Open Thinkering


Tag: social justice

Paying for participation

Hands on a tree trunk

I participated in a community call yesterday where someone suggested that we explore either internships or stipends to ensure more diverse attendance and representation. Some other people were concerned about this, for several reasons.

First, the kind of work involved (open source, open standards, open recognition) has a history of volunteers turning up to these kinds of calls. There’s intrinsic motivation involved, and it can actually be of reputational benefit to turn up to them.

Second, there was some unease about paying people for participation, as opposed for achieving an outcome. Those who were uneasy said that they would be happier if the money involved was tied to people reaching a goal.

Third, there was a bit of confusion as to whether only new people would be eligible for the money, and how much it would be, and whether it would be grant-funded.

In short, it was a bit of a confusing situation. This post is my way of thinking through how paying people for participation, while feeling a bit ‘odd’, is actually anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and an extremely progressive, socially just thing to do.

In order to better understand the concerns raised during the community call and why paying people for participation can be viewed as anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and progressive, let’s break down the situation further.

  1. Intrinsic motivation and reputational benefit — while it’s true that many people in the open source, open standards, and open recognition communities are intrinsically motivated to participate and contribute, this argument ignores the fact that not everyone has the same resources or access to opportunities. People from underrepresented backgrounds may not have the time, financial resources, or networks to engage in these activities on a volunteer basis. Providing financial support through internships or stipends ensures that a more diverse range of people can participate, which benefits the community as a whole.
  2. Paying for participation vs. achieving an outcome — the concern that paying people for participation rather than outcomes might lead to lower-quality contributions is understandable. However, it is important to recognise that the primary goal of providing financial support in this context is to promote diversity and inclusion. By offering internships or stipends, we can enable individuals from underrepresented backgrounds to participate in the community without the pressure of meeting specific deliverables or outcomes. This approach not only fosters a more inclusive environment but also acknowledges that the value of diverse perspectives and experiences goes beyond measurable outcomes. Encouraging participation and ensuring that all voices are heard should be considered as an essential contribution in itself.
  3. Eligibility, amount, and funding — the confusion surrounding eligibility criteria, the amount of financial support, and funding sources can be resolved through transparent communication and clearly defined guidelines. Instead of viewing eligibility criteria as a potential barrier, we should frame it in a way that empowers and encourages individuals from diverse backgrounds to participate. By emphasizing the goal of promoting diversity and inclusion, we can create a welcoming atmosphere that motivates underrepresented individuals to engage with the community. Establishing clear guidelines for the amount of financial support and funding sources will further ensure that the initiative is effective in achieving its intended objectives.

I’m happy that it’s become more acceptable to describe oneself as anti-capitalist. Thankfully, these days people are less likely to think that you want to go back to a system of bartering 🙄 In a capitalist society, resources and opportunities tend to be concentrated among those who already have them. So, by providing financial support to underrepresented individuals, we challenge the existing power dynamics and create a more inclusive environment valuing diverse perspectives and experiences.

The elephant in the room here, though, is systemic racism. This often manifests itself in the form of unequal access to resources and opportunities. That means by proactively investing in individuals from under-represented and under-privileged backgrounds, we address these systemic barriers and work towards a more equitable community.

Supporting diversity and inclusion is not only morally right but also actually essential for innovation and progress. A diverse group of contributors can bring fresh ideas, experiences, and perspectives that can help the community grow and evolve in new and exciting directions. As straight, middle-aged, white guy it’s taken me too long to realise this, if I’m painfully honest.

So, by way of conclusion to thoughts that were provoked yesterday, although paying people for participation may seem unconventional, it can be an effective way to promote diversity and inclusion. The exact details of how we do that are for either the next post, or the next community call…

Image by Shane Rounce

Caring doesn’t scale, and scaling doesn’t care

Last night I had a really enjoyable dinner and thought-provoking conversation with Sirkku Nikamaa, her husband Mark, and Dr Mike Martin. We talked about many and varied things, including social reproduction, elite performance, and the current state of the English education system.

On my way home, I saw that my former Mozilla colleague Geoffrey MacDougall had tweeted a question which led to a short exchange:

Both the conversation over dinner and the subsequent Twitter conversation reminded me of a short video clip that Graham Brown-Martin shared featuring Prof. Keri Facer:

The problems we face in trying to change the education system are at least threefold:

  1. Parents want the best for their kids and they often believe this is through gaining credentials that are the results of high-stakes testing.
  2. Politicians want to impose their worldview on the next generation of the electorate through the education system.
  3. The filters we use (e.g. elite university admissions) to separate out people into social roles are extremely narrow and confining.

I was struck that I didn’t really have an answer to Geoffrey’s question about teaching subjects and skills that I usually equate with a private school education. Nor did I have a response to Mike’s question about how to scale something like the Oxbridge tutorial system.

At the end of the day, it’s difficult to scale almost anything that makes a really profound impact on people’s lives. I’m the person I am today because of supportive parents who are my biggest fans, because of a really interesting History teacher I had growing up, an inspiring university lecturer, a former boss who believed in me. The list goes on.

The purpose of this post isn’t to provide answers, but to point out that I’ve now come across a number of people who have had an elite education who are genuinely interested in how others can receive the same. The problem is, of course, that caring doesn’t scale, and scale doesn’t care.

Image CC BY-NC Macroscopic Solutions

The title of this post comes from an O’Reilly article. It’s unrelated, unless you’re a developer.

Cashing in on your privilege

Earlier this week I came across Seth Godin writing on the truth about admissions to elite universities. I’m not sure where he got his data, but it would be difficult to argue against his central point:

What would happen if we spent more time on carefully assembling the pool of ‘good enough’ and then randomly picking the 5%?


It’s difficult for the picked, for the pickers and for the institutions to admit, but if you don’t have proof that picking actually works, then let’s announce the randomness and spend our time (and self-esteem) on something worthwhile instead.

Entrance to many professions and walks of life is far from being the result of a strict meritocracy. I think we’d all accept that.

Thinking about this further, I remembered a Twitter conversation I’d had with Mozilla contributor Stefan Bohacek. Over a series of tweets he took issue with a short post I’d written entitled $1 for the X, $9,999 for the expertise. In it, I’d quoted a (probably apocryphal) story about Tesla and Edison.

Well I just totally disagree with what the person is saying. Just because you cashed in on your privilege and spent a few years in college, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should make more than people who didn’t. Salaries need to be completely rethought. Do sports player and actors deserve vastly more money than teachers? If I want to have a comfortable life, I have to become a brain surgeon or start my own company? Who is going to bag our groceries and cut our hair once everyone is a lawyer? I agree — value is hard to measure. But the way it’s usually measured nowadays is completely wrong.

I still have reservations about salaries being centrally controlled via some kind of planned economy. However, the phrase ‘cashing in on your privilege’ has haunted me these past few months.

The phrase has stuck with me and been nagging at the back of my mind as it explains a lot of what I’ve seen as a teacher, as a parent, and as an participant-observer in our society. It’s the reason why, even as a political ‘centrist’  I oppose private schooling and believe that inheritance tax should pretty much be set at 100%. Like the proverbial goldfish noticing ‘water,’ privilege is something that’s not usually observed by those enjoying it.

But the thing is, we’re all privileged in the West / global north. I was struck this week by some research Mozilla has been doing in Africa about mobile phone usage. There’s many excellent (scary) points in that report, but something that stands out is how careful people have to be about their data plans. Yet here I am walking down my local high street, able to get a free wifi connection via around 40% of shops I walk past. I don’t think twice about some of the things that people have to obsess over.

It begs the question: what would it like to do the opposite, to divest oneself of privilege? Would it be a life similar to elf Pavlik, someone (intentionally) moneyless and stateless for the past five years, working for the good of the world (and most certainly not profit)? Would it be to spend as much time as one is able volunteering to help those least fortunate in society? What about reverse-tithing your salary?

I have no answers here, only questions. In my head I’m a lot more radical, consistent in my views, and morally upstanding than I actually must appear to others. Perhaps we’re all like that, I don’t know. What I think we all need to do is to think carefully about what constitutes privilege. We’re always going to be less well off – financially, socially, emotionally – than others, but then to another group of people, we’re the ones who are well off.

Final point: it’s easy to give money. What’s really missing in the world is time, attention and care. There are thousands and thousands of people out there who didn’t have the parents or the education to build networks of people they can rely on and use reciprocally to build cultural capital.* That’s why I was so impressed with Bryan Mathers when I interviewed him recently. He’s providing a bridge for young people to do things they’re good at but otherwise wouldn’t have been able to achieve due to the obstacles unwittingly placed in their way by society.

So I’ve no real conclusion other than I’m going to try and find ways to help others in non-material ways. I’m not sure what that will look like but feel free to ask me in a few weeks/months what I’ve done to further that aim. Please.

Image CC BY-NC Dave Wild

* Listen to this excellent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed.