courtesy, R.F. Kuang & Carlton Gibson

I was reading R.F. Kuang’s Babel and watching Carlton Gibson’s talk on surviving open source1 a few days ago.
They both touch upon ingrained privilege in their book/talk.
The popular proverb urges us to engage with the world as it is, not as we would have it be.2
But sometimes, we are so caught up that we need other, wiser eyes to see. That’s what Rebecca & Carlton have done for me :)

Here’s Carlton. I paraphrased the relevant bits from his talk. It begins at around the 10m, 10s mark. (all emphases mine.)

We’re not getting paid. But we don’t always act like we know that.
We give far more than is reasonable given the fact that it’s a volunteer thing that we are doing

It has a consequence.
Open Source skews overwhelmingly white, male and English speaking.
The bottom line is that contributing to open source is a privilege that only a few can afford.
We like to think it’s meritocracy. Well, you do the time, you do the hard yards, you work on your project, you get the rewards, but well Sorry! Meritocracy, my arse!

What’s really going on is that pre-existing economic relations are being reinforced by contributors leveraging the inequality of opportunity that those economic relations provide.
In English.
If you let it, Open Source extracts such a cost; physical, financial, and emotional, that the only folks who can do it are the global rich and of those, only the ones that are either directly supported by, or can make their way around the patriarchy. English speaking, white, men.

And these series of quotes from Babel.

‘If you can see?’ The woman raised her voice and overenunciated her every syllable, as if Robin had difficulty hearing. (This had happened often to Robin on the Countess of Harcourt; he could never understand why people treated those who couldn’t understand English as if they were deaf.)

Free trade. This was always the British line of argument – free trade, free competition, an equal playing field for all. Only it never ended up that way, did it? What ‘free trade’ really meant was British imperial dominance, for what was free about a trade that relied on a massive build-up of naval power to secure maritime access? When mere trading companies could wage war, assess taxes, and administer civil and criminal justice?

My point being, abolition happened because white people found reasons to care – whether those be economic or religious. You just have to make them think they came up with the idea themselves. You can’t appeal to their inner goodness. I have never met an Englishman I trusted to do the right thing out of sympathy.

Anthony laughed gently. ‘Do you think abolition was a matter of ethics? No, abolition gained popularity because the British, after losing America, decided that India was going to be their new golden goose. But cotton, indigo, and sugar from India weren’t going to dominate the market unless France could be edged out, and France would not be edged out, you see, as long as the British slave trade was making the West Indies so very profitable for them.’

Watch the talk.
Read Babel.
You’ll be better off, having done both.

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  1. not at the same time. I know I’m cuckoo, just not that cuckoo. ↩︎

  2. I love this one from Saul Alinsky’s, Rules for Radicals:
    “I start from where the world is, as it as, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be–it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.” ↩︎