Saturday, May 18, 2013

The water we swim in

Healthy relationships. I've been thinking about them not in my personal life, but in terms of teams in free software. When I first began contributing, it was within a team creating an application (Amarok), so rather small. Then I became active in Ubuntu-Women, which is larger, but still not huge. Then Kubuntu, then the larger Ubuntu community, and now KDE, which is truly enormous.

In all of these projects, communication and trust are paramount. Dialog which fosters creativity and progress is only possible when people enlarge their trust in one another. Along the way to the highest trust levels, many barriers will come down, as people allow them. Sometimes these barriers are invisible, until someone points them out.

I thought I'd seen a cartoon illustrating this story, but a web search tells me it's a story by David Foster Wallace:
Two young fish meet an older fish, who asks them “How’s the water?” The younger fish look at each other and say, “What the hell is water?”
I was reminded of this story recently while observing the various reactions to the removal of the Community link on, the portal to the Ubuntu project. The link is coming back, so I'm not complaining. However, what I've noticed is that most of the people discussing the issue seem to be talking past the folks they are hoping to connect with. The emotions expressed range from puzzlement, to shock and outrage, with little understanding on the other "side" on the perceptions causing these reactions.

So how is the water? To me, the drama played out completely predictably, because any time you have one company selling a product, and volunteers working in that same project, you will have class issues, and class is like the water fish swim in. People are often not aware of it, and thus have difficulty dealing with their emotions around it, because they have been taught to ignore it, or even that it doesn't exist. So when the designers removed the link, it was felt as a slap to the face of community members, while the designers see it as just a step to a clean, functional design. The conversation about this change at the recent vUDS clearly betrays this lack of understanding of the other on all sides.

There is no such thing as a culture without class. There are always power imbalances, and privileges. However, that doesn't mean that class is the death of the Ubuntu project, or that volunteers and companies can't happily co-exist. They can, but the fact of class must be acknowledged, and those with privilege and power must realize what they have, and use them on behalf of the project.

A healthy culture has hierarchy, but not one based on domination. In fact, in FOSS that is part of what we are attempting to dislodge, right? We want our hierarchies to be constructed for function, not to rule over us. For instance, those who demonstrate their skill in packaging or coding are given the right to upload to the repositories. And those who grant them that right are those who already have built their reputations by using their skill and trustworthiness in that domain.

Recently there has been a breakdown -- or an apparent breakdown -- in that hierarchy of function in Ubuntu. And I think that both those inside Canonical and those outside, perceive that the other is the one causing that break. So, some repair is needed.

All of our differences can be overcome as we build (or re-build) trust. However, all sides of the issue will need to think about, process emotion about, and finally discuss openly what has gone on. The replacement of the Community link alone will not mend this breach, nor will brief virtual UDS sessions. In fact, I think the lack of in-person face-to-face interaction is allowing this divide to grow.

Folks, we don't want resentment and suspicion to grow, so we are all going to need to work on this if the Ubuntu project is going to continue to thrive as a free software enterprise. In my opinion, thinking about and discussing class issues are fundamental to that effort.

This blog appears on the Linuxchix, KDE and Ubuntu planets, and these issues of class appear in all teams. Health and progress are the goal, and honest dialog is the means. I propose we look one another in the eye and start a conversation. These are difficult dialogs, but our health is at stake.

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