I keep seeing the word “meritocracy” pop up, mostly in discussions that seem to have stemmed from Faruk Ateş’ “A primer on sexism in the tech industry”. Do yourself a favor, don’t go googling. It’s the same shit:
“Sexism isn’t real because I’m a woman and no one did the sexism to me!”
“Women resent being treated as women instead of being evaluated solely on their capabilities!”
“You’re a sexist!”
“Some people called me a sexist after my sexist blog post and it hurt my little feelings and I’m leaving the internet!”
“You GUYS, remember this is supposed to be a meritocracy.”
Except no. No it fucking isn’t. Because a meritocracy is not a real thing. It is a joke.
The word meritocracy comes from a political satire. It was never meant to be something we should aspire to. It was the opposite, actually, a warning about how we rationalize what we believe we’ve “earned”. If that sentence doesn’t seem to you applicable to the tech industry and our cyclical discussions about sexism, racism, and even occasionally classism, go get yourself another cup of coffee.
There’s some dumb bullshit in one of the current crop of reaction posts waxing poetic about “hacker culture,” and its freedom of speech and lack of PC dogma. Hacker culture was a bunch of white dudes. Hacker culture is a great example of a meritocracy. Some of the most privileged of the privileged got together and formed a community around the idea that they were smarter than everyone else. They created an arbitrary set of metrics for membership and according to their metrics, they triumphed. This was the first time in the history of the world white men had experienced the elation of peer recognition.
A meritocracy is not a system for locating and rewarding the best of the best. If it were, the “best of the best” in almost every goddamned industry or group on the planet would not be a clump of white men. I’m having trouble finding good stats on this, but white men are something like 8% of the world’s population. When you go to a fucking conference and you look around at all the white dudes, do you really honestly think, “Wow! What a bizarre fucking statistical anomaly it is that basically everyone with the special magic gift of computer programming happened to be born into a teeny tiny little demographic sliver of the population”? Of course you don’t. You don’t think about it. You focus on telling yourself that you’re supposed to be there, because you’re so fucking smart, and if other people were as smart or, if you prefer, they were “technically inclined,” they could be there just as easily.
A meritocracy is a system for centralizing authority in the hands of those who already have it, and ensuring that authority is only distributed to others like them or those who aren’t but are willing to play by their rules.
Somebody on twitter told me that when the computer industry was overwhelmingly female, it was due to merit. I think that makes a really good counterpoint to this meritocracy bullshit. Because no, it was not due to merit. Merit didn’t fucking enter into it. Most of those women had no experience in the industry and – even if we accept the lol-worthy premise that merit can be objectively measured – there was no way to evaluate their merit as computer scientists. That’s not to say we shouldn’t use that as a template. We absolutely should. Those women had jobs and were happy to have them. They worked hard. Those who stood out did so because they had demonstrated that their work was good (through their work, not through their savvy) and because standing out and advancing the field was necessary to their work. I would rather work with a roomful of those women than with the arrogant, privileged brats our industry too often recognizes “merit” in these days.
If we met the utopian ideal we toss around in blog posts, we’d still have lots of middle-aged women in this field. We’d have black people. We’d have Asian people – not a smattering, but a majority, cause the world is mostly Asian people. We’d have an even ratio of men and women. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned after sixteen years in this career, it’s that if a middle-class white boy who literally never had a job before getting a sweet internship at some cutting edge technology company can eventually, through practice, become a passable computer programmer, anyone can do it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned after thirty-three years of being alive, it’s that if you see middle-class white boys flocking in droves to a particular career path, it’s a pretty fucking easy job and you should try and get yourself one like that.
I guess that’s a little mean. Sorry, middle-class white boys. I’m not calling you dumb. I’m calling you soft. I’m calling myself soft, also, and everyone else who works in this field. What a meritocracy really protects us from is challenge. If we don’t even allow most people through the gates, we don’t have to worry that we might pale in comparison to them (pun intended). There will always be a place for us in an industry we keep others out of. That’s why we should seek out diversity – because the lack of it makes us weak.
If you give a shit about this industry’s goals beyond making yourself look smart and cool, for fuck’s sake, stop calling it a meritocracy.