i dream of being possible

the laziness of choice activism in tech

I’m sure everyone is well aware of the thing happening at Github. Starting with Julie Ann Horvath’s departure and ending with the CEO’s resignation and this little stinker written by his wife. Now, I’m not going to re-hash the events or even comment on them1. What I do want to talk about is a common response that I’m seeing, “you aren’t going to stop using Github!” or “just use a different service!” or some variation thereof.

Beyond being an eye-rolling and unproductive (and irritating) comment, this attitude ends up supporting institutionalized oppression by reducing it to individual, isolated acts. It is, as has been called, choice activism2.

This type of activism takes its cue from capitalism, wherein a free market you have several competing options to choose from for any given service/product/etc. Choice activism is the foundation of boycotts (basically, boycotts are an organized form of choice activism). So, this post isn’t about saying that choice activism never works or is never a good option but boycotts do demonstrate that choice activism doesn’t work on an individual scale.

For choice activism to be successful several elements need to be in place:

  1. Reaching the critical mass of participants. Essentially enough people to significantly impact the business or industry.
  2. The existence of viable alternatives to the product/service.

In the case of Github, while we might be able to fulfill the first requirement, the second isn’t possible at the moment. There are no viable alternatives to Github3. But the ability to fulfill requirement one is also in question, given that so much of FOSS is white men.

So the “well, you aren’t going to stop using Github” and variations are disingenuous at best. At worst, they are lazy attempts to avoid taking any substantive actions or efforts to change the status quo. They are also incredibly dismissive to the notion that people and organizations ought to be held accountable for oppressive behaviour.

  1. I will say this, though, I always side with the marginalized victim. The fact that ‘Github’ or the 3rd party has determined that there was no harassment only says to me that a certain level of sexism and harassment has been so normalized in/at Github and the tech industry that a person can write: “In my enthusiasm over my project, and my idealistic belief in the status-free community of GitHub, I failed to recognize that power structures cannot ever be obscured entirely. It’s a powerful lesson, and a mistake I will not repeat” and essentially say, “oops! My mistake, lol.” Which basically illustrates my point about the tyranny of open. Just because someone chooses to believe in a lie with all their heart, it doesn’t make it the truth. Or them less accountable for their actions. 

  2. I tried to google for a quick reference but all I got was a bunch of abortion related links. I’ll have to dig to find out where I got this term from because I know I didn’t make it up. 

  3. It has reached the golden place of ‘everyone’ is using it, especially in professional contexts, that it is perilous for new professionals (or even experienced ones, depedent on context) to not participate. If your company uses it, you have no choice but to use it.