Keynote talk at PyCon UK 2015.
How does power in open-source software work, and why are people so reluctant to talk about it?
What I really want is power
I want to talk about something that's very close to my heart - power.
In technology, people talk a lot about power.
The attraction of technology itself is (and has been, since early humanity
mastered basic tools) the amplification of human power.
Power is not what defines us, but still: without power, we have nothing.
Humanity’s unique capacity is to have ideas - to have visions, desires, to
conceive of and reach for things that don't yet exist. We aren’t human
without ideas, but still:
ideas without power are useless
…ideas without power are useless.
Power isn't just an inessential attribute of human endeavour, it's an
intrinsic part of it.
Power makes ideas meaningful in the world.
So naturally, we judge technology by its power.
But even though technological power is inextricably connected to what it is
to be human, while technological power is fascinating and important, I
think there is an even more important kind of power.
power over people
Power over people - the power to influence and affect others.
That is, power over the way the world is, and the way the world works.
I have always been full of ideas, but power has been more elusive.
If ideas without power are useless, then I confess that I have been fairly
useless for most of my life.
I want power. I don’t want to feel useless. I want to be able to influence
and affect other people, and the world.
people don’t like to talk like this
People don’t like this kind of talk, but I want to talk about this and like this
precisely because other people are more reluctant to.
Not having more power seems to trouble other people less than it bothers
Maybe, other people are more content with the power they have. Maybe,
they feel less useless. Maybe they are simply happier, nicer people who
don’t resent the power they don’t have.
Maybe they just don’t like to admit such things. But I am shameless, so I
will happily talk about them in public.
power = usefulness
I’ve said that ideas without power are useless.
I want to insist that this is true, and also that it applies to all kinds of power
- not just the technological power that you are comfortable talking about,
but also the power over other people that perhaps you are not so thrilled
to be asked to discuss.
Power is what makes ideas, and the people who have them, useful.
I would like you to take this equation of power and usefulness seriously;
we’ll come back to it later.
the economy of power
I also believe that there is an economy of power, just as there is an
economy of money, and that in the economy of power some people are
haves and some people are have-nots.
One of the reasons is that people are reluctant to talk very directly about
power in this way is the same reason that people tend to be reluctant to
talk about money or salaries.
it is socially
unacceptable to talk
Talking about power is like talking about money. It’s not considered polite.
It makes for awkward situations. Social encounters are easier when we
don't place these subjects flatly, baldly on the table.
Of course we can talk about power (or money) in general, in the abstract,
from a safe distance. Very respectable, socially acceptable people discuss
economics and politics without awkwardness at all.
But that distance is crucial. They’re not talking about how much they earn,
or you earn. It’s not personal.
Talk about this sort of thing too brazenly, and people will shuffle very
Just try starting a conversation this evening at the conference dinner
about how much power or money your fellow diners have compared to
each other if you’d like to discover how welcome a subject it is.
how very convenient!
How very convenient!
We ought to ask: in whose interest is it, exactly, that we pass quickly over
questions of who has the power and money?
power is too
important to be polite
Power is too important to be polite about.
Power means a change you can make in the world, influence over other
people, and we can’t afford to allow mere discomfort to stop us talking
So let’s be prepared to talk uncomfortably about power if that’s what is
I've felt the lack of power very keenly sometimes.
The more you want to make a difference in the world, the more ideas you
have, the more likely you are to feel useless, because you are useless
unless you hold power.
how I acquired power
I didn't acquire power, and I wasn’t as useful as I felt I ought to be, until I
discovered how to be involved in open-source software, where I managed
to get hold of the power that had been so elusive all my life.
the economy of power
And I was able to get hold of power because the economy of power in the
open-source movement is not what it is elsewhere.
You may have noticed that money is jealously guarded. People tend not to
leave it lying around.
The same goes for power, as you will have discovered if you ever tried to
get into government or into the cockpit of an airliner.
Basically, people who have money and power also know what's good for
But weirdly, in the world of open-source software, power is simply left lying
around for you to pick up. It's that very rare thing, unguarded power. It's
not even simply left lying around, it's actually given away.
I helped myself to it
So I helped myself to it.
As generously as possible.
power over others
Don’t misunderstand me. I am speaking of real power, including life-
changing, career-determining, power over others.
It was there for the taking; I took it, and of course many other people have
helped themselves too.
and people are too
polite to talk about it
I think this matters, and yet people are too polite, too nice, too friendly (not
envious and resentful enough, like I am) to notice it, or talk about it or
and so it goes
unremarked and unnoticed
The trouble when people don't talk about things, is that then they don't get
seen, or thought about either - so they simply pass unremarked and
let’s take this seriously
I think it’s remarkable how little gets said about so much power, and I think one reason for that is
that people simple don’t realise how much power is at stake.
Let’s take this seriously by looking at an example. As conference organisers, of DjangoCon Europe
this year, we determined where 350 or so people spent a week of their lives.
We determined that they would travel to Cardiff. We determined when they would do it, and what
they would do when they got there; we determined what they ate, when they ate, what they heard
about, what experiences they would have. We determined who would speak, who’d get a platform,
whose voice would be heard.
All these things were determined on the basis of what we wanted to achieve - our ideas, and our
values, and our picture of the how the world should be.
That’s a lot to determine on behalf of other people.
(Don’t dismiss even the most basic things like conference dates or when people eat as being
insignificant. Every date on the calendar has cultural significance for someone; Passover or
Ramadan might not have much meaning for you or me, but there are plenty of people for whom they
do. Just imagine if the biggest event in your software community were held over Christmas.)
you can’t not
If you are a conference organiser or someone in a position of power in a
community, you can’t not exercise this power.
The decent mild and polite people who have put a huge amount of work
into this PyCon UK are quietly shaking their heads and thinking: but no,
that's not how I see it; I wasn't wielding power, imposing my agenda on
450 people, I was just helping organise a PyCon and trying to be useful.
They are wrong. As I've said, even when you are making decisions that
have to be made (such as choosing a date) rather than explicitly pursuing
an aim (such as having more women speakers or speakers from
minorities) you are imposing your choices and asserting your values and
steering the world in a certain direction.
So you can’t not exercise this power…
… even if you want not to
You can’t opt out. The point about political choices is that you can’t choose
not to make them.
If you positively want not to pursue a political agenda, that means you are
following a political agenda, because you are putting your weight behind
the status quo, you are endorsing the current distribution of power - it’s a
choice like any other.
The fact is that a conference is organised in the organiser's image, and
reflects the organiser's ideology. DjangoCon wasn't me throwing my
weight around, it was me throwing around the weight of the entire Django
community, not to mention well over one hundred thousand pounds of its
Now that’s what I call power.
That was just what I wanted all along.
But: am I, are the other people who have picked up the power they’ve
found lying around, to be trusted with it?
How is this power actually being used?
How have I used the power I helped myself to?
very carefully, and in a
completely irreproachable way
Let me just reassure you that of course I used it very carefully, and in a
completely irreproachable way.
But then, doesn’t everyone who exercises power think they are doing it in
the right way?
who picks up the power?
And who gets to pick up the power, this power that’s there for the taking?
people like me
People like me, who want it, who have the time and confidence and
power to seize it, and to do things with it.
and where has this got us?
Fortunately, we can see, very obviously and clearly, what has happened
as a result, what people do when they take the opportunity to pick up
some of this power that has generously been left there for the taking.
In the Python community for example:
the free software projects
We have some superb software projects, quite apart from Python itself, led
by some genuinely good people.
Django’s the one I know best, but it’s far from the only one, led by
genuinely decent, thoughtful, responsible people who have helped create
safe, useful, valuable software and safe, kind, generous communities.
the community events
We have some excellent events, like the PyCons that fill the calendar right
across the year and across the world, led by generous and hard-working
people who want to do nothing more than share the things they have
benefitted from with other people.
(Events like this PyCon of course, and people like John Pinner.)
the ideas and initiatives
We have some audacious initiatives, like Django Girls, that have changed
people’s lives, but that sprang out of seemingly nowhere, that picked up
the power and wielded it as if they were born with it, to change a small
part of the world in a way that makes it better, that opens up opportunities
to new people, in a way that once again does its best to share the power.
so let’s not complain
So let’s not complain about things that are not wrong. In fact, as far as I
can see it, there’s little to complain about. The way power is used by the
people who pick it up really seems to be pretty good.
well, it seems to be anyway
Well, at least it seems to be, from my perspective.
At least it is, so far.
So even though I think there’d be a lot of agreement that things have
worked well, in fact right here we have two problems we should take
seriously before we can declare ourselves confident.
Firstly, can I rely on my perspective?
I am a Django core developer, and a member of the Django Software
Foundation; I was the chair of DjangoCon Europe this year and it was a
big success, and I led the organisation of Python Namibia this year, and
that was a success too, and then there was Django Weekend and another
DjangoCon Europe last year and so on.
Things look pretty good from here! Things look pretty good to me.
But maybe, now that I have all this power, I’m not actually in the best
position to hear about, to be aware of, to understand any problems with
the way it has worked.
So, let’s not be too confident just because things seem rosy to us,
especially if things look rosy from a position of power, and let’s not ever
get confident that we understand how things seem for people who don’t
The other problem is that things change.
Things might actually be pretty good now, but if there's one thing we know
about power it’s how quickly it can change hands, fall into the wrong ones,
be used in ways that harm instead of help people, especially ones who
have less of it.
Things might be pretty good now, but we have no guarantees at all that
they will continue to be.
Sometimes things go bad suddenly, taking us by surprise so that by the
time we realise it’s too late.
Sometimes they go bad slowly, so that we don’t notice it happening and
then by the time we realise it’s too late.
what to do?
keep our eyes on the power
I don't think that the fact that we leave power lying around is a problem; in
fact, I think that has been one of the defences against abuse of power
that the open-source software movement has enjoyed.
I think it's something importantly and fundamentally right in our economy
But I do think that just because we leave it lying around for others to pick
up should not mean that we don't keep our eyes on it.
talk about it
think about it
We need to look for power where it’s hiding, and see it at work, and how it
works, especially in places where we don’t realise it is - and it’s
We need to watch it, be aware of it, be sensitive to it, and understand what
is happening to it.
And for that to happen, we have to talk about it and think about it in ways
that we are not used to doing.
It's easy for me to talk and think about it, because by nature I am a
desirable combination of being resentful of my lack of power, envious of
the power of others, eager for power, and shameless in admitting it.
Other people are not so lucky.
acknowledge your power
Not everybody wants power, but if you have power, you must
acknowledge it - even if the very idea that the work you’re doing (running
a conference, serving a software community, managing an open-source
software project) constitutes power gives you the creeps.
It’s your duty to acknowledge the power you have, because it helps
ensure that you don’t forget to consider how other people will be affected
by what you think, decide and do.
It’s your duty to, because almost nothing is more potentially dangerous
than a person who is oblivious to the fact that they hold power over others.
It’s your duty to, because if you don’t acknowledge that you hold power,
you have no way to understand that other people can be excluded by it -
even if that’s the opposite of what you want. It’s absolutely not enough
merely not to want that to happen - you need to understand your own
power to make sure it doesn’t.
If you don’t have power, take it. It’s there for the taking. It’s yours to have. There
seems to be an unlimited supply of it.
One of the amazing things about the economy of power in open-source software is
that when you take it, it doesn’t have to mean taking it away from anyone else. It’s
what economists call a non-rival good - my acquiring it doesn’t deprive you of it. In
fact it’s often an anti-rival good - one that the more I take of it, the more there is
available for you.
Another remarkable thing is that people who do have power seem to welcome
sharing it. (Even me; I may be envious of power I don’t have, but I am not jealous
of the power that I do.) You don’t have to fight for it; much of the time you don’t even
need to ask for it. Just pick it up and start using it.
You may not be in a position of power right now, but the economy of power we enjoy
in this movement gives you plenty of opportunities to engage with it. Ask questions.
Have ideas. Make suggestions. Do things. Remind it that you’re there.
It’s relatively easy to do all these things in our world of open-source software, in our
economy where power is an anti-rival good.
But, it will be impossible to acknowledge the power we have, or to take the
power that’s available to us, if we fail to recognise power for what it is, if
we’re too squeamish to name it and too polite to talk about it in the first
So even though you’ve been well-educated by the structures of power, all
your lives, not to be resentful if you lack it, not to be envious of the power
of others, not to be eager for it, and to find it a bit shameful if you do,
please try to take this seriously enough to shake off that conditioning so
that you can talk about power clearly, properly and openly.
It might be uncomfortable to start conversations about power, but it won’t
actually hurt. And the more you do it, and the more everyone does it, the
less uncomfortable it will become.
power = usefulness
Now here’s the really good news.
I began with the claim that ideas without power are useless, and that
there’s an important equation between power and usefulness.
In fact, in our open-source economy of power where power is freely-
available for the taking, exercising power is actually the same thing as
That is, being of service is the same as having power.
Normally we think of these as being opposed to each other, that if some
people have power then others must relegated to roles of mere service, as
far as that power is concerned.
In our economy of power, they are not.
having power = being of service
In fact, the way you take the power that’s lying around for the taking is by being of
service. Influence comes from service. The power that is lying around for the taking is
work that needs to be done.
I mean this in practical ways and at every level:
If you review a pull request for an open-source project, that’s service; it’s also a tug of
influence, however small, that you have just asserted over that project and its future.
If you contribute a line to some documentation, that’s service; it’s also your idea of what
the software is, being made concrete.
If you contribute a feature to a software project, that’s service; it’s also your vision
becoming reality, not just for yourself, but everyone who uses it.
If you serve a conference by helping organise it, you’re imbuing it with your values,
steering it with your influence.
If you put yourself to work, generously and usefully, on behalf of any project or event or
initiative or undertaking, you’re exercising power that will affect other people.
power over others
This adds up to life-changing, career-determining, power over others,
genuine political power, and it’s a very good thing.
I think that here, in our Python world, power is in the hands of the right
people, who have already achieved some very remarkable things with it,
who have been of excellent service, and who positively want to share that
power with others - with you, with people like you, if you haven’t already
picked it up.
Our defence against abuse of that power is not to guard it jealously; on the
contrary, we’re safer if we do leave power lying around.
In fact, abuse of power is anyway less of a threat than power’s inadvertent
tendency to exclude, for those of us with power not to realise the subtle
ways it keeps out the people who don’t have it.
Our defence against both threats, whether deliberate abuse or
inadvertent exclusion, is the same: to talk about it, recognise it, and take
take power, and serve
So take power, and use it, and be of service, and don’t be reluctant to let
your ideas turn into real things through it, and don’t be afraid to let your
values influence the world through it.
Don’t be ashamed of the idea of taking power, because here in our part of
the world, taking part is the same thing as taking power.
What I really want is power
Because, when I say that:
! What I really want is power…
What I really want is to be of use
… what I mean is:
! What I really want is to be of use.
And mostly, I think that is all that anybody really wants.
Take part. Take power. Be useful.