It’s not waiting for someone to be “offended.” It’s about why anyone would be defensive about clinging to terrible terms based on horrific inhumane things. Let’s just fix this, finally.

And yeah, right now seems like as good a time as any to stop using slavery references when you just need clear, boring technical terms. If we can’t fix something obvious and easy like that, how will we tackle less obvious, less easy challenges?

Thanks for repeatedly bringing this up, though I’m sure others are out there saying the same (Dennis’ tweet quickly blew up, which shows some support):

I know it’s easy to resist change. So let me explain why I think this one is especially a no-brainer – something that could be done quickly, without a whole lot of debate, so we can move onto more important matters.

Why change – a checklist

This is not a new idea. The music tech industry, if it were to dump “master” and “slave” now, would be already late to the party. Los Angeles County took legal action to rid itself of the terms back in 2003. IBM, Microsoft, Amazon, and the Python platform have all used the terms “primary” and “secondary” for some time in applications like databases. GitHub is doing it now – and that’s arguably a heck of a lot more complicated in terms of implementation and documentation than anything we have in music.

Speaking of that, using “primary” and “secondary” for databases more clearly describes what they’re meant to describe. (The secondary databases refer to the primary copy as the authoritative one, which makes way more sense than saying they’re “slaves” of that database.)

But that’s often the case – letting go of defensiveness means making things, you know, better. That’s true for music, too —

Leader and follower are easy, clear replacements for clock. “Leader” and “follower” more accurately articulate what happens with clock in the context of MIDI and other uses. The leader initiates start and stop and transmits tempo, and the follower, well, follows. “Master” and “slave” immediately fail by contrast, because a node could both receive and transmit MIDI clock signal – as do many DAWs, for example. (How would that work – the slaves have their own slaves? Just… no.)

Yes, this refers to slavery. Put master and slave together, and you’re definitely talking about slavery, or referring back to slavery so that people know what you mean.

The term master on its own you don’t have to worry about. It’s associated with mastery, master classes, master copies, master bedrooms, the antiquated practice of calling young men “masters,” Masters’ degrees, uh… MasterCard. Not one of those terms originated in the practice of slavery. (I checked.) If you master the bassoon, you did not enslave your bassoon. So people will still get this meaning.

Here’s the thing, though. While “master” usually isn’t associated with slavery in English when seen on its own, the word “slave” is never not associated with the word… slave. (Yeah, surprise.) It’s always slavery.

In a reminder that this also can’t be dismissed as “just an American thing,” as in the United States’ of America’s deep history with the slave trade, the term slave comes from Slav. The Slavs were the ones being most commonly enslaved in Europe when the word arose. That’s how many centuries of baggage this term has on it – from the many centuries of baggage the inhumane practice has.

Adding to the trouble here, the origins of the use of master and slave in technology, at least as I could find, was in things like locomotive chaining and hydraulic cylinders. So yeah – slavery was still a widespread legal practice in the English-speaking world when the terms jumped over to technology. And they’re teachable only in reference to people understanding the master/slave relationship in slavery.

That is inarguable, disqualifying horribleness.

At this point, you should all be running to work out how to change documentation, but in case I need to point out the obvious —

Slavery is terrible. Let’s not refer to it casually. Let’s be very, very clear. This is not a historical curiosity, as with some etymologies. Slavery is still a threat today in many places in the world, an active and horrifying real practice. And in virtually every major market in music technology, there are very present discussions about how, especially, black people (nearly worldwide) — but also indigenous people and other minorities (in many localities) — are still having to live with the legacy of widespread trade in slavery.

Naming something mundane and technical – something that demands clarity – with something horrifically awful to a specific group of people is the very essence of casual racism.

Of course, all of us talking about music technology or teaching it or writing about it – like me – had to use the term because it hadn’t been replaced. It was technically correct to do so. So this is easy – we change the label.

This change has already started. Quietly, a lot of software developers already started shifting their terminology. (Ableton is one example I know of; I expect there are more. If you’ve done so, let us know – and in particular which terms you chose, and why.)

The funny thing is, I didn’t even notice it wasn’t there in Ableton Live or who else had already made the change. But I think that’s the reality – because the replacements are clearer, no one will really even miss the terms.

We just need to make this change explicit so that it becomes a de-facto standard.

Old standards and documentation shouldn’t be an obstacle, either. Look, yeah, your 1980s synth will always have “master” and “slave” in the manual; hardware will have it buried in menus. I am sure the MIDI Manufacturing Association will have to have some process to change the MIDI standard.

But the question is, will we describe what they mean and then explain their newer replacements and why we made the shift?

Or will we describe what master and slave mean in music tech, then feel awkward about why in the Hell are we still using them?

Not acting now causes damage. It’s not that this will fix or even help fight racism in the music tech industry. It’s that right now, with the discussion this present, if we fail to act, that’s a problem. It really would hurt the industry and its user community if we missed the chance now. We should just go do it.

Think of it as stretching your legs before running a marathon. It’s just a stretch. You don’t go anywhere. But it’s a good first step to make sure you’re ready to get onto the actual race. And that’s the bit that will be challenging.

The winner is…

Okay, so let me just tally this up:

For the change: New terms are clearer and more precise, other tech sectors are doing it already, music tech tools have done it already and most people didn’t even notice meaning it’s no big deal, and slavery is horrible, and not doing anything or getting defensive telegraphs to minorities that they’re not really welcome in the industry, very much not necessarily in that order.

Annnnd against: Maybe it’ll take a little effort or habit breaking.

Uh, yeah, not really a fair fight there.

Let me again endorse leader + follower

This is not meant to be a think piece or a discussion topic or clickbait – let’s just do this right now, please.

Because I know standards are most often held up by indecision, though, I want to put in my vote again for leader and follower. It seems a good default. As I said, if you have another situation where other terms are clearer or a reason to make something else a widespread standard, sound off. (I’m just remembering that time where we all failed to agree on the pinouts for minijack MIDI…)

But differences are okay if they add clarity. Just so long as we come together and dump the slavery labels. I suspect there’s a whole lot of challenging, uncomfortable change ahead. So let’s get on with the stupidly easy one first. If we can’t do that, I’d be deeply worried.

Now that all that’s off my chest, let me go figure out why this synth is still lagging behind the drum machine clock. Let me know how you all fare with the fixes.

(if other folks have been saying this in recent days – which is likely – let me know and I’ll add your voices here)

Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels