Nov. 29th, 2015

tim: A person with multicolored hair holding a sign that says "Binaries Are For Computers" with rainbow-colored letters (binaries)
This post is the second in a 3-part series. The previous part was "Husband, Father, Christian, Fascist".

Hackers and Christians

I've so far argued that discourse like ESR's blog post reflects an assumption that no "SJW" can truly be interested in doing engineering work, whereas within the same discourse, it is a given that Christians can be good engineers. I've also argued that the distinction made is a distinction between marked and unmarked ideologies. But I still haven't answered the question of why it is that Christianity (and the set of assumptions that come with the public declaration of oneself as "Christian", distinctly from e.g., "Catholic", "Methodist", "Anglican", or "Baptist") came to be an unmarked ideology within Anglophone software engineering culture (forthwith, just "tech") whereas the "SJW" label came to be a marked one.

A lot of us SJWs never wanted to be ideological ourselves; we embarked from a place of just wanting to do the work, sincerely believing that we would be seen and judged on the basis of our work output rather than our gender, race, or other identities that aren't strictly relevant to doing work. Or, if we didn't totally believe that was how it was going to go, at least we hoped so. Some of us believed that "show me the code" was sincere and that if we just leaned in, paid our dues, and contributed, we would be recognized and accepted as members of a community of practice.

For many of us, then, our ideological convictions arose out of self-preservation, when we realized that meritocracy was a lie and that in fact, the tech in-group was more interested in maintaining its power than in doing the highest-quality possible work. When you harass people who are trying to do their jobs, or support that harassment, or fail to speak out against it, you're not interested in building the best thing you can, because to build the best thing you can you have to include everybody who wants to and can work together on it and contribute. Pushing away people who have something to contribute is an exercise in purity-based morality, not a sound business or technical strategy.

At the risk of stretching a metaphor, then, I posit that Christianity (again, the exercise of publicly self-labeling as Christian rather than a particular set of beliefs, since that exercise tells you nothing about what someone believes or does and everything about how they want to be seen by others) meshes well with the J. Random Hacker archetype because both worldviews are monotheistic. It's just that the deity that J. Random Hacker offers the most praise to is the abstractions of empiricism, rationality, and objectivity, not as tools for thought but as fundamental principles that afford fixed interpretations. Ontologically, Christianity and science -- the version of science that software engineers believe in that mostly involves flagging as a person who "fucking loves science" rather than actually doing science -- are two great tastes that go great together, at least when you define "Christianity" and "science" right. Acolytes of J. Random Hacker impoverish both science and Christianity by casting them as forms of textual literalism that prioritize obedience to a higher authority (whether that's God, or objective truth) ahead of relationships with equals.

Both Christianity and science can mean a lot more than that, and I think that both are better when they aren't reduced to fundamentalism. Myself, I like a rich sauce to season my thinking better than the sticky, burnt residue left when you boil away everything that can't be formulated as a rigid system of rules. The point, though, is that both Christianity and science, when conceived of by J. Random Hacker, have more to do with the burnt residue of absolute truth than with the flavors or nuance of conversation, trade-offs, and conditional truth.

Paganism, then, also at the risk of stretching a metaphor, is the archetype to which haters of "SJWs" truly appeal. (No, the irony of ESR, a self-identified neopagan, calling for an anti-SJW witch hunt isn't lost on me). If somebody calls you an SJW, what they're probably saying is that you think we have to balance multiple concerns in order to lead a good life; that maintaining and nurturing egalitarian relationships comes ahead of adherence to rules and worship of a higher power; and that your mind can admit multiple conflicting truths.

It's tricky to use identities you don't subscribe to as metaphors, and that's what I'm doing. But I think there is something to the tension between focus on private religious practice and personal salvation ("Christianity" as such) and focus on collective action and, indeed, justice ("what love looks like in public", cf. Cornel West), that can be identified with Paganism. Indeed, to rise to power, Christians (historically) had to discredit and threaten Pagans; that's exactly what's happening in the struggle between SJWs and JRHs.

In tech, like "white", "Christian" actually means very little as a label other than "not in the oppressed class". In a white- and Christian-dominated society, to advertise one's pride in either one's whiteness or one's Christianity has nothing to do with pride in a genuine identity and everything to do with contempt for somebody else's identity. "White pride", like the broad concept of Christian identity, is a threat concealed as an identity.

Jesus as 10x Engineer

How does the tension between private and public action, between absolute and relational ethics, reflect other realities about engineering culture? Maybe it explains the currently-fashionable focus on technical skills, so-called "10x engineers", and individual genius and its attendant deprioritization of collaboration, teamwork, and the work it takes to create healthy organizations.

Maybe it explains the attribution of messaianic qualities to "great hackers", something that seduced me when I read the King James Version of the Jargon File (which is to say, the version that ESR edited) as a teen. Keeping the girls out of the treehouse looks childish when 28-year-old senior engineers are doing it, so recasting the struggle as the protection of the temple from invaders lends the scene a nice epic quality, like a popular video game or fantasy movie series.

Maybe it explains hostility to flexibility in process, to moral relativism, to anything that might break the embrace of strict, rigid rules for how things and people do and should behave that makes the tech industry a safe space for J. Random Hacker and his followers.

Maybe fear of SJWs is fear of genuine connection with other people, of interruption of the communion with machines that J. Random Hacker claims to be all about. He says this communion is more important than community, even though the only entities he truly ever communes with are the people, living and dead, who designed and built the machines.

I think "Christians vs. Pagans" maps well onto "Hackers vs. SJWs" because what self-identified Christians and Hackers (even non-Hacker Christians and non-Christian Hackers) share is a desire for absolutes, for unambiguous formal specifications, for clear meaning, for single answers; they share a fear of complicated questions, nuance, emotions, empathy. Of course, formal specifications can be useful tools and some questions do have right answers. Humans really are changing the climate, and vaccinations really don't cause autism. But there's a difference between use of formal specifications as a tool, or as an idol.

Maybe this is also why some people (including myself a few years ago) are so obsessed with preserving the meaning of the word "hacker" as a special kind of engineer. It's not enough just to be an engineer, to have an occupation. "Hacker" goes beyond that, and is an identity, a group you can feel you belong in (if you look like the right kind of person). Sort of like a church.

For "Hacker" to remain special, for that word to retain its mystical or priestly qualities, it is necessary to keep those who are believed to see engineering as "just a job" from claiming it, and also for Hackers (sometimes called "10x engineers") to retain social status that engineers as a group lack.

To be continued!

Edited to add two other perspectives on why ESR is wrong:


tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

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