Nice. Respectfully written and compellingly argued - thanks for sharing.
Maybe I’ve been reading stuff written by programmers for too long, but I too was surprised at how well-written this was.
It’s a nice writeup, but beyond a two paragraph summary of Hopper it doesn’t really say anything other than that Yale is changing an internal policy. It’s not really a technical submission, it’s very clearly politically-minded, and most importantly there is little to learn or inform a practitioner of the technical arts by reading it.
Thus, I think it’s off-topic.
So why is no one complaining about the article not being related to tech? -Apparently sometimes it’s alright after all.
Well, Grace Hopper did a thing with computers or two…
Barely covered by the article, unfortunately. Just because Alan Kay eats a meatball sandwich doesn’t make an article on sandwiches a good submission here. :)
I have no clue what he did, and I’m not particularly interested either. But the man himself was not tech :)
Either way, the thread generated quite a lot of interesting discussion.
You really couldn’t be bothered to take two minutes to Google “Grace Hopper”? First off - she, not he. Literally invented the first compiler for a programming language.
Yeah, I just genuinely didn’t care enough. What’s the problem with that?
But even if she invented the first compiler, discussing her is not the same as discussing tech. That much seems obvious.
I would argue that understanding the history of computers and the people who made them work is discussing tech. I could be in the minority here, but I do think it is important.
understanding the history of computers and the people who made them work is discussing tech
That’s like saying “apples are bananas”.
More like apples and bananas being discussed on a forum about fruit.
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I’m curious, what does “oy vey” mean? :)
Yiddish vernacular for expressing exasperation or incredulity.
Some of us did, and the degree to which its alright is contested.
A lot of the founding fathers had slaves.
How do you know whatever you do today that you consider ok/good won’t be considered vile 100 years from now?
You can’t hedge against the ever changing vogue of social fashion.
If you actually read the announcement, you’d have noticed that even in his own era, Calhoun was considered a firebrand for slavery in a way that made people uncomfortable. Further, the choice to name the college after him was specifically related to a vision of the ante-bellum south that is both ahistorical and deeply racist.
It’s one thing to say, “Hey, they were a product of their time, but they did great things.” It’s an entirely different thing when that time is a product of your own actions.
But let’s flip this around, because I think there’s something even more important in your post that deserves some comment:
It is my greatest hope that lots of things that are considered okay today are considered vile a hundred years from now. Why? Because that’s a sign we’re getting better. Humans, as a species, should always be pushing to make themselves better, not because there’s some evolutionary truth that needs to be upheld, or because some gods want us to, but because we can.
So, yes, in 100 years, I hope that there are lots of things we do today that are considered vile, because our descendants will be wiser and smarter than we are. And I’d hope, if I’m being discussed at all by the future, that the worst they can say about me is, “He was a product of his time.” If I’m caring and humane, and working to foster the wisdom of the future, maybe they’ll say, “He was ahead of his time.”
Very eloquently put ?
I am not in general a fan of the idea of changing the names of things, but I will say that I appreciate the level of care and principles under which they labored for this decision.
I am in general a very big fan of changing the names of things as soon as it becomes evident that a thing could have a better name. It is part of my daily life when doing code refactoring and why shouldn’t we do it in the real world also?
Changing names of buildings and changing code are fundamentally different. Code has a functional basis, while the names of buildings run much deeper. For example, some universities go back centuries - and if we reflect on their lives, they are definitely not perfect nor would those attitudes fit in today.
One thing you have to remember is that the names of these institutions get passed on in citations in formal works and for people’s reputations (eg resumes). You can change internal code all you want without consequences so long as it keeps doing whatever people expect or accept. The names of institutions still matter. If it’s technological, it’s more like changing an API of a widely deployed program that users assumed had backward compatibility. Most companies avoid that where possible due to the problems it causes.
So, I don’t think it’s the same as just changing code.
I think we’ve stretched the software analogy beyond the breaking point here. API changes are problematic because software has no way to handle them. Humans, on the other hand, are autonomous thinking agents that are more than capable of dealing with name changes. Updating resumes is not difficult - people do it all the time when they get new jobs or when companies are purchased or change their names. Anybody with the incorrect name looking for more information will almost certainly know the new name within 5 minutes of searching the internet. Humans have been dealing with the changing names of buildings, streets, businesses, cities, and entire nations for much of our history. I find the idea that in our modern age of widespread information access, this process is somehow overly burdensome in this specific case, or in general to be less than credible.
Humans, on the other hand, are autonomous thinking agents that are more than capable of dealing with name changes.
Humans have been dealing with the changing names of buildings, streets, businesses, cities, and entire nations for much of our history.
A lot of folks have experience with users giving incorrect or malformed or misnamed addresses all the time, so…
Oh, FFS. What do malformed addressed have to do with anything here? At worst someone has an outdated address, and the consequences of that are? What are you doing with the address? Mailing something? Do you think the postal office serving Yale, or post offices in general don’t know how to handle address changes? You think navigation service providers just throw their arms up and panic whenever something changes?
I love that logic.
In code, we don’t need to keep reminders of our history of changes in the code itself- we have our SCM history for that.
In reality, we don’t need to keep reminders of our history of changes in the names of institutions, traditions, etc.- we have actual history for that.
I was wondering why someone might not be a fan of the idea of changing names of things. Could this have to do with the dark side of renaming things a.k.a. introduction of euphemisms and Orwellian newspeak? Like calling the poor “economically challenged” or calling things that are plain wrong “alternative facts”?
My concern is rooted in a number of movements to change various persons associated with the history of universities and colleges seemingly because when judged by out our modern standards they are found morally wanting.
Two examples that come to mind recently, first being an effort to change the name of Ryerson University because the namesake Egerton Ryerson was involved in the creation of the Residential School System in Canada - which is a rather large scandal / blackmark on the country. Second, the Rhodes must fall movement in South Africa. Rhodes being the namesake of the famous Rhodes Scholarship. The protest was initially about a statue, but moved on to the general university being his name, probably due to the Rhodes Trust funding its founding.
I don’t see any evidence of “newspeak” in this particular trend. Nor, do I know if they want to ignore history or not.
What is wrong with movements to stop honoring people who did terrible things? I don’t get the objection.
To sum it up: Nobody is perfect.
Especially in the light of history. Consider many of the famous Presidents of the United States had slaves, which is considered a very wicked thing to possess today, but was socially acceptable at the time.
Usually people are honoured in the first place because of perceived good deeds they do, so we should be incredibly cautious about an effort to undo those honours. What Yale did was definitely a good way of handling it.
Another aspect for consideration, many of the monopolists during the guilded age (~1890 - 1910) ended up donating significant money to things we see, and their names are not usually thought of in the way of the negative things they did to get that money.
It is my greatest hope that lots of things that are considered okay today are considered vile a hundred years from now. Why? Because that’s a sign we’re getting better.
So if, say, homosexuality, secularism, and procedural equality are considered vile a hundred years from now, that’s a sign we’re getting better? Moral change does not imply or even strongly correlate with positive change (by whatever your metric for “positive” is). It might seem that way in the short term because people tend to agree with whatever change happens to be occurring during their youth.
It might seem that way in the short term
We’re specifically talking short term- 100 years. Look at the arc of history for the past 100 years. Could it bend back on itself and we reverse the changes we’ve made? Certainly. Is it likely? Well, it’s more likely today than it was six months ago, but no- I don’t think it will.
If you wanted to guess, you could look at what’s currently normal but frequently and loudly criticised - as slavery was.
you could look at what’s currently normal but frequently and loudly criticised
Homosexuality? GMO foods?
I sure hope your heuristic isn’t accurate.
Both possible - as is eating meat, failing to vote, or paying women less than men.
So… in a 100 years when it turns out using Dvorak is evil, we change the names of the buildings of Dvorak users to people who stuck to QWERTY?
What’s the issue here? Yale didn’t want a building to be named after an ardent defender of slavery, who was a catalyst to the Civil War. So the name was changed, to someone they would rather have representing the values.
Do you think Germany should have kept the statues of the Reich in prominent display?
Are there any aspects of morality you wouldn’t consider social fashion?
Presumably, you’d need something that has always been mocked or looked-down on by most civilizations.
Sadly, I think that list is probably limited to consumption of human waste and flatulence–everything else is up for grabs. Possibly being the recipient of penetrative acts when one is equipped to do the penetrating.
Harming kids? No, “disciplining” children has been around for a while.
Murder? Most certainly not.
Lying? Acceptable based on context, as in jokes, storytelling, or diplomacy.
Adultery? Varies by culture.
Having bastard children? Varies.
I think perhaps theft, in cultures and times where personal property was recognized, is probably on the list of things that survive fashion. Then again, one can argue back and forth what constitutes theft and what agents (say, taxmen or divorcees) are allowed to take what they haven’t themselves acquired.
The best rule, given this, is to simply “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”–because anything more concrete is historically unsound.
It’s alarming to me that you think anti-slavery is just a trend.
Given the long history of mankind, current policies are a quite new thing.
so is dentistry.
Given the long history of Earth, humans are a quite new thing. This is an overly reductive argument.
Nice strawman. The point I was making is that it is a bit early to call something a trend when you take the long-term historical view–mankind has practiced slavery in one form or another for thousands of years in one form or another, across hundreds of cultures and civilizations.
It is extremely arrogant and close-minded to naively assume that just because something has been happening a bit in the last century or two in some areas it isn’t practiced elsewhere.
I’m not supporting slavery–I’m quite opposed to it in near any form, including things as near-unrelated as the “sharing economy”–but I simply cannot abide your lazy form of argument here.
Are you trying to argue that because there is slavery in the Middle East, that the people there consider it acceptable? Even the title of the article calls it shameful. If you aren’t arguing that, then how does the fact that slavery still exists and people are still fighting it support your position at all?
He didn’t at any point say that people there consider it acceptable, but obviously some do.
The fact is that in the light of recorded history, slavery has been common in many if not most places. Weighing the last two hundred years against that does make it a very new policy. If our civilization continues, I would feel relatively confident in saying that chattel slavery will continue its decline.
But if something befalls us that does not result in our extinction, to assume that slavery has no chance of coming back is naive.
To add to your point, they still do practice slavery in all kinds of places today. It’s practiced in a form in America with indebted, wage slaves. Better slavery than prior practices for sure. Yet, theres millions of people whose class, location, and environment keep with minimal money or options available unless they somehow escape with a combination of hard work and non-guaranteed opportunities. There’s certainly not an abundance of business tycoons and politicians trying to make sure everyone has a chance at good income, social/economic mobility, etc. They want them to serve those that already have it for their whole lives with less in return every year.
Fits with the bigger picture of control and exploitation you referred to.
Being against slavery or even the fugititive slave act is an example of “the ever changing vogue of social fashion”? Goodness.
You clearly didn’t read the article. They dealt with your criticisms.
Let’s assume you’re right (for the record, I disagree that being anti-slavery is, or should be, a “fashion”). So what? Is there any fundamental, universal reason that building names can’t change with the times? Stadiums are named after whichever company offered the most cash, and they change periodically. Bowl games and golf tournaments are the same. Calhoun is now unfashionable, so they renamed the building after someone more fashionable. In other news, kids these days wear weird clothes that will look silly in 20 years.
It’s quite simple reason for a good name change. One person argued for and helped enable the restriction of human potential for unscientific reasons to cause massive harm for the gain of a few. The other person had foresight that a particular, clunky technology would have benefits to all kinds of people once it got better and if it was more accessible. She ignored the easy, fulfilling paths in career track to instead develop tools to empower more people to use computers. Her work got something started that turned into what powers much of the backbone of Fortune 500 and other megacorporations today. The tech expanded with others' work into better languages that were used for all kinds of great things.
In an integrated world, we can choose which name to honor with our institutions raising the next generation of free people of many colors, genders, and so on. It’s an easy choice to see which person was doing the most good or the least harm in their career. With hindsight, we know one really pulled off their vision with great results. Grace Hopper is therefore a great name to honor for that.
Exactly! It’s my opinion that in most cases what we see as laudable or deplorable is nearly an accident of history–a few changes here or there and we’d be in quite the different place.
That’s why I’m so persnickety whenever people pick some current trend and appeal based on mere pathos that “Oh hey the way we do <X> is clearly wrong and since it’s changing we’re making irrefutable progress!”–this tends to make people utterly surprised when the pendulum swings backwards, as it inevitably does.
Some things that I think it would be possible to go back on, depending on backlash and a few policy decisions (note this is a fairly U.S.-centric list):
Anything on that list you can pick and, if you are intellectually honest, find sources to make a good-faith argument that the future policy positions should be different from what we have now. And if we can get that far, it doesn’t take that much more imagination to believe in a world where one or two “thought-leaders” backed up by an unfortunate law ruling and the roaring of the mob could effect a large chance in the mores.
Quite regardless of how we might feel on any particular matter, we can never forget that in the future anything not backed up by solid reasoning and data may at best be considered a fashion of the times…and so, we musn’t fall into the lazy trap of “but but but history is on our side!”.
EDIT: Folks, remember–“incorrect” is for factually incorrect statements, not mere “I don’t agree with what you said.” And if you do find an inaccuracy, write a reply in correction. Don’t fall prey to HN/Reddit-style culture. Don’t use it because you disagree with an opinion or a prediction.
I didn’t downvote you on this one but if I were to do so, I would mark it off-topic. How does the transitory nature of morality have anything to do with Yale not wanting a building named after a white supremacist, today, in 2017? Maybe they’ll rename it Nathan Bedford Forrest College in 100 years, who knows!
If anything, their actions fit perfectly with your attitude, unless you believe that there is something desperately important about keeping building names consistent over hundreds of years.
The whole submission is off-topic from Lobsters; in contrast, my post here was expanding on a point by the person I was replying to.
I cannot help but notice that slavery, the actual topic under discussion, did not make your list.
What position are you actually taking here? You seem to be supporting the position that Yale should not have changed the name of the building, but you’ve made no argument as to why. You’ve simply made the observation that the generally accepted morals of society have changed and are likely change again. I cannot see how that is in any way a useful or relevant observation to deciding what ethical frameworks we should build into our current institutions, or to resolve disputes such as the one under discussion.
Are you taking the position that any current ethical position is pointless because in the future people may not consider it valid? How would we govern ourselves under such a belief system?
What position are you actually taking here?
My position is that, because I agree with @LibterianLlama that anything we do may be subject to disdain or praise based on some vague future social trends, I think that we need to give data and complete reasoning behind any policy position we take. On a related note, I think that we need to be able to acknowledge that these ideas we despise aren’t some super abstract unquestionable evil things in most cases, because that tends to make us complacent in our positions (until somebody like Trump comes along and shatters our illusions about what is “common sense” and “well-settled”).
Are you taking the position that any current ethical position is pointless because in the future people may not consider it valid?
I take the position that any ethical position is weak if it falls back on “but but but <X> is clearly wrong and evil”, which is what most argumentation these days falls back on–well, that and insult. If we cannot imagine and acknowledge a state of affairs (present in history, multiple times) that runs counter to our preferences, we will be unable to continually prevent its resurgence.
Taking the slavery example here, it was amazingly useful for accomplishing things like the Pyramids, clearing land and farming, and various other things. History shows a lot of things that were accomplished with slave labor–so the hand-wavey “but it’s obviously terrible (because we currently think it so)” fails with even slight reflection.
A better argument would show that, in the time of slavery in the American colonies, there was active questioning of whether or not slavery exacerbated class differences (see also Franklin and others) and caused citizens to dismiss work at slaves work. A better argument would show that economies dependent on slave labor (or any system which reduces to slavery in practice) are universally surpassed by economies that use technology to overcome the inefficiencies that make slave labor attractive.
Those styles of arguments above? They do not require somebody to have the same moral system that you do to acknowledge the numbers. They work even on people that are callous for anything but profit.
How would we govern ourselves under such a belief system?
I wouldn’t know, because I’m not advocating such a system.
because… anything we do may be subject to disdain or praise based on some vague future social trends, I think that we need to give data and complete reasoning behind any policy position we take.
In what way does the unknowable opinion of hypothetical future people have any bearing at all on the decisions and judgements we make now? The argument that fundamentally unknowable data should influence our current behavior is entirely unsound.
Further, the topic under discussion is slavery. To claim that you are intelligent enough to be able to discuss “data and complete reasoning” to back up the position that “slavery is immoral” but that you are somehow simultaneously ignorant of the reasoning behind that very common view, despite living in a culture that generally sees freedom, dignity and independence as fundamental goods, and human suffering as a fundamental evil, is completely beyond the bounds of credulity.
This is how human culture and communication works. There is a great wealth of shared context and knowledge that we all work from. I have a very difficult time seeing a demand that every subject of ethics be re-hashed from first principles whenever it comes up as anything other than an effort to hijack the conversation into a context in which you’re not actually required to take a position.
We are not discussing hypothetical arguments with people who only believe in profit. No one here has taken that view, with the possible exception of yourself, in which case you should just come out and say it. The Lobsters community is having an actual conversation about he merits of removing the name of a long dead individual who promoted slavery as a fundamental good from a building. You cared enough about this to show up and start implying that someone was making unsound ethical arguments, and I am asking you what specifically you were referring to in the course of this specific conversation.
The argument that fundamentally unknowable data should influence our current behavior is entirely unsound.
You’re misreading me. The idea is that if we make policy decisions that aren’t going to be reversed on a whim by people in the future we need to appeal to something other than morals that may change. I can’t state that any more clearly–and you either believe that moral fashions change over time (because, historically, they do) or you don’t (because…this is some magical watershed moment in the history of humankind I guess?).
despite living in a culture that generally sees freedom, dignity and independence as fundamental goods, and human suffering as a fundamental evil, is completely beyond the bounds of credulity.
Every single one of those claims about the culture break down once you move from the general (read: abstract) to the practical case. Freedom is great, except when we disagree with people or they’re criminals. Dignity is great, except when we get a laugh on TV or Facebook for making fun of them. Independence is fine, but we keep choosing tech that makes us reliant on others (Gmail, Facebook, etc.) and making policies that prevent it (states aren’t allowed to break with laws or executive orders they disagree with). Suffering is evil, but we’ll keep Grandma on a ventillator until she’s completely dead to have a few more blighted days with her–and we’ll walk pass the homeless folks next to the hospital to go see her.
I’m suggesting that those claims are bullshit, and that when the rubber meets the road we should instead rely on utilitarian arguments–or at least agree to understand those arguments when made by people with whom we disagree.
The Lobsters community is having an actual conversation about he merits of removing the name of a long dead individual who promoted slavery as a fundamental good from a building.
And in the subthread I replied to, we were dicussing (because it is intimately tied to the renaming) the impact of the observation that future generations don’t hold the same morals as their predecessors. It’s quite on topic, at least in the subthread.
Also, again I'ld point out that the renaming of a building is such a dumb thing to have posted on here, because it sparks long philosophical and political threads like these that don’t actually impact how we do our work.
Actually, most people just thought, as I did, that is was great to see a computer science pioneer be honored and to have her name displace the name of a person who contributed so much to human suffering. However, some people apparently are sentimental about the good old days of slavery and Jim Crow and were offended.
…And we’ve circled back to making decisions based on imaginary future people. The unknowable popular ethical frameworks of future generations have no relevance to our decisions today. Any argument to that end is unsound. Your position that current arguments should be based on utility because that will somehow be more appealing to future generations is ridiculous on it’s face. It relies on the assumption that future generations will value utility over altruism or other ethical frameworks (never mind the issues with what metric of utility you use). There is absolutely no basis for making the assumption that that will be true. Your argument can be inverted, trading altruism for utility, and it remains just as convincing, which is to say not at all. It’s an entirely hollow premise.
I won’t bother to refute your claims about cultural priorities point by point. It should suffice to say that you are conflating specific instances of ethical hypocrisy and people making trade offs between negative and positive outcomes of decisions with an a shift in the generally accepted cultural ethical framework.
Furthermore, I don’t believe that you are foolish enough not to recognize the fallacies in your own position. I’ve seen this pattern of rhetoric from you repeatedly when social topics come up. Apart from claiming that the topic is inappropriate (fine, go ahead), you inevitably start making claims about weak and unsound arguments this is typically done by either:
You take great pains to steer the conversation toward a meta-argument about the quality of arguments being made, while carefully avoiding taking actual position on the subject at hand. I’ve tried to give you the benefit of the doubt in these thread in general, but at this point I’m no longer convinced that you’re arguing in good faith. I’m not going to make suppositions about what you’re actually trying to accomplish, but whatever it is, I wish you’d just cowboy up and come out and say what you mean.
In the meantime, because you often seem interested to know why, I am downvoting your comments of this type as “troll” because it’s the closest available approximation to intellectual dishonesty. I realize you’d probably rather I engage you directly on each point, but honestly, picking apart your arguments while you run in rhetorical circles is both tedious and time-consuming, and I have other things to do.
Taking the slavery example here, it was amazingly useful for accomplishing things like the Pyramids, clearing land and farming, and various other things.
Useful? You see an End you like, and you think it justifies The Means. “Enslaving people is fine if it results in buildings that I like looking at!”
But you’d discover moral principles pretty damn fast if you were forced to work on building something for someone else.
Coercion is immoral, mm'kay?
Try to think of some examples where we accept that coercion is reasonable and not immoral–start with, say, child-rearing.
A modern form of politically-motivated damnatio in memoria. Thankfully, the days of social justice warriors are coming to an end and a counter-culture has already formed.
Apart from this, Grace Hopper was a very good choice! May she rest in peace.
Do you think honoring a politician by naming a building after him was not “politically-motivated”?
Thanks for saying this.