In the US, Europe and elsewhere in the world, we’re currently going through a major shift in the conversation about race. In an article for CDM, Peter Kirn has written that we’re better off without terms like Master and Slave in our industry. I think he’s right. Here’s why.
“Master” and “Slave” are terms that have been used for decades in our industry to describe things like clock connections or hard drive priority. So why do they suddenly seem offensive? Because we’re waking up to this casual, everyday use of terms that reference something completely awful. We should seize the opportunity to get our houses in order.
And yes, I believe this does matter. Language is important, even boring technical language. According to Wikipedia, as long ago as 2003 the County of Los Angeles asked computer manufacturers to stop using master/slave terminology “based on the cultural diversity and sensitivity of Los Angeles County”. Apparently the request caused a huge controversy generating an avalanche of emails to Dennis Tafoya, director of the affirmative action office. This was before people could express themselves on Facebook or Twitter because they hadn’t been invented yet (can you imagine?). The following year the Global Language Monitor named it the most politically incorrect term of 2004. This is 16 years ago and yet very little has been done to tackle it.
So, let’s act now. Let’s collectively decide to stop using terms simply because we can. As Peter says, it’s easy. It’s no skin off anyone’s nose and instantly improves the language of our working environment. It’s a bit like taking down the calendar of naked women from the staff room – it’s a no-brainer if you want it to be a healthy and respectful place for everybody.
Which, of course, brings us to the question: what to use instead? Master/Slave refers to a communication protocol where one machine or device dictates control (Master) and another device (Slave) follows that control. In music technology, that commonly refers to timing control where a master clock kicks out pulses that the other units “slave” to it and stay in time. It’s odd to me writing these words, now that I’ve considered their impact. How weird and inappropriate they sound.
Among the alternatives suggested, Main/Secondary seems to be a front runner because it happens to have the same initials and many things that are labelled “M” and “S” wouldn’t have to change. It’s very similar to Primary/Secondary that’s been used in databases and also Primary/Replica.
Leader/Follower or Conductor/Follower has some legs in terms of referring to timing and clock although Conductor makes me think of trains. Sender/Receiver also works quite well here. Host/Client is another computer-based one that might do the job.
Reaper has already taken action with its 6.12c update released on the 15th June where they have “modernised nomenclature” in the Groups section and changed the Master/Slave to Lead/Follow.
The one that resonates with me the most is perhaps Source/Sink which is adapted from the German Quelle and Senke and is already in use in German language labelling. It also sounds like the word Sync which references timing and is the one place where I come across the need for a term.
It’s interesting how in Eurorack and modular you don’t tend to label clock in this way. It’s just Clock-out and Clock-in and you’re never quite sure which module in your patch is in charge of timing. Where will it all end? Hopefully in a world where we don’t have to put up with derogatory or offensive terms. So which pair of terms should be adopted? Let us know in the poll below.