On Writing, Tech, and Other Loquacities

The collected works of Lana Brindley: writer, speaker, blogger

What’s the Matter with Meritocracy?

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The word meritocracy was formed from the Latin mere (“earn”) and -cracy, from Ancient Greek krátos, “strength, power”. Michael Young is acknowledged as the creator of the term, in his 1958 book “The Rise of the Meritocracy”. In his introduction to the 1994 edition, he implies that he was more concerned about acceptance of this word with both Latin and Greek roots (“I would … be laughed to scorn” he says) than he was about acceptance of the content. However, as history now shows, the word has caught on, and no one seems to care about its mongrel roots too much. The original book was actually a satirical essay, designed in the style of Huxley’s “Brave New World” and he aimed, he says, “to present two sides of the case–the case against as well as the case for a meritocracy. It is not a simple matter and was not intended to be”.

Of course, he’s absolutely correct, meritocracy is not a simple matter. That doesn’t seem to stop people using it as an overwhelmingly positive word, especially in open source communities. I’ve often seen it used in conversation as an argument-stopper, especially when there’s complaints of unfairness or issues with governance. “But we’re a meritocracy!” is enough to shut down any perception of bias, at least for some people.

The interesting thing about meritocracy, especially as it’s practiced in open source communities, is that it puts the blame for not being successful back on the individual. If you haven’t risen to the top of the field in a meritocratic society, then it is simply because you don’t have merit.

Don Watson explored this idea in his recent Quarterly Essay (Issue 63 2016), saying:

Even feudalism spared the poor that insult: their lowly station was an accident of birth. While the underclass in an alleged meritocracy might be reluctant to acknowledge the wound to their dignity, the elites should not be surprised if it adds a savage streak to popular resentment.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect meritocracy, mostly because ‘merit’ is extraordinarily hard to measure (Young’s fictional society relies almost solely on IQ testing), but mostly because human nature means we will always select some people over others merely because of bias. For example, if I’m a person with a decision-making capacity, I’m likely to infer that someone I’ve successfully worked with before has more merit than someone I’ve never met. There’s also a more subtle and sinister bias at work here, though, where older, white, straight men are automatically assumed to have more merit than people that belong to a minority. Interestingly, ‘minority’ in this sense can also mean someone who is not seen to be a developer, so the numbers of designers and, yes, writers in open source communities remain quite low.

What further complicates this issue in open source communities is a general unwillingness to spend time on coaching new contributors, whoever they are. Vitorio Miliano explores this in her blog post Designers and women in open source, saying:

What you see as spoon-feeding is what normal men and women … see as proper, instructive socialization. “Hi, welcome to the community, here’s a housewarming present, here’s how things work, we could really use some help over here …”

So, we have the standard social problem of inherent and largely unconscious bias, combined with a culture of unwillingness to educate new contributors, but we plaster all of that over with a “but, but, meritocracy!” bandaid so that we can tell ourselves it’s alright, the reason some people are at the top of the pile is because MERIT.

And people wonder why I laugh when they use the term.

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