. That is, in one way or another, words are
    right at the heart of them.
    This is partly because our work means we spend most of our time sitting at keyboards and connected to the
    Internet, ideal tools for spewing out words to wide audiences.
    It’s not just this: I think it’s also because our industry and certain troublesome words are tangled up in each
    other.

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  6. Everybody’s watching
    ❖ what they say
    ❖ what other people say
    ❖ what their documentation, advertisements and t-shirts
    say
    At any rate, people in the industry spend a great deal of time paying a lot of attention to words, and spending a
    lot of energy disputing over them.
    They are concerned with what things are called, how people should be addressed, what new words are needed
    to do what old words couldn’t, inventing new words, defending the language against the people who are
    inventing new words or using old words in new ways, and so on.

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  7. a reputation for earnestness
    In the Python community we have a reputation for being quite earnest about these matters.
    The more insouciant parts of the industry do like to have a bit of a snigger at our expense, as we agonise over
    questions that wouldn't trouble them for more than a moment. I'll talk about some of them in due course.
    The reputation isn't undeserved, but in any case we're just going to have to live with it. And I think there's
    nothing wrong with being a bit earnest.

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  8. If we are going to agonise…
    Still: if we are going to agonise…

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  9. …let’s agonise with insight
    and awareness.
    let’s agonise with insight and awareness.
    And I think we can do part of this work at least by paying the right kind of attention to words.

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  10. Appealing to etymology
    annoying
    wrong
    unhelpful
    Some people love appealing to the etymology of words to settle disputes or at least prove points.
    Unfortunately, when they do this they are usually unhelpful, annoying or wrong, or some combination of the
    three.
    Also, there’s the danger of being mistaken for a smart-arse thirteen-year-old who has just discovered how to use
    a dictionary.
    Still, I think it won't hurt to look at where words and their meanings come from; I think that it can shed some
    light. Understanding how things have changed helps us understand what they are now, even if etymology won't
    reveal the true meaning of words to us.

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  11. Irony
    The etymology of etymology
    ❖ etymon: true meaning
    ❖ -logia: science of
    Ironically, the word etymology itself referred to "true meaning" in ancient Greek - etymon, true meaning; -logia;
    study or science of.
    Wishful thinking.
    You really can’t rely on etymology to prove anything.

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  12. Technology
    ❖ techne: skill, craft
    ❖ practical knowledge
    ❖ included: medicine, navigation, agriculture, commerce,
    engineering
    But with that warning in mind, let’s see what we can do with it.
    Technology comes from the ancient Greek techne: skill, or craft, that is, practical knowledge of doing things. It
    included disciplines such as medicine, navigation and agriculture, or commerce or engineering - anything
    involving some kind of practical management of the world around us.
    So technology is the science or study of these things, these skills and crafts. Plato is very interested in techne,
    because he considers practical pursuits such as living rightly or ruling well to be examples of techne too (and
    decent, honest, meritorious crafts, as opposed to suspect, dishonest, meretricious arts, like music or cooking).
    As I said, my colleagues in the ICT department didn't ever seem interested in talking about this sort of thing or
    what they thought technology might be all about, though there was a woodwork teacher in the Design &
    Technology department who seemed to be quite thrilled about the idea that Plato approved of him, and that the
    technology in the name of his department represented his craft, rather than the computers that some of his
    colleagues wanted everybody to be using to teach and learn.

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  13. Technology
    ❖ was study or science of practical skills
    ❖ became the exercise of those practical skills
    ❖ is now things - tools, machinery, devices, equipment
    Until the twentieth century, that’s what technology meant: the science or study of practical skills or crafts.
    Around one hundred years ago, a new meaning started to appear; technology started to refer also to the
    business of exercising those skills, to the skills and crafts themselves.
    And very swiftly, it started to include the tools, the machinery, devices and instruments involved in those skills
    and crafts, and their output or products - things.

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  14. activity > thing
    Technology becomes something
    ❖ to consume, rather than learn or study
    ❖ morally neutral, rather than a good
    Technology
    We’ve seen a shift in meaning, from study and skill to tools and equipment.
    Our relationship with technology has changed, from the relationship we have with a science to that we have with
    a thing.
    We now tend to speak and think of technology as something to acquire or possess, rather than to study.
    Under the old meaning, there was an implication of value, that is, of skill and human agency and purpose; as a
    tool, it’s just morally neutral stuff.
    We can’t say that this newer meaning is wrong, or that the old one was better. It just is. Still, it seems a bit of a
    shame, and something has been lost with the old meaning. Under the old notion of technology, there was an
    implicit invitation to learn, to dive into it.

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  15. activity > thing
    Communication: from the Latin to share
    ❖ activity: conveying something to another
    ❖ thing: the conduit between things, the content
    communicated
    Communication
    It happens to other concepts too.
    Communication and information have undergone similar shifts. They are metaphorical words, and the dominant
    metaphors represented in them have shifted, to the extent now that the original dominant metaphors are hard to
    spot sometimes.
    Communication referred to the activity of sharing, of actions that carry something from one to another. Now, the
    dominant metaphor is one in which communication is some sort of conduit between things, or container that
    carries them, or sometimes also the communicated content. It’s another shift from agency to object.

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  16. activity > thing
    Information: from the Latin to give shape to
    ❖ activity: shaping, pressing form into something
    ❖ thing: the content of communication or thought, data
    Information
    This is even more evident in the case of information, where the dominant metaphor has drifted much further than
    in the case of communication.
    Information was the act of pressing a shape into something, to give it a form - consider the acts of formation,
    deformation, reformation. Now, the dominant sense of information is the content of communication - stuff that
    can be passed around, stored in a computer system.

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  17. Twentieth-century shift
    agency > thing
    technology
    communication
    information
    study or science > tools, machinery
    communicative action > conduit, container
    shaping, impressing > content

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  18. Does it matter?
    Does this actually matter? And if it does, does it actually matter very much, enough to be bothered about?
    Well, let’s consider the work that words like information, communication and technology do.

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  19. Information in bioethics
    ❖ there is a crisis in bioethics, around informed consent
    ❖ if information is content, informed consent is unattainable
    ❖ rethinking information as activity offers a solution
    If we can take a digression into bioethics: there is a crisis in this discipline, and it’s not a just an academic
    problem, but one that now affects anyone who faces choices in clinical treatment.
    The Nuremberg Code of 1947 and the Declaration of Helsinki in 1964 were attempts to respond to the horrors of
    Nazi medical practice by asserting autonomy (of the research subject or the patient) as a core value in bioethics;
    they were part of a sustained project in bioethics, that continues today. The notion of informed consent is right at
    the heart of this project; without it, autonomy is impossible.
    Unfortunately, this project is in difficulty. It demands and reaches for very high and rigorous standards of
    consent. But, the gap between demanded and possible consent can’t be closed.

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  20. Information in bioethics
    ❖ there is a crisis in bioethics, around informed consent
    ❖ if information is content, informed consent is unattainable
    ❖ rethinking information as activity offers a solution
    The problem lies in the dominant model of autonomy, in which autonomy is aligned with choice - to choose or
    refuse treatment, to choose between treatments, to choose whether or not or how to participate as a research
    subject, and it’s increasingly modelled after the kind of choice we have as consumers.
    In this model, we are given all the information about our available choices, and allowed to make the one that
    suits us.
    That works tolerably well for buying washing machines and iPhones, perhaps, but very badly in medicine.
    Most of us can’t understand the information; the more of it there is, the harder it is to make our judgements. The
    urge is to pile on more information to make the consent more informed, and this has the opposite effect.
    Research ethics committees pump out huge and bewildering consent forms in a desperate attempt to close the
    gap, so that research subjects - people like you and me - can make satisfactory judgements about “the aims,
    methods, sources of funding, and any possible conflicts of interest, institutional affiliations, the anticipated
    benefits and potential risks” before consenting to participating in a study.
    Worse, in the ever-more desperate attempt to secure informed consent this kind of information is even provided
    to clinical subjects, who are somehow expected to make the same judgements.
    This doesn’t happen just in rarified circles of medical practice. Probably most people have had the experience of
    a medical consultation in which we are presented with some options, and asked to choose, with the clinician
    sitting back and waiting for us to make our choice as if they were waiting for us to choose which washing
    machine or iPhone we wanted. They have given us the information, so that now we can give our informed
    consent. And the responsibility for the choice is ours.

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  21. Information in bioethics
    ❖ there is a crisis in bioethics, around informed consent
    ❖ if information is content, informed consent is unattainable
    ❖ rethinking information as activity offers a solution
    And what is happening here is that all the attention is on the question of consent, while the question of
    information has been neglected. If information is stuff, content, data with meaning, then shovelling it all in the
    direction of the medical subject is all you can do. But if we rethink information, turn to the older metaphor, then
    the picture changes.
    Informing the medical subject becomes a question of how the activity of information is pursued, a responsibility
    for the clinician or researcher. It brings agency back into the model of communication, placing informed consent
    in the communicative transactions that take place between agents, relying on values of honesty, clarity,
    intelligibility, relevance, comprehension, attention to the needs and abilities of the other party, affirmation of
    mutual understanding and so on.
    So yes, it can matter very much what metaphors or senses are at work in the way we use familiar words like
    information and technology, and we need to be aware of them and how they have shifted, and what the
    implications of those shifts are.

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  22. Documentation as information
    ❖ RTFM, LMGTFY
    Here’s another example, closer to home.
    Have you ever hesitated to ask for help with a programming question, for example on IRC, because you felt that
    the answer was already out there if only you knew how to find it, or perhaps, how to understand it, and that you
    might be invited, possibly with some irritation, to Read the Fucking Manual by someone who thought you were
    just being lazy or stupid?
    You might be right to hesitate; people who already know things can be remarkably forgetful about how they
    learned them, or what it was like not to know them, and they’re not always sympathetic and friendly to people
    who don’t yet know them.
    (In other words, they can’t remember a time before they became smart-arse thirteen-year-olds, and quite
    frankly, some of them are at risk of never moving past that stage.)

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  23. Perhaps you’ve asked a question and someone has replied with a link to the sarcastic let me Google that for you
    website. I hate that website and what it stands for, because it stands for putting down people who are asking for
    help in understanding something, and telling them that the reason they don’t understand what they want to
    know is that they are not good enough to learn it.
    Insofar as information is content, it’s possible to think and respond like this. The information is out there, and it’s
    freely available to anyone with an Internet connection, so go ahead, help yourself to the information and if you
    don’t, that’s your problem.

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  24. Documentation as information
    ❖ RTFM, LMGTFY
    ❖ documentation becomes a sign of respect
    ❖ documentation and information represent the way we
    treat people in our community
    But if we think of information as an activity, as a series of communicative transactions between agents, this
    changes. Just as in the case of informed consent, informing people becomes a question of how the activity of
    information is pursued. Once more it brings agency back into the model of communication, demanding that we
    respect those values of honesty, clarity, intelligibility, relevance, comprehension, attention to the needs and
    abilities of the other party, affirmation of mutual understanding and so on.
    When you’re doing that, you can’t pretend you are informing people by telling them to read the fucking manual
    or sarcastically Googling it for them.
    In software, good documentation, and a default position that if someone doesn’t understand it then the problem
    lies in the documentation rather than the person who struggled to understand, becomes a sign of respect, an
    expression of those values.
    In the Django community, we’re quite rightly proud of this. One of the keys to its success has been the quality of
    its documentation. It’s perhaps the best documentation that any open-source software project has produced -
    ever.
    Django’s documentation sets standards, expectations and the tone for communication, especially for
    communication with less expert users of it.

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  25. Documentation as information
    ❖ RTFM, LMGTFY
    ❖ documentation becomes a sign of respect
    ❖ documentation and information represent the way we
    treat people in our community
    I have an interesting experience. If I tell a software developer that I’m a member of the Django core development
    team, then - if they know what Django is - they seem suitably impressed. Then they ask me what I work on, and
    the answer is: documentation, mainly.
    Other programmers from outside the Python community generally find it hard to hide their sudden
    disappointment, even embarrassment or a species of bewildered incomprehension: …documentation? It’s as if
    they thought they were being introduced to Superman and now it turns out it’s just Clark Kent. Sometimes, I get
    the impression that that one of the possibilities crossing their mind is that I am telling some sort of joke.
    When I say to a Python or Django user that my main role is contributing to documentation, typically the reaction
    I get is Oh, documentation! Great!
    I get similar responses to my job title. I’m officially a Community and documentation manager. I’ve seen some
    other programmers almost recoil when they read that on my business card; the Python/Django developers tend
    to seem a lot more pleased to see it.
    What all this means, I think, is that in this community, in some contexts at least, we do think of information as
    the activity of informing, something we do, rather than as a collection of content, and that this idea of
    information has had real, meaningful, beneficial consequences for people who use Python and Django.
    And if you want to see the result, go ahead and try asking your questions on IRC, in the Python or Django
    channels, and see whether you are told to read the manual or whether someone seems to think that it’s part of
    their responsibility to help inform you.

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  26. Technology and skill
    ❖ technology in schools fails to produce the desired results
    ❖ if technology is stuff, no wonder people just want to buy it
    ❖ rethinking technology around skill offers an alternative
    Another example, about the word technology this time. The education system - in the United Kingdom, at any
    rate - is obsessed with technology.
    Technology in schools is a mantra, an ambition, a fervent desire on the part of head teachers and of education
    secretaries in successive governments. You can’t visit a British school without having someone brag at you
    about technology in the classroom. They’re certainly more eager to tell you about their IT suites, iPads and
    interactive whiteboards than they are to tell you about their actual teachers.
    Unfortunately, all the evidence suggests that this enthusiasm for computer equipment not only fails to procure
    any educational advantage, it appears to have the opposite effect. Just last month there was another report, this
    time from the OECD, that concluded that there were no appreciable improvements in key subjects in nations
    that had invested heavily in IT in schools, that pupils who are encouraged to use computers frequently in
    schools get worse results, that the school systems that do the best have much lower levels of computer use -
    even when it comes to learning digitals skills, never mind all those other skills that pupils need to learn.
    The UK, needless to say, is amongst the countries with the highest expenditure on digital equipment in schools,
    and the highest use in the classroom - and far poorer attainment than any country with its wealth and resources
    should be achieving.
    Politicians and headteachers are dazzled by digital gadgets. I’ve seen crows who were able to muster a more
    critical attitude towards shiny things. And classroom teachers seem to be either complicit in this uncritical
    conspiracy, or unable to find ways to resist it.
    Once again, what is at work here is a notion that technology is a thing, that you consume, buy, splatter
    indiscriminately around the classroom.

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  27. Technology and skill
    ❖ technology in schools fails to produce the desired results
    ❖ if technology is stuff, no wonder people just want to buy it
    ❖ rethinking technology around skill offers an alternative
    If we return to our idea of technology as being concerned with skill - techne - on the other hand, then we can
    see that expecting children to learn technology (i.e. to learn skills) by surrounding them with tools and
    equipment is like expecting to learn by sleeping with books under your pillow. If anyone is wondering, it doesn’t
    work.
    I was an information technology teacher in high school, and what I wanted to do was teach and share skills.
    Now of course that would involve teaching pupils how to use tools and equipment, but I was dismayed to
    discover that teaching the use of tools was almost the only thing I was expected to do (in fact, using the tools of
    a single software manufacturer).

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  28. Technology, magic and skill
    –Arthur C. Clarke
    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is
    indistinguishable from magic.”
    Arthur C Clarke famously said: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
    Does technology refer to tools and machinery, or to techne? To lasers and face-recognition software, or to skill
    and craft? To things, or to agency?
    Well, there is a magic in skills, but there’s no magic in tools or equipment. The way a saw for example cuts is not
    like magic, clever though it may be; what seems like magic is seeing someone’s skill at work, transforming
    materials and the world. A computer isn’t magical, but seeing a good programmer exercise their skill is.
    It doesn’t matter in which discipline the skill lies: in programming, woodwork, a martial art, building consensus,
    teaching, playing an instrument - it’s the skill, the craft, the techne, that is indistinguishable from magic, if it’s
    exercised by someone of sufficiently advanced skill, and not the shiny tools and the gadgets and the software
    they do it with. Anyone who learns a new skill is familiar with that experience, the thrill of holding new magic and
    power.
    This was all missing in the teaching I was supposed to be doing, and I didn’t stay an IT teacher for very long.
    And this, and that millions of pounds have been wasted buying unnecessary stuff to fail to educate children,
    can be traced back to a problem about words, to our having lost or forgotten a sense of technology that implied
    agency, skill, techne.
    So yes, I think it does matter.

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  29. Baggage-laden words
    So far we have seen how even innocent and apparently uncontroversial and unpolitical words like information
    and technology can have very significant political, ethical and social implications.
    No-one’s exactly fighting or getting excited over words like information, except maybe people like me and some
    bioethicists.
    If words like information and technology can be at the root of such difficulties, what about words that are already
    baggage-laden and divisive?

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  30. What do these rugs have in common?
    What do these rugs have in common?
    The answer is that they both caused far more trouble to their owners than they ever expected.
    In the case of the Big Lebowski rug, it was just bad luck, a case of mistaken identity.

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  31. But here’s the GitHub rug, with a troublesome word brazenly woven into it. (They got rid of it eventually.)

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  32. meritocracy: in which power and advancement come to
    those who have earned it, who are worthy of it
    ❖ our industry: sexist, racist, exclusionary
    ❖ it’s a myth: a story that serves a purpose
    Why is meritocracy a dirty word?
    What’s wrong with meritocracy? It’s such a humble word, and even that nice Tony Blair praised the idea of a
    meritocratic society.
    Meritocracy is the notion that power should go not to those who are born to it, or given it by their powerful
    friends, or manage to wrest it from someone else, but to those who deserve it because they have earned it.
    It’s a very old concept, and most people seem to think it’s a good thing.
    So why does it cause so much fuss?
    There are good reasons for being suspicious of the word.
    The software industry in general - and open source software in particular - is accused of being sexist, racist and
    exclusionary, ruled over by a very narrow class of individuals, almost all white and male.
    It’s possible that white men just are better at creating software than other people, but you have to admit it seems
    most unlikely. Yet, there they are, at the top, making the decisions, leading the way.
    And they seem to run, whether they consciously or deliberately mean to or not, a kind of ship in which only
    people who are much like them find it easy to become captains. It does seem to be an industry in which white
    men continue to advance other white men to the exclusion of people who aren’t white men.

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  33. meritocracy: in which power and advancement come to
    those who have earned it, who are worthy of it
    ❖ our industry: sexist, racist, exclusionary
    ❖ it’s a myth: a story that serves a purpose
    Why is meritocracy a dirty word?
    So announcing proudly that an industry, or a company, is a meritocracy must stick in the craw of the people who
    feel they work just as hard and just as well as the ones who get invited to the captain’s table and get to be best
    buddies with him, but seem to be persistently, as a class, overlooked.
    The notion that it is a meritocracy meanwhile functions as a very useful myth: if it’s a meritocracy, and you’re not
    doing so well, it’s your fault. I’m not responsible. So you ought not to complain, and I don’t need to feel to
    bothered about your lack of advancement.
    So you can see why critics of the industry would like to tear down this particular myth, because it works only in
    the interests of the class of individuals who already hold the power.
    Sometimes people will resist these attacks on meritocracy, often with a certain amount of irritation and scorn,
    noting that just because a practice fails to live up to a promise does not necessarily devalue a concept, and that
    what matters, after all, is the value that lies in the concept.
    Especial scorn is reserved for attempts to prescribe the use of words, like meritocracy, as a wrong-headed
    assault on the freedom to use words while failing to address actual problems in the world, and worse, taking a
    good word that means a good thing that we should be proud of, and cynically trying to make it mean something
    bad and shameful, for political purposes.

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  34. The Rise of the
    Meritocracy
    Michael Young, 1958
    In the case of meritocracy, this irritation is misplaced. While the concept’s quite old, the word is very new (so
    new that it doesn’t even appear in my 1980s edition of the OED, except in the addenda of newly-listed words).
    In fact as far as I am aware, the word was created in 1958 by Michael Young, for his sarcastic description of a
    dystopian society in which power and advancement came to a narrow class of individuals, who were the ones
    best able to perform well in the various tests and challenges that were used to select its leaders.
    This narrow class came from the same backgrounds and had the same kind of education; they were also the
    ones who would devise the tests that measured aptitude and fitness to lead, the ones who made judgements
    about the worthiness of individuals to lead and the ones responsible for the structure of the system in which
    they were educated.
    Meritocracy places a seal of approval on a special minority, and abandons the majority; the meritocratic class
    reproduces itself and consolidates its position by controlling selection of those who advance to power.
    In his fictional society, the old social classes had been swept away by the philosophy of merit - creating an
    equally stratified and rigid new one in its place, ruled by this self-serving meritocratic elite.
    Unfortunately for Michael Young, meritocracy very swiftly lost its negative meaning, and within a few years
    politicians’ speechwriters and GitHub’s rug-makers were obliviously weaving it into their handiwork. Maybe they
    should have read more dystopian literature.
    Michael Young was appropriately disappointed, but would have been pleased with the critics of meritocracy who
    are in fact - whether they have read his book or not - asserting a negative, critical meaning for it that is much
    closer to the original one.

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  35. So what?
    So what does this prove, that in 1958 someone wrote a sarcastic book whose invented word was then taken up
    to mean something quite different from the meaning he gave it?
    Once again, as in the case of other words, like technology or information, we don’t prove anything with an
    appeal to the origins of a word. But words’ origins are meaningful, and they do illuminate what the words are
    doing. In the case of meritocracy, even if Tony Blair or GitHub or anyone else uses it to mean something good
    and wholesome, knowing how it came about helps us understand just how clever the concept is, and how
    successfully and powerfully it can hide truths and build myths in ways that we should be suspicious of.
    Some words, like meritocracy, are a site where contesting meanings and metaphors still vie for dominance.
    (Meritocracy by the way was seized upon by people who wanted to find a worthier alternative to concepts like
    aristocracy - a word which itself used to mean rule of the best, that is rule of those who have earned the right to
    it by being the best-qualified, rather than rule of those born to it, or the most powerful, or the wealthiest. How
    words change…)

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  36. Master and slave
    The Rails on Ruby crowd would have a good laugh at all the earnest agonising that goes on in the Django
    Project, that’s for sure.
    In May 2014, the Django Project received a pull request concerning databases, suggesting a change from
    master/slave to leader/follower. Within a few hours it had been accepted, and then amended to primary/replica,
    which was better anyway.
    The howls of derision that followed went on for weeks; comments on the pull request piled up until GitHub
    support finally locked it.
    It wasn’t just derision, but fury. This didn’t just get up people’s noses, it vigorously tweaked their noses and
    drove them to remarkable levels of anger.
    Yes, leader/follower wasn’t a great choice, but that was amended within a couple of hours anyway. So why the
    rage?
    I mentioned earlier that especial scorn is reserved for attempts to prescribe the use of words, like meritocracy,
    as a wrong-headed assault on the freedom to use words while failing to address actual problems in the world.
    This was certainly such a case.
    But it was quite clear that the words mattered to people on both sides of the argument, including the ones who
    didn’t want them to change. They were angry not because someone else was doing something silly or pointless,
    but doing something that tampered with something that they cared about: words.
    So some of the fury was certainly misplaced, if not actually self-contradictory: people raging that it’s a mistake
    to pay too much attention to words, while raging that someone has done something with words.

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  37. Master and slave
    Actually when I saw this change away from master/slave, it hadn’t occurred to me that it was a problem; master
    and slave were familiar terms that referred to all kinds of mechanical and electronic arrangements (such as
    braking systems, photographic flash units, amplifiers) and it hadn’t once had any political resonance at all.
    It seemed to me like a fairly pointless but harmless bit of gesture politics that tried to address a problem that
    didn’t really exist. So my own response was something like: OK, if you really want this and feel it’s important, but
    I couldn’t say I felt positively about it.
    But I remembered another conversation I’d had about slavery about ten years earlier.
    When I was a school teacher, one of the pupils in my school had, in fact, been a slave - an actual slave,
    trafficked and sold as if he were a thing. He had been found wandering alone at a fairground campsite some
    years before. He had been purchased, sold, and got rid of.
    And two weeks after that I had a conversation with someone who told me that he was a slave, an S&M slave,
    and that was his lifestyle choice. (I do mean lifestyle choice, not just a sexual preference; he chose to live as
    someone’s slave. I remember asking him if he was allowed to read newspapers or had political opinions, or
    voted.)
    And I had felt some outrage; this American in a free country, this free man, playing at being a slave, as if it were
    the same kind of choice as what clothes to dress up in, and how insulting that seemed to the suffering and
    horror of the real experience of slavery that had been described to me just a short time before.
    Ten years later, it took me a while to remember how I had felt about that appropriation of slavery - to remember
    that I had felt anything about it - but once I had, the notion that the word should be treated with more care by
    software engineers didn’t seem quite so outlandish.

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  38. And why not? We make easy targets with the the decisions that we make quite seriously, that
    many people consider ridiculous.

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  39. Here’s another one.
    And why shouldn’t we? (Quite apart from the fact that its our project and we can do what we like with it.)
    If language and words do matter, then we’re right to pay this sort of attention.
    And if language and words don’t, then at the very worst we are harmlessly wasting our own time, and nobody
    has any business complaining.

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  40. And so…
    So where does this leave us?
    It’s neither my purpose not my job to tell anyone what words should mean, and it’s not our business to tell
    anyone what words they must use.
    But, words are the way we communicate, and I do think we should be paying attention to them.

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  41. Pay attention to words
    That means paying attention to what they mean, what they used to mean, what they could mean. It means
    exploring the other stories and metaphors and assumptions that are packed into them. It means trying to
    understand how the meaning of words has shifted; what pressures caused the slip and what the implications
    are.
    You can’t expect to solve problems by doing this; problems exist in the world, and that is where their solutions
    must be found, but you can discover the roots of some problems and clues towards their solution.
    So pay attention to words. Keep your eyes open.

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  42. Read your Plato and your dystopian satires, if you like that kind of thing anyway.

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  43. Look for trouble
    Look for trouble, or rather, look for the words that always seem to be found at the scenes of trouble, the ones
    that might not mean what we think they mean, and try to be around them, and learn to enjoy their company -
    because there’s always something new to learn from them.

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  44. Make friends with those words…

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  45. and learn their secrets.

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