Once upon a time in the not-too-distant past, a hacker I know blogged about using object-oriented C to implement a lightweight imitation of some of C++'s features for his latest project; almost immediately, somebody saw fit to reward this charming piece of acceptably self-congratulatory writing with a stern and quite public deconstruction. Does this scene seem familiar? Why does this keep happening? And what, if anything, can we do about it? We can hardly hope to appease all of hackerdom's malcontent — but we can at least try to avoid stepping on each other's toes.Amen to that. Remember, a few days ago when I wrote an article indicating that I agreed with an earlier post by Eric Raymond. Only to discover, a couple of weeks later when I returned to read Raymond's blog that he had a new piece that fell just short of calling me a "blithering idiot".
Had I done anything to merit that? Apparently, my sin was to remark that unless you are famous like Eric Raymond, it's hard to make a living purely from open-source, and that consequently, genuine open-source innovation is hard to find. Instead, I think that innovation generally attributed to "open-source" is still very much driven by corporate interests. I have personal reasons to hold that particular opinion (having put an innovative programming language in the open-source domain, being offered to work on open-source project multiple times, but never on my own project...) I find it surprising that it deserved being attacked by Eric Raymond so unnecessarily, even less so when I agreed so much with what he had written...
There is a psychological explanationI read recently an explanation for that frequent behavior on the net. Apparently, the mechanisms that we use to throttle and moderate our social interactions are based very largely on visual cues, and they are very complex (they show up quite late in the human development, typically maturing in one's late teens). When we don't have these visual cues, our brain's moderation system doesn't quite work as it should, neither on the sender's nor on the receiver's side.
So, based on this explanation, it is likely that Eric Raymond read much more of an attack in my original post than I intended, whereas if we had been speaking face to face, he might have seen various expressions on my face that might have convinced some part of his brain that I was not that critical of open-source, that I was not implying open-source folks cannot innovate, that I was not downplaying his own intelligence.
Conversely, when he started writing, he used very scalding words like "blithering idiot" (even if he downplays that initial statement a few words later with "reasonably bright"). It is unlikely that he would have used such words in a face-to-face discussion, if only because our brains know very well how quickly a bad choice of words can lead to a non-verbal response or even physical harm... So when you talk to someone, you rarely say to anybody "you are an idiot", even if you really believe it.
... or is there?When I first read that psychological explanation, it convinced me almost entirely. Since then, though, I noticed something interesting. Letters written on paper tend to be very polite, very nice.
So it seems that something else than just "not seeing the other guy" is at play. Writings between scientists of the early twentieth century, for example, are sometimes heated discussions between people who often squarely fall into the "genius" category. Yet I don't remember any "flame", any "hot air". Maybe that's just because I'm not familiar enough with these writings.
But the other possibility is that our modern society doesn't value politeness as much as it used to...