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.
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.