Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu
Last week I posted about GitHub. One reason it took me so long to write the piece was the amount of thinking time I gave it. Why should a report about a tech conference require that much attention? One reason is that I was deeply inspired by the event. When the framing narrative concerns one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of recent times – the capture of an image of a black hole in the M87 galaxy by a team led by Doctor Katie Bouman – it’s easy to get philosophical.
One issue I choose not to highlight in my post was the brouhaha over the work done by Doctor Bouman. I wanted to simply celebrate the brilliance of a team’s achievements.
While right-thinking people understood immediately the value of this incredible woman’s contribution, there was a vicious and cowardly dark strand that emerged, to denigrate and deny, as it seemingly always does these days when a woman’s work is highlighted, especially in technical spheres. The trolls came out to claim that Bouman was trying to take all the credit for the breakthrough. These cretins argued that Bouman had not in fact written most of the code in the CHIRP algorithm. They tried to “prove” her work was a lie. But enough of the weenies.
What struck me very clearly from the moment the story of the black hole breakthrough broke was that is was a fantastic example of the power of science, of how science works. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does science. Scientific breakthroughs don’t happen in isolation – they are always collaborative, or at the very least in a very clear collaborative/competitive context. One of the main reasons science should not be privatised is that doing so can prevent further invention – see for example academic publishing, where expensive journals exclude contributors.
This kind of thinking about the collaborative nature of science was brought home beautifully at Satellite, when we met not just Katie, but the rest of the core team that did the work, and some of the contributors to the 20,485 open source whose projects they relied on.
Software, like science, only works as collaboration. Some software projects begin with work in isolation, but like science, they always have a really clear context. Linus Torvalds wrote Linux, for example, but the work was based on literally decades of innovation in Unix. We’re always standing on the shoulders of giants. The collaborative nature of software production has accelerated in recent years, underpinned by cloud-based distribution and standard packaging mechanisms such as NPM and RubyGems. Software composability with open source is by nature underpinned by using other people’s work. It’s just dependencies all the way down.
So that’s software and science. Where this train of thought led me to was the nature of self. Last year I was particularly taken with this fantastic piece by Abeba Birhane, currently studying for a PhD in cognitive science at University College Dublin – Descartes was wrong: ‘a person is a person through other persons’.
“We know from everyday experience that a person is partly forged in the crucible of community. Relationships inform self-understanding. Who I am depends on many ‘others’: my family, my friends, my culture, my work colleagues. The self I take grocery shopping, say, differs in her actions and behaviours from the self that talks to my PhD supervisor. Even my most private and personal reflections are entangled with the perspectives and voices of different people, be it those who agree with me, those who criticise, or those who praise me.”
Birhane’s provides an alternative framework for the nature of self, based on social context.
“Few respected philosophers and psychologists would identify as strict Cartesian dualists, in the sense of believing that mind and matter are completely separate. But the Cartesian cogito is still everywhere you look.”
Nailed it. Certainly when we look at the tech business the idea of a rational, self-optimising agent that is separate from and can conquer the body is rife. For now it’s freezing splash pools in the morning, and maybe a blood transfusion once a quarter, but soon it will be upload your consciousness into the cloud, right? Become an immortal software engineer and manager of Tech Meritocracy for ever. These folks write the software that manages our clicks, they never had any advantages, but are the fruits only of their own hard work. They owe no one, they have responsibility for no one else bar their immediate family. They have no context. Only skill. They are white men that write software and invest in each other’s businesses. They are atomised.
And yet… they have middle class parents and grew up with a computer in the house. They went to good schools. They were privileged enough perhaps to drop out.
Back To Birhane:
“Accepting that others are vital to our self-perception is a corrective to the limitations of the Cartesian view. Consider two different models of child psychology. Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development conceives of individual growth in a Cartesian fashion, as the reorganisation of mental processes. The developing child is depicted as a lone learner – an inventive scientist, struggling independently to make sense of the world. By contrast, ‘dialogical’ theories, brought to life in experiments such as Lisa Freund’s ‘doll house study’ from 1990, emphasise interactions between the child and the adult who can provide ‘scaffolding’ for how she understands the world.”
“But for the most part, scientific psychology is only too willing to adopt individualistic Cartesian assumptions that cut away the webbing that ties the self to others. There is a Zulu phrase, ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’, which means ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ This is a richer and better account, I think, than ‘I think, therefore I am.’
So what is to be done? What is to be done? What is to be done?
The answer perhaps lies in software and the way we think of ourselves. Software is not a solitary act. It is profoundly collaborative. Software interconnectedness, I feel, is something that the atomised can perhaps by convinced of. You can’t live in a world of pull requests without appreciating your work is collaboration. Beyond the myth of 10x engineer is the truly high performing team. They use open source. They use GitHub. Collaboration is second nature, but what is most important is helping developers and software internalise what Social Coding really means. Nobody codes in isolation. Nobody learns in isolation. We have a context. This is why the GitHub Satellite keynote struck me so squarely: it focused on the story of our collaboration and context. Doctor Katie Bouman is part of a team. We are all part of a team.
I think it’s awesome that Nat Friedman, GitHub’s CEO understands the need for global communities and collaboration at a deep level. He spent last week in Nigeria, learning about how to better support local developer communities. Nigeria is one of GitHub’s fastest growing developer populations. Folks from Nigeria are regularly, invariably, refused visas to travel in tech, to conferences or new jobs, one reason it’s great that Microsoft recently invested to set up an engineering facility there. A US or European passport is an incredible privilege. Freedom of movement is a passkey to success. Understanding factors like this is what I mean by context, and privilege. Understanding privilege, accounting for it, and better supporting women and people of colour in working with us will make us all more effective. Inclusion is the best form of collaboration, and collaboration is the best way to work.
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu
disclosure: GitHub and Microsoft are both clients.