TechnologyFrom 'students' to 'master and slaves': the complex debate for a more...

From ‘students’ to ‘master and slaves’: the complex debate for a more inclusive language in computing

Students in the library of the Carlos III University of Madrid.SANTI BURGOS

Last February, the student from the Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M) Borja Ayuso went to the vice-chancellor’s office with a request: change the email domain from @ to @ It was not an easy thing. According to Ayuso, there are 350,000 accounts with the domain “@alumnos”, which are the current students plus the old ones who still have the address. He went to the office as a representative of his colleagues as general deputy delegate of UC3M and delegate of the Higher Polytechnic School: “This request has a legal basis,” Ayuso says by mail to EL PAÍS. “The statute that protects our rights as students is called the Student Statute, not the Student Statute. Alumnx “, Add.

But it also obviously had a symbolic motive. “My personal motive was to be more inclusive with all the people who make up the UC3M community,” he explains. The response from the University, which has not responded to the messages of this newspaper on this matter, was “positive”, according to Ayuso. But the change won’t happen for more than a year from now, hopefully. “The ideal would be the course 2022-23 or very late I hope it will be done in 2023-24”, says Ayuso.

The problem is technical: it is not easy to switch without incurring a lot of expense and hypothetical security risks. “It is unfeasible due to the consumption of economic and human resources that it entails, plus the consequences it may have for those who already have registered in a service outside the University,” Ayuso says. The University will therefore resolve the matter for students who request it through a form, case by case. But it will not go backwards or be of mass application.

The UC3M case is just one example of the various ways in which the culture war of language can affect not only symbolic, but also technical grounds: changing a word can lead to unexpected consequences in the technical functioning of an institution with hundreds of thousands of users. It is just as significant but with apparently less complexity to change “NIA” to “NIE” (Identification Number of the “Student” for “Student”). Or, for example, the Student Delegation intends to include “student body” to avoid stumbling blocks: “Usually inclusive language is associated with infinite doublings, but this is not always the case, it is not necessary to say the students, being able to say the student body”, says Ayuso . But these changes are usually limited to documents or reports.

The irruption of inclusive language in computer engineering can provoke new debates because the consequences are not only symbolic. Nor is it something new. Terms like “Master / slave” (master or master / slave), which describe a system that controls or feeds on others. But the requests for changes are reaching lines that not everyone in the community is willing to cross. It is something delicate in a sector where a precise name to denominate a process or device is essential.

The classic manual Modern operating systems of more than a thousand pages, co-written by Professor Herbert Bos, professor at the Free University of Amsterdam prepares a new edition. This June, Bos wrote on Twitter that the publisher had asked him to review some concepts as “offensive.” Among them he cited the case of “Master boot record”, which is a part of a storage device and in Spanish it may not use the word “maestro” (main boot record). The teacher asked for advice on what to do. The tweet prompted dozens of responses. In an email to EL PAÍS, Bos explains: “Master [o amo]-slave is a term that a lot of people have objections to (although it’s part of the tech standards we describe), so it’s okay for the publisher to ask us to reconsider. But others are just names of things, like a master boot record and there are several such examples ”.

This is where the confusion begins. It’s one thing to delete “Master / slave” as a binomial and another to eliminate all references to “master”, which is what GitHub, the largest software repository in the world and owned by Microsoft, did in June 2020, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement. Months later the debate continues.

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This is also mixed with the preeminence of English as the language of technology. In Spanish, all this sounds even weirder, according to Eva Sánchez Guerrero, a computer engineer with more than 25 years of experience in multinational companies: “In the case of“ master-slave ”, I agree to look for a nomenclature that indicates that one commands and the rest obey, such as ‘director / actor’, but in the case of GitHub, ‘master’ is used rather as ‘main version’, of which all copies are taken, as ‘master key’. Here the truth is that the issue of slavery is ‘caught by the hair’, as a Castilian speaker I would never have thought about it. I would think of a teacher, a professor, even a master’s degree, but not ‘master’. So in some contexts according to the change, in others it is over braking ”, he explains.

These changes can have real consequences not just for confusion in an industry focused on precision. Mathias Payer, a professor at the Federal Polytechnic University of Lausanne (Switzerland), has seen his article rejected at a conference this year for using “Master / slave”. In an email to EL PAÍS, Payer has no regrets. “These terms are out of date,” he says. “The reason we use it is that the Bluetooth standard uses it. As long as it remains unchanged, it will only confuse the reader if we introduce different names for concepts described in the standard, ”he adds.

The blacklist

If in the case of the concept most criticized for years, the standard has not yet changed, the problems can accumulate. Payer believes, however, that the time has come for some names. “Language evolves and, thanks to extensive discussions, we have better words for concepts like ‘master / slave’ or ‘blacklist / whitelist’ [lista negra y blanca]”Payer adds.

This is where the front lines begin. Organizations that aspire to combat exclusion in the computing profession, for example the ACM (Association of Computational Machinery, for its acronym in English), propose to avoid terms such as “Abort” (abort), “Average user” (average user, in reference to people with less experience and that can be pejorative), “Black box” (black box, where the magic of algorithms happen) or “Blind review” (blind review, for academic articles where the identity of the authors is hidden).

Pietro Bonanno, Italian software engineer and advisor to the European Commission, believes that the changes must be natural: “They must come after a process that allows us to understand the lessons of the past. Otherwise the word is changed, history is lost and the result is just a facade, ”he says. And it can happen as in the case of GitHub: “They have removed the term ‘master’ but then they have 10 white members of the 12 of their address. Not long ago I was arguing on Twitter with someone who insisted on ‘not using those words so that no one gets angry’, but I see it as a cold reasoning, which aims more to avoid the annoyance than to learn something “.

Without being monolithic at all, the debate seems to focus on removing clearly offensive concepts but bearing in mind that the real issues outweigh the language. “Most believe that some words need to be changed,” says Payer. “Deciding where to draw the line is personal and, to some extent, cultural. For example, generalizing, in the US they are more in favor of change while in Asia less and in Europe something in between ”, he adds.

With the debate underway, decisions will be made. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which is a non-binding, voluntary body that standardizes standards, and does not vote but accepts decisions by consensus in meetings where whispering may mean being against , has not concluded anything at the moment.

Meanwhile, the editors of the next edition of the manual on operating systems have asked Professor Bos to also change some general terms, not related to computer science. Bos put these two examples on Twitter: “adolescent tweeters” and “old” in the context “the idea is old, from the 60s”. Asked by EL PAÍS, he did not give more examples because they are “considering them case by case.” But it did point to other types of difficulties that also have to do with the tradition of this sector. “They ask that I expose the historical contributions of women and men alike. But that request is not easy to satisfy in the world of operating systems, because sadly it has been deeply dominated by men, ”he says.

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