Updated: September 21, 2018
From what I've been able to discern these past few weeks, there's been a big drama over at the Linux Kernel mailing list. Long story short, following a serious of expletive-drenched outbursts, bickering and other misunderstanding, Linus Torvalds has come forward with an apology, and has decided to temporarily step away from the leadership position as the benevolent dictator for life, to rest, reflect on his (rude) behavior, and seek help. In other words, this is a monumental moment in history.
Most people (will) focus on the expletives part of this incident and the subsequent apology, but they are actually missing the bigger picture. It's not about the use of the English language, it is what will happen because of the use of that language. It's about the future of the Linux kernel. Hear me out.
A double-pincer movement
In a short, quick span of just twenty years, the Linux kernel (and associated operating systems) has become a huge, hugely successful commercial entity. Huge. What is even more astounding is that Linux is an indirect driver behind most of the explosion in data centers, Web, mobile, and IoT, without people ever realizing that what powers their services and devices is essentially a hobbyist idea of a genius.
Many companies were quick to understand and realize the potential of the Linux kernel, its extensible nature and robust design, and the idea has grown into the backbone of the Internet. The open-source nature of the kernel also raised awareness to the "third" way, as opposed to the proprietary nature of Microsoft and UNIX rivals, bringing in massive contributions from the community.
As the kernel grew - and the business models around - the commercialization of the kernel has taken over the open-source nature of the project. Nowadays, roughly 85% of all Linux kernel code is contributed by powerful companies like Red Hat, Intel, Google, Oracle, even Microsoft. But Linus Torvalds, the original creator, remained at the helm, a gatekeeper and a benevolent dictator, keeping a tight reign on his intellectual offspring.
Linus has a rather harsh, maybe even brutal style. It may seem unnatural to some people, in certain cultures and parts of the world, mostly in the former British colonies across the big pond, but closer to his home turf in the land of elves and trolls, the direct and no-nonsense approach does not look quite so abrasive. In fact, the aggressive style allowed Linus to keep the kernel untouched by too many prying hands.
I have actually argued on this idea at the Open Source Summit Europe 2017. The reason why the Linux kernel is everything that the Linux desktop is not, and therefore so successful, is the way the kernel is done: tight control, not breaking the user space, long-term support, and a single, passionate, largely unaffiliated leader at the top. There can be only one!
A complete opposite of how the Linux desktop is realized.
Now, though, for obvious reasons, this model is at risk. But one should not be too worried, you might say. With Linux doing so well - and still growing - it's impossible to see the demise of the project any time soon.
But the threat is real. A clear and present danger.
A few years ago, Google announced a radical new experiment - Fuchsia, a built-from-scratch operating system that may end up powering all Google devices one day. As an ordinary user, you may think okay, so. But the implication of this are huge.
I fully understand why Google is working on its own operating system - if you don't own the complete vertical stack, you don't control your product. Apple and Microsoft have their own fully independent systems, but Google's stuff relies on the Linux kernel and Oracle's Java. Fuchsia is a way forward to complete technological independence. It's a massive undertaking, but one that will eventually lead to something that gives Google the ability to scale up nicely in the next two decades.
Then, there's the application stack. Recently, Google introduced beta support for Linux applications on Chrome OS. I think this is an interim step to migrating everything - and everyone - to Google's new ecosystem. It's a very smart approach. Rather than re-engineer and re-factor everything (Linux and this Android) to Fuchsia, with a smooth compatibility layer, there won't even be any need for a massive, disruptive application migration between operating systems.
The implications are enormous. Because it's not about a new operating system. It's about replacing the Linux kernel inside Android and all other associated IoT devices. This delegates Linux to the enterprise world of data centers. It's the same episode we saw with UNIX back in the 80s and early 90s, only slightly changed.
And then, you also have Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL), which bridges the gap between Microsoft and Linux software, enticing developers over to Windows, because after all, why wouldn't you develop common desktop applications on Microsoft operating systems? This is very good for the overall ecosystem, but it is another potential threat to the independence of Linux. Not only is 85% of it done in enterprise offices, companies are actively trying to bring this gold mine of intellect and productivity over to their side.
Standing in their way was one man, and now he's stepped away.
The language of aggression
There will probably never be a good moment for a leadership change, but when one hasn't been planned in a structured way that supports a long-term strategy, the results are even worse. I do not envy the people who need to deal with the ramifications of the sudden change, and the storm that is going to boil over the Linux community in the coming months. I wish them luck, because getting promoted in the middle of a battle isn't the most convenient of ways.
Finally, let's focus on what actually happened. I spent a while thinking about all my previous work places, all my work interactions with people, rerunning the dialogue, trying to recall the difficult situations where people fought and even insulted each other. It happened. A lot. Only most of the time, it was done using the sweet, silver-tongued corporate language of abuse.
The IT industry is heavily US-biased. For a legitimate reason. The bulk of the IT world has been created or is being run by American companies. It is fair to say that the IT is largely synonymous with the US economic and industrial supremacy. It is therefore not surprising that the language of the IT world is English, both in actual conduct and also in spirit.
This is why most IT businesses follow the American model. Without naming any specific examples, what you will often see is as follows: a mostly local leadership circle with a strong presence of people with financial background, a flamboyant sales and marketing model based on the bottom line figures, a multi-cultural backbone of intellectual property, and a strict, rigid set of values that define language and behavior.
Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between this message and the people to whom the message is intended. While the American model dominates the industry, the actual physical presence of Americans in the IT world is relatively small (as an overall percentage). This means that the business values of one market are superimposed onto the business values of people from other markets, who do not necessarily share or even understand the message. This creates friction and tension that often break down across cultural lines.
I argued this in my censorship article. For instance, the concept of Millennials and Baby Boomers. It's not applicable to 95% of the planet. Whenever someone says millennials - in the context of what they mean - the message is not relevant to every nineteen out of twenty people in the world. It's just a small example of thousands of similar concepts, phrases and buzzwords.
The same extends to most business values and codified behavior principles, known as Code of Conduct (CoC), used in the corporate IT environment. Designed to give people a supposedly cozy environment to work in, they also provided a legal framework, which is quite necessary in litigation-rich environments. With the very strong US focus embodied in their message, these principles often miss their target audience. And yet, there is an unspoken (or spoken) expectation that everyone adheres, or rather, normalizes to the stated values.
What makes things even worse is that this corporate language is often ... aggressive.
Polite language != good intentions
Indirect language, veiled threats, intentionally obfuscated meaning, adroitly worded insults, all of these are part of the everyday repertoire of communication in the IT world. On one hand, it is expected, on the other, it is the only allowed way for some people to express their disagreement or dissatisfaction. But it also breeds resentment and anger, and it cannot be reconciled with cultural differences. In fact, the expectation that everyone should adhere to a generic set of behavioral principles is a higher form of intolerance.
As someone who has had deep, significant interactions with people from many parts of the world, I believe I have developed an understanding for the nuances in behavior and communication, the association of guilt, shame and honor in people's actions, the interpretation of meaning, the cultural significance, the language constructs. For most part, all of these will be lost on someone whose cultural milieu is restricted to just one type of behavior and just one language.
You cannot expect people from Finland, Spain, Turkey, Namibia, or Japan to behave the same way, talk the same way, express themselves the same way. You cannot expect them to just normalize to a cookie-cutter template and move on. That does not work. And yet, that's the expectation, because that's how the US-centric IT world is designed.
Take the following sentence as an example - you may have actually heard a manager use it: "We may have a problem." I find this sentence offensive, annoying. Like what does it even mean? Is there a problem or isn't there? Or is the manager clueless and does not have sufficient ability to understand whether the situation they are facing and the facts they are holding are going to manifest into a problem? Or is this a polite hint to the employee that he or she should do something? If so, why be indirect about it? Why not say it as it is?
This type of communication is perfectly acceptable in English, but it does not translate well to other languages, and as a by-product, other cultures. I can think of at least a dozen Indo-European languages where you simply don't phrase sentences like that. You just don't.
Conversely, if a "foreigner" is to say something like "I want XYZ" in English, this may sound rude or too direct. But it is just the way people talk. And yet, directness (say Italian or Israeli mannerisms) can and will often be construed as aggressive, rude behavior in most English-speaking countries.
I find the word "challenge" when it's meant to signify "problem" offensive. I find the use of the word "softness" to indicate bad sales offensive. I find the phrase "I am excited" used in almost every business announcement to be offensive, because it is not genuine, nor does it indicate what type of excitement is being felt - excitement merely means an elevated state of emotions, could be good, could be bad. I find fake smiles offensive. I find chitchat offensive. But does anyone care what I think? No, because I don't run a multi-billion dollar-company.
Values? More like value
News flash. People don't join companies because they are enamored by "values." They tolerate the hype because they get paid. And the IT industry pays well. This is also why most people will hunker down, suck on the corporate teat like Romulus, and try to retire as quickly as they can, and then do something spiritual like Yoga in Nepal or home brewing in Patagonia in order to heal their IT-induced PTSD.
People work because they have to. And then, they join this company, and suddenly, they are being "taught" how to behave. You don't learn social skills at 25 or 35. You don't suddenly develop empathy. This is another big one. The word empathy comes up often. Most people don't understand what it means. What they actually want to say is - you should have more tolerance toward others. But to what end? For the sake of it? Just because? Why should one tolerate nonsense or bad work practice? Also, empathy cannot be learned.
Respect, another one. It's earned and not given. You don't magically respect people around you, so why should a workplace be different. You can be courteous and you can be polite - contentious, but let's say it can be done in a good way - but does not mean you associate any value to other people's actions. Work places are a means to an end, not a new school where you learn how to behave, that thing your parents did or didn't give you when you were a kid.
Most companies do not know how to handle top talent. They try to normalize them. The bell curve of performance evaluations, the cancer of intellect. People with high IQ and low EQ are expected to do the same range of activities like all their other colleagues, like attend bullshit meetings, recite values, go through hours of badly edited online presentations and such. This is the golden opportunity where companies could try to make the best of their "special" cases, and use their abilities to the max, but instead, they mash them into a cookie cutter, and if a proverbial limb gets chopped because it doesn't fit, tough luck.
Think of your own work experiences. Meetings that serve no purpose. You have to explain your brilliant code to some clueless project manager. You have to listen to the quarterly financials even though you get no bonus or not even understand how your work translates into any business case. Some people are not built for interaction with others, some people thrive in such situations. Some are leaders, some are followers. The normalization kills top talent and sweeps in parasites and yesmen. This is what destroys companies from the inside over time.
Imagine Nikola Tesla in your office. How do you treat someone like that? What kind of environment do you provide to such people so they are happy, engaged and productive? How do you manage the balance between their needs and the rest? Today, the corporate answer is the numbing of senses through manifestos that create arbitrarily harmonious work environments labeled under the generic slogan of inclusiveness that looks good in the press but does nothing for the actual productivity of people or their underlying feeling of self-worth. Hint, correlation between the directness of speech in different cultures and the weekend consumption of alcohol.
All that said ...
You should never swear at people under you - I use the word under in the hierarchical sense. Colleagues? Well, probably not, although you should never hold back on your opinion. Those above you in the food chain? It's fair game. You risk it to biscuit it.
I say, Linus shouldn't have used the language he did in about 55-65% of the cases. In those 55-65% of the cases, he swore at people when he should have focused on swearing at the technical solution. The thing is, people can make bad products but that does not make them bad people. It is important to distinguish this. People often forget this. And yes, sometimes, there is genuine malice. My experience shows that malice usually comes with a smile and lots of sloganeering. The typical corporate setup is an excellent breeding ground for the aspiring ladder climber.
Speaking of Linus, it is also vital to remember that the choice of language does not always define people, especially when there are cultural differences - it's their actions. In the remainder of the cases where "bad" language was used (if we judge it based on the approved corporate lingo vocab), the exchange was completely impersonal - or personal from the start on all sides - in which case, it's a different game.
The problem is, it's the whole package. You don't selective get to pick a person's attributes. Genius comes with its flaws. If Linus was an extroverted stage speaker who liked to gushy-mushy chitchat and phrase work problems in empty statements full of "inspiring" and "quotable" one-liners, he probably wouldn't be the developer that he is, and we wouldn't have Linux.
So was he wrong in some of those cases? Yes. Should he have apologized? Yes, privately, because it's a private matter. Definitely not the way it was done. Not a corporate-approved kangaroo court.
The outcome of this story is disturbing. A public, humiliating apology is just as bad. It's part of the wider corporate show, where you say how sorry you are on screen (the actual remorse is irrelevant). Linus might actually be sorry, and he might actually be seeking to improve his communication style - empathy won't be part of that equation, I guarantee that.
But this case - and a few similar ones - set a precedence.
People will realize, if someone like Linus gets snubbed for voicing his opinion - and that's what it is after all, an opinion, regardless of the choice of words and expletives - how will they be judged if they do something similar. But not just judged. Placed in the (social) media spotlight and asked to dance to a tune of fake humility in order to satisfy the public thirst for theatrics.
You are not expected to just feel remorse. You need to do a whole stage grovel.
And once the seed of doubt creeps in, people start normalizing.
It's a paradox that it's the liberal, democratic societies that are putting so much strain on the freedom of communication and speech. People forget the harsh lessons of the past and the bloody struggles their nations went through to ensure people could freely express themselves. Now, we're seeing a partial reversal.
But it's happening. The basket of "not allowed" words is getting bigger by the day. This affects how people talk, how they frame their issues, how they express themselves. This directly affects their work. There is less and less distinction between professional disagreement and personal slight. In fact, people deliberately blur the lines so they can present their business ineptitude as some sort of Dreyfuss witchhunt against their glorious selves.
As an ordinary person slaving in an office so you can pay your bills and raise your mediocre children, you may actually not want to say something that may be construed as "offensive" even though it could be a legitimate complaint, related to your actual work. This leads to self-censored, mind-numbing normalization. People just swallow their pride, suppress their problems, focus on the paycheck, and just play the life-draining corporate game. Or they have an early stroke.
How does all this relate to Linux?
There is a genuine change happening in the tech landscape. It requires a great amount of focus, power and courage to withstand getting swept away. Do you think Linux is going to survive due to the kindness and goodwill of the competitors?
It's one of the most lucrative pieces of technology out there. Without a strong-willed, zero-compromise leader, the project will be torn apart by the rivals. I don't know if Linus is coming back, or who is going to succeed him, or whether the old model will even be retained. I just hope that whoever grabs the helm has enough backbone and willpower to fight to keep Linux free and alive.
The weak do not survive. There's no middle ground. No mercy.
Should you swear? Often no. Should you tolerate bullshit? Equally no. Should you compromise on your values? It depends how much they pay you. Was Linus wrong to use "offensive" language in some of his interactions over the years? Yes. Is the fallout of this case tragic and disastrous? Oh yes.
The tech world is cruel. It's a battle. The survival of the fittest. The vast majority of products that dominate the market today are not a result of harmony and love. They are the survivors of numerous battles for market dominance where no one remembers the losers. It takes extraordinary personality to be at the top and withstand the stress of the public game, to be in constant spotlight, where your mixture of behavioral traits given to you by your mom and dad and the place where you grew up are given far more scrutiny than your intellectual output. And everyone just waiting for you to make one little mistake.
I hope Linus comes back. In the reality of the bland and fake, the world needs Linuses. Because in the end, it's about the freedom of expression, of intellectual creation, and if there isn't enough of the former, there cannot be enough of the latter, and in the long run, it will be the critical fissure that ruptures the vessel of open-source called Linux.