November 3rd & 4th, 2023
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When Social Issues Do Not Matter in Technical Debates

SeaGL 2016

This talk addresses a set of meta-arguments frequently heard in collaborative software-development circles. For example, the dual demands in technical debates to both analyze participant-concerns rationally, and to simultaneously keep organizational cultures healthy. Projects are increasingly adopting codes of social conduct, but may still hear complaints that being nice is antithetical to critical intelligence. Others argue that group intelligence is also lost when minority perspectives are bullied into silence.

This talk introduces specific methods of getting beyond ‘objectivity versus subjectivity’ and ‘facts versus values’ conflicts in technical-policy discussions. The presentation will suggest learning to hear conflicts like a facilitator. There are some types of technical debates that do not hinge on social issues at their core. We will identify those factual types of debates and how validating their solutions differ from other conflicts, and how to tease out the differences when multiple conflicts are combined in the same statements. The first step is about learning and recognition; learning to recognize types of communication conflicts concerning the larger benefit of the group. Once we recognize them, we can seek resolutions that validate alternatives provided by those conflicts.

Suggestions offered here are based on the Theory of Communicative Rationality, of Jurgen Habermas.


Katheryn Sutter

Katheryn Sutter,

Katheryn Sutter PhD has a background in community development and policy analysis, concentrating on how to evaluate deliberations in consensus-based groups. Living and working with co-operatively minded projects her entire adult life, she also did applied and theoretical social and bio-behavioral research in university. Free software has been her primary interest for over a decade. As developers’ free-software contributions are primarily voluntary and building a shared commons, the formalities of co-operative organizational forms seem to fit. She makes presentations at tech conferences about how to look at free-software in terms of democratic communication ideals.