‘Master’ and ‘servant’: Tech terms deal with analysis in the middle of anti-racism efforts

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A camera flash shows a switch to change between master and slave modes.

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A cam flash reveals a switch to alter in between master and servant modes.


Stephen Shankland/CNET

Apple, Google, Microsoft and other Big Tech business have actually stepped up their discuss the requirement for racial justice in the middle of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that have actually grasped the United States for the previous 2 weeks. Now, a growing group of technologists state the language of the market itself requires to alter in order to battle bigotry.

The terms “master” and “slave,” utilized to explain the relationships in between 2 computer system hard disks and or in between 2 video camera flashes, have actually come under analysis due to the fact that of their association with America’s history of slavery. Similarly, “whitelist” and “blacklist,” terms for permitting and rejecting access to a service, are being reviewed due to the fact that of their possibly racial overtones. 

“I refuse to use ‘whitelist”https://www.cnet.com/”blacklist’ or ‘master”https://www.cnet.com/”slave’ terminology for computers. Join me. Words matter,” tweeted Leah Culver, co-founder of the Breaker podcast app and a co-author of the extensively utilized OAuth signon innovation. More than 16,000 individuals liked her tweet.

Photographer Theresa Bear revealed a comparable belief on the PetaPixel image website, composing that it’s time to “make way for our black community” by eradicating using “master” and “slave” to describe how flashes are managed. “Can you imagine being on set with a black human and the photographer yells to the assistant, ‘Hey, can you put it on slave mode?'” Bear asked.

Other terms proposed for sunsetting consist of “white hat” and “black hat,” with “ethical” and “unethical” recommended as replacements.

No one believes altering the language of innovation will bring racial equality to the United States, which is still shaking from demonstrations triggered by the death of George Floyd, the unarmed black male who was eliminated 2 weeks back when a policeman pinned a knee to the back of his neck for almost 9 minutes. But the effort to modify how innovation is gone over acknowledges how prevalent bigotry is and how excited lots of people are to resolve it in locations where they may have some direct impact.


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“Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny,” tweeted Mike Bartlett, a vice president at documentation company Slite, quoting Indian anti-colonial movement leader Mahatma Gandhi.

Engineering terms

The use of “master” and “slave” goes back decades. For hard drives, the terms designate which of a pair controls a shared interface in a computer’s internal communications system. When using multiple flashes to take a photograph, the terms refer to which flash is in charge and which responds. You might have seen it in data storage, where a master database is a primary repository and a slave database is a synchronized copy.

The word “master” is also used in the music industry, referencing the primary recording from which other recordings are made. A “golden master” is a similar concept for software. When multiple locomotives are pulling a long train, the one in charge is called a master, with the supporting engines’ controls “slaved” to it. Cars’ clutches have master and slave cylinders.

Linguists have questioned whether changing language actually alters the underlying concepts. Harvard’s Stephen Pinker, describing what he called the euphemism treadmill, observed that people generate new terms to free ideas of baggage with little success. “Water closet” becomes “toilet,” which becomes “bathroom,” which becomes “restroom.” The language changed, but the meaning remained the same. 

On Twitter, skeptics were quick to mock the idea. One commenter said it missed the point and encouraged people to vote rather than “playing with words.” Another said the terms had long lost their original meaning in tech and encouraged readers to focus on “bigger problems.” Scorn dominated the replies to one tweet spotlighting Culver’s tweet. 

Persuaded to change

Hard drives have used master/slave settings to determine which has priority.

Hard drives have used master/slave settings to determine which has priority.


Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Still, the call to change the language of technology has historical precedents. In 2018, developers of the widely used Python programming language dropped “master/slave.” Four years earlier, the team behind Drupal, online publishing software, replaced the terms with “primary/replica,” though the change provoked objections from some commenters. In 2003, Los Angeles County asked suppliers and contractors to stop using “master” and “slave” on computer equipment.

Many welcomed the current proposals.

Apple software developer John Wilander tweeted that he’s dumped the terms “blacklist” and “whitelist.” In computing, those terms refer respectively to collections of blocked entities like insecure passwords and to permitted ones like child-safe websites. He’s switched to “block list” and “allow list.” 

Similarly, Gabriel Csapo, a developer at Microsoft’s LinkedIn, said he’s submitting requests to change terminology at work. “Exclude and allowed lists are better terms since they translate better and offer similar meaning,” he tweeted.

Black Lives Matter. Visit blacklivesmatters.carrd.co to learn how to donate, sign petitions and protest safely.



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