Christian Heilmann

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Archive for April, 2014

Torn and weary

Saturday, April 5th, 2014

Out of everything I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.

― Ozzy Osbourne

The last few days were horrible. Not like my house burned down and I lost a limb horrible or people put me in prison and violating me horrible, but a lot of pressure, a barrage of anger and a feeling of helplessness. Also a feeling of betrayal and a feeling of being powerless.

Finding The Grain (Shown: Pocket Lining Fabric)

All of this when my passion and my job is to be encouraging, to find the good, to emphasise it and to challenge people to find what makes them happy and effective.

Of course, I am talking about the issue with Brendan Eich being appointed CEO and his subsequent stepping down as CEO. Stepping down from the cause that drove him for 15 years and helped to a large part create the open web that made all of this possible.

(Oh, oh, oh, when oh when will be the part when the writer says that he is pro or against gay rights? Where is the punch line, where can I copy and paste my angry comment in?)

Yes, this is important to mention: without the work of Mozilla we’d not have the open web we have now. Social media wouldn’t have happened. The web would be a business thing: grey boxes in offices and people not having the choice to write and publish but people being paid to twist and turn words until the most catchy and debate-arousing headline comes out.

Brendan did a personal thing: he supported to a political cause that prevents a social change. That is his right. I defend that right. I don’t have to agree with it. This is the moral high ground we have to take. I find it personally disgusting that you can just donate money to a cause this controversial and with high impact on human lives – to me a flaw in the legal system. It makes political social decisions a marketing show where the ones with the most money win (at least a first round).

Of course Brendan’s donation was public record, but not many would have either found it or talked about it nearly as much as we did now on the web. The thing Brendan built up allowed people to easily find ammunition to attack him. “You can’t stop the signal, Mal”.

Curious, isn’t it? Other people posted thought experiments on this.

I was and am utterly torn by this as it affects three things I firmly believe:

  • Equality – allowing anyone to be themselves and to love another and show that publicly without repercussion is something that is pretty much defining evolution to me. It is the final agreement to allow others to be different. You grow beyond fear and hate and the arrogance that your way of loving someone else is the only one out there. We need children in order to move on as mankind. We need children who are brought up by people who love them and show them how being nice to another works out. That’s a family and the gender of the parents to me is irrelevant as long as the children are loved and learn. I believe in equality. I don’t believe in bullying and equality meaning that you need to agree with everybody else. Equality means you have the same rights, it doesn’t mean you all need to be the same. That would be stand-still.
  • Free speech. I once was at a party by some directors of companies in India. As one of the party games people were asked to sing songs from their parts of India who mean a lot to them. The foreign guests were asked to do the same from their countries. Of course I was the one of our group who had to do it. What I chose was “Die Gedanken sind frei“, a song from 1810 describing the power of thoughts and that they are one’s own and nobody can destroy them. An anthem to the freedom of thought and speech. I believe deeply that you are allowed to think whatever you please, and to say whatever you please. In the latter case, you have to be aware of the consequences though. You have the freedom to speak, but you also should do the human thing and consider what your words do to other people and how they may be perceived. This is damn hard, especially when you are in a world where words are all you see, not the other 80% of human interaction that makes up how we communicate (facial expression, body language, tone of voice…). It also keeps back-firing. Things I say often offend people and I am confused as to why. I don’t know about your frame of reference, and asking for it in many cases lead to unearthing a misunderstanding and agreement and embarrassment on both sides. Don’t assume malice when a lack of information or your current mood might be what makes things appear strange. Ask questions. That’s how we learn.
  • The open web. I was a radio journalist. I always adored words and messages. The web as it is moved media to another dimension. You can publish, you have a voice, you don’t need to ask for permission to publish and reach millions of people world wide. You can be the next citizen journalist, inspiring thinker, great writer or painter or musician without being stifled by having to have a degree or get a job where people get paid to be a voice.

All three of these things were perverted and abused and a vehicle for hate, misinformation and soap-boxing the last few days. The trolls ran rampant, the baits were thrown, the truisms spouted silenced the few timid voices of reason and sensible debate.

When the outrage was how a person with a different belief and – to me – very doubtful political action got made CEO people ganged up on Mozilla, my colleagues and friends and me how that could happen and how we can allow that.

This was unfair. I neither donated (again, I find the concept of paying to support a political cause unethical as it makes politics a marketing and budget game rather than ideas game), nor did I vote for Brendan as CEO. Accusing me of supporting the same ideas my CEO has makes me a sheep, not a knowledge worker. I have colleagues who say things publicly I disagree with. Great. Let people decide who to agree with.

It gets even more unfair when you are continuously asked to give your opinion with loaded questions created to lead you to agree with the asker. That’s bullying. It doesn’t help a cause. If you already know the answer you want give me a command to say it. Don’t expect me to comply though. If you want answers, ask questions. Not the equivalent of a loaded gun to my chest. I am not the one whose decisions you are disagreeing with.

It gets even more annoying when your attempts to ask for people to grant others to have a right of their own opinion (“I disagree with you but I fight for your right to have your opinion” anyone?) get pushed into impossible to defend emotional space. This happens over and over again: “How can you say $x is OK when $horriblething happens to $targetgroup and you never experienced that?”

For a cynical person, this would be a great way out: “OK, I am not $x, so it is not my problem, you just claimed that I have no right to an opinion as I never experienced the suffering. Done.”

To someone who cares, this makes one feel like shit and powerless to respond. No, I don’t want to agree with you by disallowing others to have another opinion. This is not black and white. If you win by silencing others you don’t win. You make them angry, go back into their world of fear and hatch more brutal responses.

Cue the change after Brendan stepped down. Now Mozilla, my friends and colleagues and me get badgered by the “Conservatives”. Some good voices there, some amazing points and on the whole more eloquent debates (once you deleted the 80% of utterly insane hate mail). This is attacking my deep belief in free speech as this is the thing people wave in my face.

Here’s my view on this: free speech is a gift, it is a force to tell people what you think and make them your allies. You have the right to just shout and scream and spout hatred but with this you sully what free speech is about. It is not a way out for me to allow you the right to hurt other people and limit their freedom of expression. That leads to circular reasoning as that would mean their right to freedom of speech is limited.

You would expect that in this new round of noise and screaming and accusations my former attackers would chime in. You know, a “the enemy of your enemy is your friend” kind of scenario. But that doesn’t happen much. Instead, most of the mood seems to be “we won, but this is sad”.

Where does that leave the situation? I was accused of supporting a cause I don’t because I don’t speak out against someone who I believe can have his own opinion. I was told that because he was hired in an assumed hierarchy above me. That makes me feel angry. You are telling me I have no ideas of my own but just because I don’t disagree, I follow. You also assume that the person was not professional and brought his beliefs to work. Which makes you question how the place I work in functions. I outlined that you couldn’t be further from the truth.

All in all, this is not how dealing with people you disagree with works. For example:

I understand that there are circumstances that can make people be racist. I don’t have to agree with that. I see that as a challenge to find out what made them who they are. Maybe I will learn something that way.

Don’t boo the Klansman when he speaks. Listen to him, find out how your enemy thinks. If you boo him though, he’ll just ‘sieg heil’ and storm off the stage.

– Henry Rollins

Now I get the conservative camp to accuse Mozilla, my friends and colleagues and me about killing free speech.

I want to give up. I feel an urge to say “fuck it” and go and build a closed app that allows you to take photos and put some crap on them, sell it to another big company and live on a beach for the rest of my life. Or I could start a “tech news blog” that lives on borderline libelous headlines and causing controversy in the tech bubble and get my money from ad clicks and impressions.

Nobody, really and utterly nobody who is in this won anything here. All that happened is that a man who we have to thank for a lot of his work stepped down and stops being in the company he started.

The LGBT movement didn’t win anything – all it is seen now is as a bully that disallows free speech, kerosene on the fire of those who talk about a “gay agenda”.

All that happens is that the already rivaling and disagreeing parties become more aggressive and the people in the middle have to deal with it. And that the open and free web is used once more to make each other feel shit by not even caring about starting a conversation.

Governments try to censor the web, companies try to make you charge for it. Your voice, your freedom of speech, your incredibly powerful and simple to use channel out. And they might just succeed if you keep allowing the hooligans of the web to be the loudest voice out there.

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.

― Albert Camus

I will not give up. I will stand with my friends and colleagues and I will try my best to keep this going. It is important, it is good. It gives people a voice and I deep down believe people are good and have great things to say. I will concentrate on these people. And I want people to think hard of what you achieve by a storm happening every few months in social media and tech about human issues. Is it worth getting the short attention or would your work be more fruitful if you really did something for the cause you really care about rather than clicking a “like”, re-tweet an unverified but outrageous “fact” or repeating trigger words?

We have Godwin’s Law that states is commonly used as an opportunity by admins (thanks for pointing out my error, Mikael) that if you try to argue with a Nazi analogy on the internet, you lost the argument. Can I offer “Heilmann’s law”?

If you use the word “bigot” or “thought police” you lost the internet argument.

Presumptious? Maybe. But I dislike people being lazy in their argumentation. Especially when it is about important issues.

For Fox’s sake!

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

summit fox
Photo by Marcia Knous

I work at Mozilla. The non-profit organisation to keep the open web, well, open and alive. I work here because of a few reasons:

  • We have a manifesto. Not a “company guideline” or “our vision” or “about us”. We mean business, but not in the sense of “what brings us the most money”.
  • We have people, not employment figures. Amazing people, creative people, misfits and average people. From all over the globe, with all kind of ideas and beliefs and backgrounds. And they work together. They clash, they disagree, they flood my inbox with CCs as I should know the answer to how they can work on this. They all have different setups and ways to work.
  • We empower people. We work with a lot of people who we don’t pay. We help them learn, we help them become speakers for a good cause, we help them communicate and we let them be our communicators in regions and languages and manners we have no idea about. We trust them. And it shows. Going to a Mozilla summit is like going to a concert or festival. You have a lot of fun, you have a lot of noise and boy do you get a lot of demands. People are hungry to do good, and are ravenous to learn all about it.
  • We are a stepping stone. Quite a few people who I trained on public speaking and tech evangelism got better jobs immediately after that. I write more recommendation letters than ever before. And I see people getting a chance to move to another country and get a job they beforehand only dreamed about.
  • We are more than a company in the Silicon Valley. We are world-wide, everybody has the right to work from home and most people do. We trust you to use your time wisely and only ask you to show up for video meetings where we need to sync. This means we release much more than I have ever seen in any other company. Your output speaks for you, not how on time you arrive in the office, how you look or where you are from.
  • We value passion and personality – I can be a total pain in the lower backside. Other people drive me crazy. We don’t have to have the same ideas, instead we find a common ground and analyse what is good for the project as a whole. Then we do that together. There is no problem disagreeing with a director, a manager, or even a CEO. If you have a good point, it will be taken in and – after peer review – taken on. You can get away with a lot more than you could in other companies. And this isn’t about “yeah, let them rant – it makes them happy” – if you are professional and have a good point, you find an ear to listen to you.
  • We disagree and discuss. The old saying “Arguing with an engineer is like wrestling with a pig in mud – you realise far too late it is enjoying it” is very much alive here. All discussions and disagreements are public. Personal disagreements are normally taken on head-on and in direct messaging. Nobody is asked to agree with anything without having had their say. This delays things, this makes things much more complex, but it also makes us who we are. A free, open product can not be created behind closed walls. Open Source does not mean “code is on GitHub”. It is pure transparency and a messy process. But it makes for strong products that can not be killed if one person leaves or gets bored. Open Source means the big red bus has no power. What is shared can not get taken away, neither by organisational changes, nor by outside powers, nor by silly things like hardware failure.
  • We work with the competition. – I have no problem speaking to Google, Microsoft, Opera, Twitter, Facebook and whoever else I please. I speak at their events, I share upcoming work on our part with them. I applaud and publicly promote the great things they do. We work on standards and best practices. These can not be done in one place. They have to have peer review.
  • We allow you to speak freely. – there is no censorship, there is no “you have to use this channel to communicate”. The latter drives me crazy, as I have many a time to react to things people say about our products on their personal blogs or find amazing examples and code randomly on the web. People prefer to write on their own channels about products they built on company time rather than using an official channel. In other companies, that is an HR issue. Hell, I had contracts that said that whatever code written on company hardware belongs to it. Not here. You can talk and you should also be aware of the effects your communication has. Many times this means we have to help you out when you miscommunicated. That is tough, but it also means we learn.

many voices - one mozilla

All of this is the messy craziness that is Mozilla. And that’s why I am here. It is not a 9-5 job, it is not an easy job. But damn is it rewarding and interesting.

When I started, I took a paycut. I continuously get better offers from the outside. I had a six hour interview with six people. These were the best brainstorming I had done for years. When I met volunteers on my way out and saw them giving their time for Mozilla with a smile that was contagious, I knew I am up to something good.

When I interviewed, nobody asked me about my personal or religious beliefs. This would be illegal – at least where I am from. I don’t have to agree with everyone I work with on a personal level. All I have to do is to allow you your freedom to be who you are and flag up when your personal views inconvenience or hurt others and are just not appropriate in a work situation.

So when you tell me because I work for Mozilla I share ideas of other people “above me” in the hierarchy, you don’t know me and you have no idea how Mozilla works. We are different, and we work differently. You make something that thrives on communication and helping another and having thousands of personal voices something you understand: a hierarchical company with one person who is the embodiment of everything the company does. A figure like that exists – it is a one-man startup or a movie superhero. It doesn’t work for a loosely connected and open construct like Mozilla.

I’ve had moments where I was ready to give up. I had some very painful months lately where all my work of the last years was questioned and I felt I ran out of things to excite me. Then I concentrated on the people who give their free time on us and talked to them. And I found the spark again.

I am here for all the people who spend time to keep the web open, to teach web literacy, to give people a voice where it would be hard for them to get heard. They may be my colleagues, they may be volunteers, they may be people in other companies with similar goals. This is bigger than me and bigger than you. I hope it stays, I hope it thrives and I hope people understand that what Mozilla did and does is incredibly important. Information wants to be out and free. The internet allows for this. We made it our passion to protect this internet and give you software that is yours to use – for free, without backdoors or asking you for your information upfront. If that’s not your thing, fine. But don’t give it up because you disagree with one person’s personal actions and beliefs. I don’t.

Want some of this? Contribute to Mozilla or start working here (the former can also easily lead to the latter).