Empowered Mozilla?

I don’t feel glad about Brendan Eich’s resignation as CEO of Mozilla, but it is probably for the best that it happened quickly. Even the President of the United States has changed his tune on same sex marriage since 2008. Apparently Eich really wanted to not even pretend to change his opinion and make up for it.

There is irony and danger in excluding holders of non-inclusive political opinions in the name of inclusivity. But the particulars of this instance make sense. (1) The excluded opinion isn’t just any. It’s in a class of opinions which deny equal rights to some people based on attributes they did not choose. Once society gets around to expanding the circle of moral equality to another group, advocacy against the expansion or for retraction quickly becomes an abomination suppressed on the free market; and not soon enough. I don’t see any way to avoid this. I suspect that the general case for socially (as opposed to legally: there should be no legal intolerance for even abominable opinions) tolerating diverse opinions is harmed if anti-equality opinions are treated as any other political opinion. (2) The opinion holder isn’t just anyone, but the symbol of a very public organization. Whether the chief executive should be such a central figure — certainly not when it comes to criminally powerful heads of nearly all states — is another question. I look forward to publicly holding the opinion that jurisdiction of birth serves as a legitimate reason for denial of equal rights becoming verboten for leaders, and in any educated company, at which point international apartheid must quickly crumble.

I hope that this brief crisis somehow spurs Mozilla to get back to its roots, even if in other respects Eich would have been the best leader to do that. For anyone who cares about the Mozilla mission, the crisis reveals a lot more about governance and communications problems at the organization than about Eich’s views, which were already known last year. I don’t think the crisis was only due to the outrage of marriage equality advocates. People expect better from Mozilla than the corporate/political PR style which Mozilla seems to have adopted: non-specific hype and if that doesn’t go over well reassure without directly addressing concerns. That approach could hardly be more calculated to provoke outrage among people who feel a part of the Mozilla community.

About crowd outrage, including destructive measures (promotion of browsers that are ethically far worse than Firefox), and Mozilla’s initial response of reassuring without directly addressing concerns (which horribly undersold Mozilla’s excellent practices and values, seeming to be offered as pathetic reassurance rather than the bedrock that they are): the whole thing reminds me of mass protest stemming from some legitimate issues, government refusal to directly address issues, and a rapid escalation to regime change as a non-negotiable demand, with destruction and opportunity creation for trolls quickly following.

Though in every recent case I can think of, the outraged crowd has good reason to be outraged, there is something “illegitimate” about obtaining change through packing the streets (or net), and certainly much dangerous about it: the collateral damage and opportunities created for the worst actors are enormous. Is there any hope for crowds or institutions to become “smarter” and more constructive? That’s in part what I was hoping for in the Mozilla case in my previous post.

I can think of approximately three possibilities; hopefully many more exist. (1) Better predictions about outcomes, i.e., any at all beyond self-serving punditry. Prediction markets are one possible, but so far failed (in the sense of near zero use), mechanism. Some outraged crowd members might pay attention to risk, and perhaps even tip the crowd into more rational behavior. Within regimes (inclusive of those controlling non-state organizations) better predictions might strengthen the hands of those who advocate for responding in a way not seemingly calculated to tip the crowd into regime change as a non-negotiable demand. (2) New “legitimate” arrangements which somehow promote directly addressing concerns rapidly, without allowing any mass of angry people to demand regime change. I don’t have any concrete ideas, but might be related to (3) new “legitimate” arrangements designed to encourage change without crisis, thus reducing the “need” for crisis. In many ways (2) and (3) are the function of “the market” and “culture” with emphasis depending on topic. But organizations (state, firm, or other) play a tremendous role, so institutional design is highly pertinent. One version of such institutional design, or at least call for such, is Roberto Unger’s concept of empowered democracy (from Wikipedia, emphasis added):

Unger’s proposal for political democracy calls for a high energy system that diminishes the dependence of change upon crisis. This can be done, he claims, by breaking the constant threat of stasis and institutionalization of politics and parties through five institutional innovations. First, increase collective engagement through the public financing of campaigns and giving free access to media outlets. Second, hasten the pace of politics by breaking legislative deadlock through the enabling of the party in power to push through proposals and reforms, and for opposition parties to be able to dissolve the government and call for immediate elections. Third, the option of any segment of society to opt out of the political process and to propose alternative solutions for its own governance. Fourth, give the state the power to rescue oppressed groups that are unable to liberate themselves through collective action. Fifth, direct participatory democracy in which active engagement is not purely in terms of financial support and wealth distribution, but through which people are directly involved in their local and national affairs through proposal and action.

I don’t have any comments on Unger’s proposed innovations (apart from skeptical curiosity), but the goal increasing (implied positive) change while reducing crisis seems one worthy of exploration, by organizations of all sizes.

Brendan Eich’s going away post:

Networks breed first- and second-mover winners and others path-dependent powers, until the next disruption. Users or rather their data get captured.

Privacy is only one concern among several, including how to realize economic value for many-yet-individually-weak users, not just for data-store/service owners or third parties. Can we do better with client-side and private-cloud tiers, zero-knowledge proofs and protocols, or other ideas?

Can a browser/OS “unionize its users” to gain bargaining power vs. net super-powers?

This is basically why I think Mozilla is so great and important. Lots of free/libre/open projects and organizations have good values. They largely don’t matter because network effects dominate. Huge organizations with good values are necessary, and all the better if they explicitly are thinking about the challenges imposed by the network effects of incumbents which embody poor values.

There’s no analogy worthy of making, and cringe when others try. But I’m glad that marriage equality advocates and their predecessors in struggles for civil rights succeeded in gaining bargaining power vs. the social super-powers of the day.

4 Responses

  1. […] post announced Brendan Eich as CEO, Flanagan lays out some information following Eich’s resignation. That crisis presumably changed nothing about evaluations of Mozilla’s previous impact, nor […]

  2. […] Mahan Liked gondwanaland.com/mlog/2014/04/04/empowered-mozilla Just now Written a […]

  3. […] apartheid enforcement apparatus will make justice impossible, even in the face of a massive shift in elite opinion (note mini-refutation) — like the drug war, not like marriage […]

  4. […] satisfied enough with the doubt in my two posts about Mozilla’s leadership debacle, but I’ll note apparent tension between fostering […]

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