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cults of personality redux


Published Nov 13 2012 via RSS

In a recent blog post, I slammed cults of personality in Free software communities. Some noted in the comments that this was not the only challenge we faced, and I completely agree. On the one hand, it's a bit of an odd observation to make: of course all complex results have complex sets of causal factors. Entire volumes have been written about this aspect of complex challenges, and a thread I've noticed in a number of pieces I've read is that the shear number of causal factors makes it hard for people to untangle and overcome the challenges presented. It's like we become distracted by too many topics and forget that you eat an elephant one bite at a time and not all at once; that it is OK to examine and address issues in a piecemeal fashion.

Others noted that there are some good affects that come from these cults of personality. This is also true. But it's sort of like saying, "Since I put $100 in the bank today, I will have $100 to spend." That may be true, but if you already spent $500 using your credit card .. no, you don't have $100 to spend. You owe $400. This is simple math that most people get intuitively, but when we apply it to systems analysis it often gets missed. Most things people do have some advantage (locally, individually, in the here-and-now, etc), and that is usually how they get entrenched in the first place. Full accounting, which means looking at the broad spectrum of results, is required to come to a full and proper sum, however. Some benefits are not good enough when there are large amounts of documented negatives.

Then there were people who said that they agreed with Linus. This is accurate, also. However, when looking at systems issues (which is what a cult of personality is: an attribute of a community, which is a system of social actors, in this case humans) the individual interaction is not the whole picture. I was certainly not asking if people agree with Linus, or if Linus is correct in any given statement. The issue is whether or not it is healthy to continuously and universally elevate a specific individual's opinions.

In case the answer is not clear to you, consider where this is actually practiced (dictatorial government, religion and pop culture media, to give three examples) and where it is not (the scientific method, participatory democracies) and then reflect on the empirical results each produces. One set puts humans Mars and works to ensure human rights are respected; the others give us things like tabloid magazines, inspires violent radicals and robs people of freedom in the name of expediency for the few.

I was really not interested in issues of personal agreement, but systemic affect. This is what I meant when I wrote, "I don't care what Linus says." I might agree with him, and yet my issue with putting that opinion on the front page of every F/OSS news site still stands.

Finally, some noted that there was perhaps a cult of personality around me and so I shouldn't throw stones, living as I am in a glass house. I truly hope no such thing actually exists, but if it did I would actively discourage it. I see myself as encouraging critical thought, attempting to inspire others to achieve more and organizing efforts where beneficial. In doing so, people may end up paying more attention to what I say than the average Free software contributor, but it is not (or so I hope) because of a blind belief in an abstract "Aaron" but due to the individual thoughts and experiences I share as I share them. I also hope that my attempts to spread awareness of the work of others, to highlight positive issues rather than only hipster-rant about negatives, etc. has a positive effect beyond my own standing in the community.

I see others in the Free software world doing this same kind of work as well, often better than I do it in fact, and that set of philosophers, organizers, leaders and generally motivated individuals are whom we ought to pay attention to in the areas where their efforts are applied. We would benefit by focusing some of the attention we lay on F/OSS "super stars" on those people.

That, really, was the entire plot point of that "cult of personality" blog post. :)

Ok, enough of that .. let's move on. (continued ...)



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