Of Tea Parties and Armchairs

October 19, 2013

I was a little taken aback today by Mark’s “tea party” comment on the Trusty Tahr release announcement today. To try and put it in as much context as possible:

Mir is really important work. When lots of competitors attack a project on purely political grounds, you have to wonder what THEIR agenda is. At least we know now who belongs to the Open Source Tea Party! And to put all the hue and cry into context: Mir is relevant for approximately 1% of all developers, just those who think about shell development. Every app developer will consume Mir through their toolkit. By contrast, those same outraged individuals have NIH’d just about every important piece of the stack they can get their hands on… most notably SystemD, which is hugely invasive and hardly justified. What closely to see how competitors to Canonical torture the English language in their efforts to justify how those toolkits should support Windows but not Mir. But we’ll get it done, and it will be amazing.

I can tell you what the agenda of the Mir team is: speed, quality, reliability, efficiency. That’s it. From what I’ve seen on the smartphone, Mir is going to be a huge leap forward for gaming performance, battery life and next-generation display capabilities. So thank you for the many contributions we had to Mir, and to everyone who is testing it in more challenging environments than the smartphone. I’m enjoying it on my laptop and loving the gaming benchmarks for native Mir. So to that team, and the broader community who are helping test and refine Mir, thank you.

I was a little disappointed that this comment came out, since I really thought that the inevitable controversy that comes with any major direction-setting decision had come and gone. It was quite clear that it was aimed more broadly at Red Hat and Intel with the reference to systemd, which is unfortunate, because while there was a recent controversy surrounding Intel, I don’t think they are really the “tea party” that Mark wants to refer to.

For my non-Western or at least non-U.S based readers, the “tea party” is a far-right, decentralized and loosely associated political group that exists within the Republican party. They are (arguably) backed by some large and anonymous vested interests and have only performed the function of skewing debate about, and obstructing the implementation of some socially and economically “liberal” policies such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Their actions are largely the reason why the non-essential administrative services associated with the normal running of government went unfunded for the past two weeks and why we almost had the United States default on its foreign debt on Thursday. The “Tea Party” uses its small political power to its maximum extent in order to manufacture crisis after crisis in order to destabilize a democratically elected government and house.

It is no surprise then that calling a group of people within a community a “tea party” is a very deliberate attempt to categorize them as a group of people whose sole purpose is to destabilize, and no doubt insulting to that group of people.

There is a tea party, but just not who you expect

I think Mark did pick up on something though, which is that a tea party does exist. I’m not going to name them or imply who they are, because they are a disparate group of loosely-affiliated people, so it would be a rather pointless exercise.

One thing I think Mark got confused in his comments was the difference between those who are heavily involved in the development of open source software projects on one hand and their vocal proponents (or opponents) on the other. I tend to find that these groups are usually mutually exclusive and it is only on limited occasions that you’ll find some overlap between the two. The reality is that the vast majority of us are far too busy working on our projects, whether that be Wayland, Weston, Mutter, KWin, Mir or something else to really care all that much about coming out on top of a political crisis with words. And we know all too well that its very difficult to change taken direction with words alone.

The “tea party” does exist though. It exists in a loosely-associated group of people I like to call “armchair free software developers”. These people feel a kind of emotional closeness to the community and to particular projects but are not involved in the day to day development of those projects, either because they don’t feel that have the skills required to do so, don’t want to make the effort to do so, or simply don’t have time (because they are busy with other and probably more important things). In order to resolve this relevant inability to contribute, they create political debate and drum up support and opposition to things as an ostensible “contribution” in order to maintain their self-deception about their closeness to a community or project.

Now in jest I say - the irony in Mark’s statements is that he’s just fulfilled this exact criterion of being an “armchair free software developer”, and the irony in my statements is that I’ve also fulfilled this exact criterion of being such an armchair developer. Mark can’t be involved with the day to day running of these projects because he’s too busy trying to run a venture with a lot of external influences. I can’t be involved with the day to day running of these projects because I’m too busy with my Law degree.

If you watch the logs of the #wayland or #ubuntu-mir IRC channels on freenode or their respective mailing lists, you’ll notice that its very rarely that anybody there makes political commentary on, or let alone even talks about, the other project. It is also very rare that they talk about Windows’ Desktop Window Manager, or OS X’ Quartz Extreme, or Android’s SurfaceFlinger, or any other “competing” project. Usually whenever that happens it is some new person trying to start an argument and they usually get ignored.

On the other hand, if you watch the Phoronix forums, Reddit or various blog posts and their comments, lots of people who have hardly anything to do with these projects seem to have a lot to say about them as well as the constant capacity to talk about them. The political commentary is typically quite shallow, makes reference to blog posts published months ago and is usually just spreading misinformation and hearsay. It does appear to make up the vast majority of the debate.

At this point, you might be asking what my credibility is on this. After all, this is just a blog post. I’ll be the first to say that I’m not involved in the day to day running of either project. After all - I have more pressing things to do with my time. I speak here as a developer who has been somewhat involved with both projects. I’ve made (very limited) contributions to both Mir and Weston, wrote the client code to support both display servers for a large media center project. I helped to write the backend for an important graphical toolkit for one of the display servers. More importantly, I speak as a person who is a personal friend of developers from both projects. Which leads me nicely on to the next section.

Why do “tea parties” and “armchair developers” matter?

One fallacy is to equate a project’s proponents and opponents with its developers. Another fallacy is to assume that because somebody does not contribute to discussion and debate, then they are not engaged or affected by its contents. There’s a really depressing feeling that comes with scrolling through comment after comment about your project, the fruit of your hard labor by the politically insatiable minds of Reddit or one of Mark’s blog posts about your “hidden agenda”.

Seeing hateful comment after hateful comment about compiz in an attempt to “contribute” to the debate by comparing it with other similar projects is what made me effectively give up on it and move on to other completely different projects in the middle of this year. In fact, I almost did so at the end of 2011 and didn’t because I was being paid to work on it. Why put all your effort into maintaining something when people constantly rag on about how its “garbage” or “tainted” or “CLA riddled” or “a corporation’s hidden agenda” or … you get the picture. The positive comments sprinkled here and there in a sea of partisan criticism manifesting itself as “contribution to the debate” only made my imposter syndrome worse. Those who manage the affairs of Intel, Red Hat and Canonical should take particular note of this. You are demotivating your employees by engaging in constant crisis and debate.

Every project that is somehow involved in all of this each has its own unique and important merits. Both Wayland and Mir have substantially innovated in the protocol space, development methodology and flexibility of display servers. They are both good things. Let their developers create and refine the fruits of their labor and don’t punish them with partisan criticism and never-ending political debate and crisis.

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Written by Sam Spilsbury an Australian PhD student living in Helsinki.