No to quotas

08092008202There have been a couple of times in the last week or so when quotas have been suggested for solving a problem of “fairness”. They were brought up at the Tuttle discussion about Amplified08 in the context of deciding which networks should be represented at this network of networks forum and again during the panel I contributed to at Web2.0 on gender issues – suggesting that perhaps there should be quotas of, for example, women represented on the boards of companies.

I think that both are wrong, and I said so at the time, but didn’t have a chance to explain properly why I think that quotas are inappropriate.

Don’t tell me what to do.
I see quotas in contexts like these as the imposition of the will of one (usually very small) part of the community on another part. This attempts to make things fair by being unfair – in the 80s we called it “positive discrimination” it wasn’t very positive but it was definitely still discrimination. The situations for which it is being suggested, involve a desired or desirable state which for some reason seems unlikely to come about either organically or else quickly enough. The introduction of a quota says we cannot trust people to do the right thing (ie what we want them to do), so we will force them to. Yeuck! Isn’t this the same patronising paternalism we’re trying to be rid of? In my experience, introducing this kind of bias leads on the one hand to a feeling of disempowerment in those who are supposed to be given an advantage, a fear that the benefit given so arbitrarily could just as easily be taken away and on the other hand to resentment among those who were formerly in a majority, leading to a more entrenched determination that no further ground be given. Much better, in my view, to extract myself from what other people should do and simply for me to be vocal in my rejection of discrimination in any form and to demonstrate that in all my actions.

Quotas work in a hierarchy.
Quota-thinking is hierarchy thinking. Aren’t we moving to a world where the dominant form of organisation is a flatter network? My presentation at Web2.0 tried to show that in a networked world, of itself, the network is gender-agnostic although in practice a networked system tends to favour women who play to their strengths of building rich relationships. How do you impose a quota in a network? Especially one that is almost completely free to join? I can see that in a hierarchical model, there are gatekeepers to the centres of power and authority and that if these are biased that leads to a bias throughout the system. So have a quota for unbiased gatekeepers and you ‘solve’ the problem (unintended consequences aside). But as hyperlinks continue to subvert hierarchy, as we come to see that the shadow-side network is as important as any bureacracy and that unintended consequence can not be brushed aside, why cling on to tools that no longer work?

In the case of the “network of networks” the suggestion that we should ensure that each network is adequately represented at the table displays a complete misunderstanding of the nature of these networks. They have no clear boundaries, very low barriers to membership and very flat structures (if they have any at all) Most of all, they are not mutually exclusive. How do you decide who’s representing what and how? Let’s take the Tuttle Club as an example (just because I know it well) Say we had 30 places at Amplified08. How would we decide who’s going or not? Well, perhaps we’d have to say, those people who aren’t members of other networks need to be prioritised because they have no other chances to get in. But are these really the people we want to be representing us? The one’s who are otherwise unconnected? So let’s go for those who have the most memberships. Ooops – memberships? What does that mean? Or how about the 30 who’ve attended the most number of friday morning meetups. Gosh darnit Lloyd, what do you mean, you don’t keep neat and orderly records of who’s attended?!? And do all of these groups have common ideas of what it means to be a member? Attendance at one meeting, 20% of meetings, contribution to online activity gaaah it’s so silly! Why get into this ridiculous conversation? There’s a solution that already works for each of the networks individually – first come, first served – I don’t get why this can’t work for the bigger group too.

Clearly I’m a muddle-headed white, straight, middle-class, university-educated man who’s never had to deal with discrimination in any form and therefore doesn’t understand this stuff. What a good job I’ve got a blog and don’t have to depend on anyone else to decide whether my thoughts are worth publishing.