On Meritocracy

Apparently the kerfluffle du jour is about meritocracy in the tech industry. I first stumbled across some tweets about “meritocracy” and then clicked back to an article written earlier today; I’m no expert on this debate but I did have one observation to make.

When I hear about meritocracy in the tech industry, or that a certain open source project is “meritocratic”, or that “the internet allows a pure meritocracy,” I think of a philosophy that is quite different from actual meritocracy as defined by pretty much every resource I can find.

Meritocracy in The Real World seems to revolve around evaluating the merit of a person. Someone with education, experience, intelligence. Power is given to meritous people.

I don’t think this is what technologists are dreaming of when they talk about creating a meritocracy. After all, you don’t need the Internet to filter people by their credentials or merits. Western society is already stratified by education, and it’s been illegal to discriminate based on race or gender since before I was born. Traditional meritocracy is nothing new.

I think the “technologist meritocracy” is one where the thing is evaluated, not the person. Focusing on the things made, code submitted, idea proposed. Power is given to meritous results.

A subjective meritocracy about people is less fair and efficient, I think, than an objective meritocracy about things. But still, that’s not to say objective meritocracy is entirely fair.

Much of today’s debate is about race and gender, specifically fixing the disparity between white men and everyone else, in tech journalism and other tech fields. Some people claim that tech isn’t a meritocracy, whereas others say that meritocracy does not a fair society make.

An improved meritocracy might be able to counter latent ableism, discrimination, and inequality in its philosophy by adding in something about giving a “leg up” to unproven people who might be able to produce excellent results given a little help; “believing in people.” But even still, I don’t think such a philosophy would be able to completely solve larger problems like privilege, prejudice, potential for abuse, and corruption by itself. We know who to give power to, but who should we actively help? Who should we take power from?

Therefore I feel that meritocracy is not a sufficient scope to address issues like the difficulty that racial minorities or non-men have in the technology industry; it doesn’t represent a complete rebuttal to the claim that people could do more about diversity. It’s likely that meritocracy is a red herring and you might be missing the point; yes we’ve come far, but where do we go from here and how bad is it?

Edit: I wrote the above on my phone; after more searching, it seems the article that spawned this whole discussion is quite in line with what I’m saying here. It might be admirable to be “color blind” but that alone is insufficient to significantly change the diversity of an industry in a short amount of time. Still, it’s hard to argue that a small business needs to go out and fix the poor neighborhoods, bad schools, desperate parents, motivation, networks, and raw amount of unpaid “hustle” needed to produce a diverse world-class workforce. Maybe the answer is somewhere in the middle, where businesses can push society to do the right thing; large businesses like Intel are already familiar with advising and funding things like this, and grassroots movements like hackerspaces and coworking spaces are no stranger to opening themselves up as an alternative for the less-privileged.


4 thoughts on “On Meritocracy

  1. Most of the discussions here on meritocracy in the tech industry are mostly self-delusional. There’s this Idea in tech that if you do good things you will get promoted and your work is what got you promoted, not your softskills, networking (who you know, not TCP/IP), or nepotism that gets you ahead.

    However, in all social situations, people tend to rank people, not their true merits (work). Superstars exist in tech, and once that label has been reached, they are beyond question. Even if their ideas are stupid, costly, or prone to failure. 

    We all like to think the work we do will help us get ahead in life; whether that means more respect, more money, a modicum of fame or whatever. However, the real world doesnt operate this way – most companies promote by a combination of experience, credentials, and performance – not just on results.

  2. kev says:

    IMO, you are mistaken
    combine these two things:
    1) Facilitated, open paths to skill acquisition, development, and cognitive growth.
    2) An environment where anyone can create things/stuff that others can build upon (this obviously means 24 hours access to lots of tools).

    and you will have the potential for exponential growth and a results based meritocratic society.

    Neither of the two things above exist in the world at this time.

    If you think you have found a possible example of the above, let me know and I’ll give you $100 if you are correct (btw I gave $3,500 two months ago to someone that lost more weight than me); in addition, I will travel to said site and test it out.

    Sorry to say it, but the number of advanced humans is to sparse for such an environment to exist at this time. I hope to be proven wrong someday.


  3. kev says:

    The ideals espoused by heatsynclabs are great, but the execution isn’t there yet. HSL has more the dynamic of radio club enthusiasts rather than an inventors lab, fun, but not innovative. If HSL were open 24 hours and had much better instruction, it would be a big step in the right direction. HSL does have the rare and valuable quality of an absence of negative criticality which most groups have. I have been checking out some local facilities, idea squared et al but will probably have to take a trip to silicon valley to find something revolutionary.

    Artifacts I’ve made in the past few weeks:
    food replacement bars (may help fix many health problems people have, on the third formula, ideally formulated for individuals daily.
    TODO: find consistent, high nutrient food sources)

    robo circuits (easy to assemble electronic components that allow my 3 year old to make a robot in 5 minutes that usually takes 2 hours for an experienced adult:
    TODO: find or make smaller and stronger connectors)

    root magnets (vocabulary refrigerator magnets that allow people to create cool “new” words e.g. astrophage, megaped:
    TODO: add a picture to each root so preliterate children can create words)

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