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Terminology: A modest proposal
The time has come. In fact, I’d say that it’s long past due.
Just what exactly am I talking about? I’m talking about some common terminology used in the software, industrial controls and IT worlds, specifically two words that refer to control and networking functions. Two words so frequently used that it’s easy to not notice them or think twice about using them.
The two words I’m referring to, of course, are master and slave.
In the world of technology these words may have lost a lot of their original force. So much so that when people say them casually in conversation in which the context is entirely business or technical in nature, the other more common meaning which references the exploitative relationship between human beings may indeed be absent or even forgotten.
But being someone who writes for a living and for whom words have a history and for whom words matter, I have never been able to entirely detach the original meaning of those words from their usage in the technical worlds.
I can’t remember exactly when I first heard the pairing “master/slave,” most likely it was in college or one of the co-op jobs I worked as an engineering undergraduate. But I do recall thinking how odd and harsh and ugly of a usage it was — even way back then in the 1990s.
Like almost everybody else, I didn’t dwell on it. Part of me quickly rationalized it, telling myself that of course it wasn’t about slavery or race but simply the terminology used in a technical context about controllers and control signals, and in networking about nodes and which node was in control and which one was passive and carried out orders or took some kind of action.
The use of master/slave to refer to motors and drives and controls has been fairly standard in the industrial world for what may seem like forever. However, there has been growing recognition of this issue as well as debates on what to do about it, though most of that debate has been in the software and IT world, not so much in the world of industrial controls. In fact, just a few years ago, master/slave terminology was removed from the Python programming language after a developer raised the issue.
Of course, retiring master/slave terminology isn’t going to magically solve the real problems of racism, nor will it undo centuries of racist thinking and policies. But it is a start in our own backyard, the one we are most familiar with, where we spend most of our days working the soil, so to speak.
The bottom line is that these words reference the darkest chapters not only of U.S. history but the modern world’s global slave trade and the peculiar institution that denied groups of human beings their full human rights.
So I have a proposal, a call to action — that we work to eliminate these words from our technical vocabulary. That we find a substitute that captures the essence of what is happening at a technical level, without calling to mind America’s original sin.
I’m optimistic that we are all sufficiently smart, creative, and good-natured enough to come up with something better.