As the fourth of five children in my family, I learned very quickly that life isn’t fair. Along with this lesson, however, my parents also instilled in us the notion that it didn’t matter that life wasn’t fair because if you didn’t like something, it was up to you to do everything you could to change it. This message is simple, yet effective. It’s empowering. Instead of focusing on the challenges I might face when attempting to do something and resigning to them, I had a more positive and productive outlook on things by remembering that I had the ability to effect change. This is a message that more children should be taught and that more people in general should remember.
Before I continue, I would like to formally acknowledge that I, like everyone else, am biased by my personal experience of life. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. These varying life experiences are the basis for the diversity that people like Scott Page argue is so important. On the other hand, some people argue that these biases create an unfair environment under the disguise of meritocracy in the tech industry. This group of thought also defines a meritocracy as an environment in which people succeed solely based on merit of technical skills. I disagree with this definition. It might be relevant if technology didn’t affect other people and its consequences were restricted to the technology being developed and its developer. We all know that’s not how it works though, and that contradicts the purpose of technology. I would instead consider meritocracy to be an environment in which people succeed based on their skills of any kind, not just specifically their technical skills. Under this definition, the tech industry is a meritocracy. Under the original definition mentioned, I would say that meritocracy is an ideal worth pursuing.
Most of the arguments against the claim that the tech industry is meritocratic strike me as highly political. They focus on differences in race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. While I realize that these factors do influence every individual’s experience, I don’t quite buy that if a person was skilled and determined enough, they still wouldn’t be able to overcome these difficulties (at least not in America which is the region I will focus on since (1) I am most familiar with this culture since I was born and raised here and (2) the articles mostly criticize Silicon Valley). Like I said earlier, this may be a product of my upbringing, but I don’t think it hurts to approach life with this “can do”/”where there’s a will there’s a way” attitude. In fact, I find it more harmful, discouraging, and debilitating to teach people that the world is against you for things that are out of your control.
In Silicon Valley Isn’t a Meritocracy. And It’s Dangerous to Hero-Worship Entrepreneurs, Alice Marwick provides the following reasons to support her claim that the tech industry is not a meritocracy: “This requires middle- to upper-class wealth, which filters out most people” and “There are levels of participation that are enabled by either being wealthier of having the free time to participate.” Marwick seems to suggest that people of lower economic status are automatically excluded or prevented from succeeding solely because of their economic status. I think if someone were really determined or had a good idea and the skills to succeed, they could find funding or use crowdsourcing to gain support for their idea and eventually make it happen. If they needed time to make their idea happen, they would have to be willing to take the risk of quitting their job to focus on accomplishing this. Many people are already doing this from parents who quit their jobs so they can start a business to others who leave their full-time jobs to pursue careers in YouTube.
Furthermore, when talking about meritocracy, Marwick comments that “The result of this mythology is that it denies the role of personal connections, wealth, background, gender, race, or education in an individual’s success.” Once again, the danger of believing this is that it tells people they can’t do things because of these factors instead of empowering them to change their situation. Networking and effective communication are skills, and if those are required to create personal connections or acquire financial funding, then people should be encouraged to develop those skills instead of just blaming their situation on everyone and everything else. Facing challenges doesn’t set you apart from other people nor does it make you successful. Overcoming challenges does. Someone who has or is able to develop the skills necessary to succeed within the tech industry would be able to use these skills to overcome any disadvantages and succeed just as much as someone who came in without any disadvantages to begin with. That’s why I see the industry as meritocratic.
Even if you don’t believe meritocracy is an accurate representation of the current state of the tech industry, it is productive to treat it as one as long as it is properly interpreted. If meritocracy is promoted as an environment where people with a strong work ethic and good character succeed, it encourages people to work harder. If it is framed as the systemic oppression of helpless people, then people are discouraged and more likely to quite early on, attributing their failure to anything other than themselves and not taking responsibility for their own failures and successes. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; people don’t work as hard and don’t get as far because they believed all along that they were doomed to fail before they even began. It’s the difference between blaming others’ success on “pushyocracy” as Dawn Nafus would put it and recognizing that persistence and persuasion are important skills when working with people and developing technology that you want them to use (Nafus quoted in Joseph Reagle’s Naive meritocracy and the meanings of myth).
Maybe I’ve just been lucky and not faced the oppression or discrimination that others have. Maybe I’m just like Meredith Patterson who was mentioned in Joseph Reagle’s article. Or maybe it doesn’t matter where I’ve come from because I believe I can be better than I am today – not without the help of other people and not just with the skill set I have today, but with the understanding that I am capable of learning, of growth, and that I can find a way to make things happen if I want to. It might not be easy or pretty or straightforward, but it’s doable. And it starts with me. And if you want to succeed, it starts with you. It starts with encouraging children that they can do it too.