Monday, December 8, 2014

Eternal September And Meritocracy As A Religion

Meritocracy and Bad Music

Several years ago I wrote a series of articles about digital sampling that ended up being quite thought provoking for me, not so much about the technology itself but how people use it.  Through the writing process I confirmed and clarified my belief in technology as potentially empowering, but how we apply technology is wrapped up in social forces that can undermine that potential.  Here I want to tie those ideas into some bigger issues facing tech communities, geek culture and free software.

It used to be that samplers, sequencers, synthesizers, drum machines and recording equipment were expensive and hard to use.  It also used to be that you needed a recording contract to get your music distributed beyond your home town and merchandise table.  Easy to use sampling software (and other relatively accessible music technology) and inexpensive digital distribution has lead to an explosion in the amount of electronic music[0] that is being created and shared.  We have gotten to a point where an entire album could be produced and uploaded to a digital distributor using just a smartphone.  It could be on the big download and streaming services in days, all for less than the cost of renting a commercial studio for a few hours.

On the surface the single biggest problem with this trend is that a lot of the music is pretty bad.  I know that's subjective, but I think there are qualities that universally flag a musical performance as amateurish, cliched, sloppy, insincere, lifeless, boring or other things nobody wants to hear.  And believe me, such recordings litter the Internet--a fact I couldn't be happier about.

I couldn't be happier because I believe bad music is a necessary precursor of good music.  We can't have one without the other.  I'm not talking about the "you can't know what light is without darkness" reference point thing.  I mean that with the exception of an extremely small number of people with extremely unusual gifts[1] every musician starts out bad.  Even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who famously played the clavier at four and composed at five, didn't start out by composing Don Giovanni.  He started out with short, simple pieces we find remarkable now mostly because of who he became after many years of study and practice[1.5].  My guess is that when he first pounded on a keyboard, as a toddler, it sounded just as random as when other toddlers do the same thing.

I'm not trying to bring a genius down to my level.  I'm making the point that if no toddler were ever allowed to pound randomly on a keyboard Don Giovanni would never have been composed.  Therefore, I believe bad music is a wonderful and necessary thing, not just for toddlers, but for anybody who has the slightest inclination to make music.  The last thing we should do is send bad musicians the message that they needn't bother, that they aren't good enough to be "one of us" or any other discouraging thing.  We might even need to be polite and listen to them play badly.

Nobody merits playing music.  Being a bad musician is a universal right and we should defend it with our very lives.  We should also keep making it easier for more people to become bad musicians, through education, technology and encouragement.  When musicians look down our noses at other musicians we perceive as less accomplished than ourselves and treat them as undeserving we make a terrible mistake.  One reason is that we used to be them.  Another is that we have no way of knowing who they can become, especially if we give them a little support.

Meritocracy and The Eternal September

Like a lot of people of my generation the first Internet technology I learned to use was email.  In 2014 most computer users are familiar with email.  Not so Usenet, the second one I learned to use.  Usenet is less known now because several newer services have taken over for it.  Web based chat rooms, forums, blogs, micro-blogs (Twitter, et al), e-mail list archives, wikis, RSS feeds, photo sharing services and various other web and social network technologies are now used for the types of discussions, announcements, reference and sharing that once made Usenet so valuable.

Usenet was also very exclusive.  Prior to 1993 access to Usenet was available to relatively few people outside higher education, government and a few select industries.  Prior to 1993 Usenet users were overwhelmingly college students or college graduates with considerably more technical knowledge than the general population.  The social conventions of these pre-world wide web Internet communities were unique enough that they were addressed in Zen and The Art Of The Internet, various FAQs and the Jargon file.

In the late 1980's and early 1990's many thousands of college students from around the world would get Internet access for the first time every fall.  Many of these would quickly discover Usenet newsgroups and electronic mailing lists dedicated to either their personal interests or subjects they were studying and join (or attempt to join) these communities.  Established citizens of these communities would either help the newcomers (AKA, newbies) assimilate or let them know they shouldn't bother.  In either case, established social norms and community identities were defended and maintained.

The quality of the neighborhood and property values were protected.

By 1993 America OnLine (AOL) was moving from being a glorified electronic bulletin-board with a few games to opening up this thing called the Internet to people who could afford, but didn't necessarily understand, computers.  In September 1993 AOL began providing access to Usenet.  Some established Usenet users are still pissed.  The time when only the right kind of people lived here, was over.  The golden age had passed into the Eternal September.

I was researching a problem with Synaptic on a Debian forum recently and was very disappointed by one of the answers I read, not because it wasn't helpful but because of the shitty attitude behind it.  In response to a question about a bug in some implementations of Synaptic that prevents the user from changing repository settings the respondent said "if you can't change your repositories from the command line you shouldn't be using Debian."

Mind you, this was in response to a question about a known bug, not an "is there a graphical way to do this relatively easy command line task?" question.  The poster knew how Synaptic was supposed to work and was asking about a fix.

This type of exclusive and elitist attitude is the direct product of meritocracy.  Free software and geek culture's adoption of meritocracy as our civil religion got us here and it needs to end.  Some would say that "here" is a pretty good place.  Geek culture has gone mainstream to the point that multiple successful TV shows celebrate it[2].  Free software hasn't brought down Microsoft, like some predicted in the 90's, but nobody's laughing at the idea or calling it "un-American" anymore[3].

In these ways the last twenty years have been very good for gaming, computer geeks, IT professionals, free software and open source communities.  I argue that meritocracy, the civil religion of all these communities, did not bring us our success but has brought us our dysfunction.  We have made verbally abusive know-it-all's our priests and punishing people for asking questions a sacred duty.

Excommunicate the Meritocrats

About a year ago Linux kernel developer, Greg Korah-Hartman, gave an interview on the Bad Voltage podcast where he was asked about the question of abusive language on the Linux kernel mailing list.  One of his justifications for this was that professional athletes and their managers talk to each other this way.  The hosts of the show let him get away with this[4].  I was so disappointed that I quit listening to Bad Voltage.

Apparently, many geeks aspire to the level of social privilege that allows famous athletes and musicians to trash hotel rooms, beat their girlfriends and say outrageous things in public with little or no risk to their careers or social standing.  This, too, is meritocracy in action.  Because so many geeks want to be in that position they are happy to keep preaching the gospel of meritocracy, hoping everyone else's faith will support their asshole behavior when the opportunity comes.

Supporters of this geeky bro-ism are quick to point to successful assholes like Steve Jobs as evidence that abusive language and a punitive management style gets results.  Besides the fact that this, logically, doesn't qualify as evidence it also misses the point.  I don't want to replicate Apple and you shouldn't either.

Steve Jobs made the culture at Apple.  It is secretive, competitive, punitive, cut-throat, hierarchical, controlling, arrogant, predatory and hugely driven by profit.  This culture has produced some very good products and the spirit of Steve Jobs continues to guide Apple now that he has passed away.  As evidence of this I can say, as a person who works with Apple products every day at my job, they still treat their customers like they treat their employees--like shit[5].  A world where the iPod was never invented but people were nicer to each other would be fine with me.  The same goes for the Linux kernel.  Would I miss Linux?  You bet your ass I would, but what's kindness worth?

Better yet, what about a world where we have Linux but the people who make it are nice to each other and more, nicer people want to contribute?

*cue strings*

No, I'm serious.  We have no evidence that exclusion and abuse get results.  We do have evidence that bringing people in makes things grow.  The explosion of email users across the 1990's brought us massive development in email technology.  Email may not be a hot topic these days, but it was, and is, the killer technology driving Internet adoption and facilitating[6] adoption of most, if not all, other Internet services.

Wider and wider use of email lead to and supported the adoption of other Internet technologies with lead to media-rich web sites, smartphones, web 2.0, inexpensive WiFi and other things we are quickly coming to take for granted.  People who think Debian is only for hackers, Usenet circa 1992 was the Internet's high point and the Linux kernel doesn't need patches from sensitive people should think about what the Eternal September has brought us.

It goes way beyond supply and demand.  Yes, millions of new email users created demand for better email systems but it also brought people into on-line communities and turned people on to the possibilities of technology.  It made customers, but it also made geeks and hackers.

Meritocracy hasn't given us shit.  Letting anybody who could afford a computer with a modem onto the Internet gave us everything we have today.  Throwing every door open even wider will only ever give us more.

Meritocracy is the enemy of progress.  Excommunicate the meritocrats.

[0] It's probably true of all music, but I think the ability to produce electronic music entirely "in the box," without so much as a microphone, exaggerates the effect.
[1] I'm thinking of people, some of them on the autism spectrum, who have remarkable abilities to play by ear.  They are the only people I can think of for whom this rule does not apply.
[1.5] It is remarkable that they were composed by one so young, but they are more historical curiosities than great music.
[2] While simultaneously ridiculing it and perpetuating various stereotypes, but that's another conversation.
[3] If they did, and they said it over email, from their smartphone or anywhere on the web they'd be using free software to say it.
[4] There was also some homophobic humor in this segment of the show.
[5] Actually, my Apple rep is a good guy.  He's not allowed to talk about it, but I can tell the regular floggings are taking their toll.  I'm waiting for him to come in with the tip of one of his fingers cut off.  "Oh, that...I was trimming my hedges."
[6] You don't need to actively use email to use Facebook but the standard procedure for creating a Facebook account assumes you have a working email account.  This is standard for many, many Internet applications and services.  Even if email isn't the reason somebody got online for the first time, they probably used an email account to sign up for the service (be it social networking or porn) that did motivate them.

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