Automattic Privilege

I’ve been thinking recently about three kinds of geographic privilege I enjoy in my work at Automattic. (See more posts about my experience of working at Automattic.)

1. Timezone Privilege

Take a look at the map below. I’m the pink pin here in Oxfordshire. The green pins are my immediate team – the people I work with on a day-to-day basis – and the blue pins are people outside of my immediate team but in its parent team (Automattic’s org chart is a bit like a fractal).

World map showing the locations of Dan, his immediate team, and its parent team. There's a cluster of nine pins Europe, a few pins further East in Russia and Indonesia, one in Cape Town, two in North America, and one in Central America.
I’m the pink pin; my immediate team are the green pins. People elsewhere in our parent team are the blue pins. Some pins represent multiple people.

Thinking about timezones, there are two big benefits to being where I am:

  1. I’m in the median timezone, which makes times that are suitable-for-everybody pretty convenient for me (I have a lot of lunchtime/early-afternoon meetings where I get to watch the sun rise and set, simultaneously, through my teammates’ windows).
  2. I’m West of the mean timezone, which means that most of my immediate coworkers start their day before me so I’m unlikely to start my day blocked by anything I’m waiting on.

(Of course, this privilege is in itself a side-effect of living close to the meridian, whose arbitrary location owes a lot to British naval and political clout in the 19th century: had France and Latin American countries gotten their way the prime median would have probably cut through the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.)

2. Language Privilege

English is Automattic’s first language (followed perhaps by PHP and Javascript!), not one of the 120 other languages spoken by Automatticians. That’s somewhat a consequence of the first language of its founders and the language in which the keywords of most programming languages occur.

It’s also a side-effect of how widely English is spoken, which in comes from (a) British colonialism and (b) the USA using Hollywood etc. to try to score a cultural victory.

Treemap showing languages spoken by Automatticians: English dominates, followed by Spanish, French, German, Italian, Hindi, Portugese, Mandarin, Russian, Japanese, Polish, Afrikaans, Dutch, Green, Catalan, Cantonese, Romanian, and many others.
Languages self-reportedly spoken by Automatticians, sized proportional to the number of speakers. No interpretation/filtering has been done, so you’ll see multiple dialects of the same root language.

I’ve long been a fan of the concept of an international axillary language but I appreciate that’s an idealistic dream whose war has probably already been lost.

For now, then, I benefit from being able to think, speak, and write in my first language all day, every day, and not have the experience of e.g. my two Indonesian colleagues who routinely speak English to one another rather than their shared tongue, just for the benefit of the rest of us in the room!

3. Passport Privilege

Despite the efforts of my government these last few years to isolate us from the world stage, a British passport holds an incredible amount of power, ranking fifth or sixth in the world depending on whose passport index you follow. Compared to many of my colleagues, I can enjoy visa-free and/or low-effort travel to a wider diversity of destinations.

Normally I might show you a map here, but everything’s a bit screwed by COVID-19, which still bars me from travelling to many places around the globe, but as restrictions start to lift my team have begun talking about our next in-person meetup, something we haven’t done since I first started when I met up with my colleagues in Cape Town and got assaulted by a penguin.

But even looking back to that trip, I recall the difficulties faced by colleagues who e.g. had to travel to a different country in order tom find an embassy just to apply for the visa they’d eventually need to travel to the meetup destination. If you’re not a holder of a privileged passport, international travel can be a lot harder, and I’ve definitely taken that for granted in the past.

I’m going to try to be more conscious of these privileges in my industry.

Passport Photos

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

"Passport Photos" photo of a man with a fire next to him.

“Passport Photos” looks at one of the most mundane and unexciting types of photography. Heavily restricted and regulated, the official passport photo requirements include that the subject needs to face the camera straight on, needs a clear background without shadow, no glare on glasses and most importantly; no smile.

It seems almost impossible for any kind of self-expression.

The series tries to challenge these official rules by testing all the things you could be doing while you are taking your official document photo.

I love this weird, wonderful, and truly surreal photography project. Especially in this modern age in which a passport photo does not necessarily involve a photo booth – you’re often permitted now to trim down a conventional photo or even use a born-digital picture snapped from an approved app or via a web application – it’s more-feasible than ever that the cropping of your passport photo does not reflect the reality of the scene around you.

Max’s work takes this well beyond the logical extreme, but there’s a wider message here: a reminder that the way in which any picture is cropped is absolutely an artistic choice which can fundamentally change the message. I remember an amazing illustrative example cropping a photo of some soldiers, in turn inspired I think by a genuine photo from the second world war. Framing and cropping an image is absolutely part of its reinterpretation.

The Queen’s Passport

This was one of my most-popular articles in 2011. If you enjoyed it, you might also enjoy:

Just a quick thought: what does it say on the inside front cover of the Queen‘s passport?

A British passport, with its famous inside text.

Presumably it ought to say:

My Secretary of State requests and requires in my name all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.

Nonetheless, I’ll bet that she doesn’t get as much trouble at passport control as I do, despite the fact that she doesn’t have a surname at all (to be completely accurate, Windsor is the name of her royal house, and is not a surname in the conventional sense). It makes the Passport Office look a little silly to complain about my unusually short name.

Interesting fact about passports: in their current form, they’re a comparatively new invention, but have achieved a rather quick ubiquity in international travel. Historically, the term “port” in their name doesn’t refer, as you’d expect, to sea ports, but instead to the “portes” (gates) of walled cities: most early passports granted the bearer the permission of their lord or monarch to travel between cities in their own country – sea ports and international boundaries were considered fair game for anybody to cross.

It was only really with the outbreak of the First World War that it became a widespread mandate that travellers had passports to cross international borders, as the nations of Europe fought to prevent spies. The Schengen Area – only around 25 years old and hailed as welcome liberalisation of European international transit laws – could actually be likened to a step backwards to a simpler time when citizens movements were not so closely monitored.

A Note From The Passport Office

This morning I received my new passport, following my name change last month. In the envelope with the new passport and the usual collection of leaflets about safe travelling, I found the following compliments slip:

Compliments slip from the passport office

The slip reads:

Mr. Q,

Your passport has now been issued, as requested. I would advise you that due to your unusual surname, you may experience difficulties at Immigration Control when travelling. The Passport Service will take no responsibility for any problems incurred as the change of name is your own personal choice.

Kind regards;

[indecipherable signature]

Kinda cool.

Off To Malawi!

I’m off to Malawi!

I’ve found my bus ticket (stupid train strikes), my passport (stupid immigration laws), my juggling balls (stupid… no, wait… juggling is good)… I guess I’m ready to go.

Contrary to my assumption that my bus would be leaving from the bus station, it’s apparently leaving from Plascrug… which is… somewhere… hmm…

Anyway, y’all, take care, have fun without me, blah blah blah, be thinking of you. Will try to update this blog (or at least phone-in an update that can be appended as a comment) while I’m on the road. And sorry I couldn’t get Product ‘X’ working better than it does before I left.

Hugz & kittenz;