Meritocracy vs. Democracy

June 11th, 2010 by Jacob Barkdull

On "Ubuntu: meritocracy not democracy" by Ubuntu community manager Jono Bacon.

Mark Shuttleworth once said "In Ubuntu, decisions are not driven by a popularity contest, but instead by informed decision-makers with firm experience of the problem and making solutions" ... "this is not a democracy."

Here's the first problem. Can you truly solve a problem without coming to a consensus with the community?

A poll at the time of the change showed: 20% wanted left positioned window controls (with 1039 votes) and 80% wanted right positioned window controls (with 4142 votes). Yet the Ubuntu "decision-makers" still chose to go with left positioned window controls. So how did Ubuntu's "decision-makers" inform themselves to make this decision? Definitely not by listening to the community.

Jono Bacon goes on to say "In a meritocracy, you don't climb the community hierarchy by driving a nicer car, having finer clothes or other such material attributes. Progress is made through great work that's identified and respected, and grounded in experience and informed judgment."

Meritocratic software development means you make decisions based on each changes merits.

Here's the problem with that: You have to define merits, "merit" means nothing without a definition. If Ubuntu's design team defines "merits" as "Well, we like it." instead of "This seems to be what the majority of users want." you have a dictatorship not a meritocracy. If you go with the latter you have a republic (or representative-democracy), except without the community's election of the "decision-makers."

I don't care who makes the decisions in the end, but to be informed you must listen to the community, and to "fix" a problem you must first understand the problem and know the best solution for the most users. The users must not still have a problem, otherwise it's not a proper solution and the "decision-maker" was not truly "informed."

In the article Jono Bacon explains "At the heart of Shuttleworth's response was a clarification that decisions at Ubuntu are not made by consensus but by recognized and informed decision-makers."

If these are the decisions that Ubuntu's decision-makers are making, than they are grossly uninformed as to what Ubuntu users want and need from a distro. At this point, it is obvious that democracy would be preferable (Ubuntu's upstream distro, Debian, has been run democratically for decades). Of course, getting a vote from everyone in the community would be impossible, so we do need someone within Canonical who is actually informed of what the community wants and needs. So it is clear to me that Ubuntu needs new decision-makers, because this "meritocracy" is flawed to say the least.

It is evident by now that Mark Shuttleworth doesn't make good decisions, and as a "Benevolent Dictator For Life" who does not listen to the needs of his people, he doesn't deserve the "Benevolent" part of that title, he deserves to be called simply "Ubuntu Dictator For Life", as his leadership is not benevolent.

As for Jono Bacon, the "community manager", I do not believe that position should be about making excuses for the bad decisions of your leader. It should be about being a representative for the community within Canonical, working to balance corporate interests with what will benefit the most users.

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