Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The certainty of no choices

I must admit, I am not someone who is fascinated by the nuts and bolts of computer code. When Sunni Maravillosa started talking about the article "The Virtues of Monoculture," my eyes glazed over and went into "scan" mode. Fortunately the glaze did not go completely opaque, because a phrase blasted into my consciousness and boggled my mind.

For those of similar persuasion, here's a brief summary: Writer James Turner argues it wouldn't be so bad if everyone used Microsoft Windows as their computer operating systems. That way we would eliminate a lot of confusion over incompatible software, etc. And here's the punch line:


In my initial reaction, I suggested in a comment to Sunni that this sentence may go down with the great Orwellian phrases in 1984 – War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. The certainty of no choices: What a wonderful ideal. It's the ultimate goal of all conflict, after all: One final winner, no more wars, no more nasty campaigns, no more pesky decisions to make – we simply offer the certainty of no choices.

It's the ultimate John Lennon song: Imagine one big happy world of computer users, it's easy if you try – nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too. The problem with Turner's utopia and Lennon's overrated song, of course, is that people like choices.

The certainty of no choices is tyranny. Monoculture has no virtue. Humanity is 6 billion individuals, and no one can herd them into one culture that makes them all happy. "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way."

To be fair, Turner is trying to argue for standards and clarity: "When we hear about two or more projects that answer the same question, we should be asking ourself 'Why don’t they pool their effort and produce one really good solution?', rather than celebrating diversity for diversity’s sake alone." His grammar gives him away when he says we should be asking "ourself" - as if humanity was the Borg, one collective consciousness that could be content with one solution to an enormously complex question.

Few questions are so mathematical that they have only one answer, and even when we "settle" on a technological answer, something better comes along. VHS won out over Beta, but then came DVD. The cassette replaced the LP and was replaced by the CD until downloads arrived, but many people still buy LPs anyway. UHF? VHF? Digital TV?

Who wants "the certainty of no choices"? As I wrote at Sunni's blog, my mind is so boggled by the thought, it's still rattling.

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Blogger Blackbear said...

I suspect that most people have missed the point of my article, which was not to suggest either the mass adoption of Microsoft as Our Chosen Savior, or that projects need to be stamped out by thought police.

BUT... try living in my shoes for a second. I consider myself pretty rabidly pro open source. I'm a Struts committer, have my own project on sourceforge, etc. But in my day job, I need to frequently find the best X to do Y. Sitting across from me is another member of my group, who has drunk the Microsoft Kool-Aid long and deep. Frequently, while I'm still trying to get my third open source downloaded tool to do what I want it to do, he's banged out an ASP.NET application that has already done it.

I'm not a stupid person, and I won a division of the JavaOne Fastest Coder Contest a few years ago, but when I keep going down blind alleys, it slows me down tremendously. When I do find tools that work well for me (XFire, Hibernate (usually), Apache, Tomcat, etc), they go in the tool belt and I don't have to research that anymore, at least for a while. But when I have to find a new tool for something I haven't investigated before, it takes forever to find the "Best" open source solution.

Maybe the best FOSS solution would be much better than the Microsoft one. But when the bottom line is getting the project done in a timeboxed constraint, the Microsoft guy has the edge, because (good or bad), the tool has already been chosen for him.

If we're going to have a plethora of competing projects, then we need people to step up and be critical (in the sense of providing guidance) as to the relative merits of the package. We have to be willing to say that X is better than Y, and here's why. Otherwise, everyone ends up having to do the same research. Sure, it's nice to come to your own decision after a thorough review of the choices. You just don't always have the leisure of doing it.

James Turner

1:05 PM  

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