David Heinemeier Hansson step aside, Paul Graham is next to be voted off the island
Well, you recall my mentioning how real life is a lot like high school
. The latest manifestation of this is an “Arc backlash.” In case you haven’t seen it, Arc
is a programming language designed by Paul Graham and (I think) Robert Morris. Actually, it’s a Lisp dialect, so in some respect, you can probably claim that it isn’t a new language at all, just Paul and Robert doing what Lisp programmers have always done.
Now technically, there is not much to Arc at the moment. The language’s own site admits as much:
The current version compiles into MzScheme and structurally is as much a skin on MzScheme as a separate language.
So, what we have here is someone who promotes the language in his essays, then releases a version that fails to transmute lead into gold. And immediately, there was much rejoicing. Seriously, I said rejoicing
. There is a distinct tone of schadenfreude to the commentary that is going around. There is much talk of people being “disappointed,” but I have a felling these folks complaining would have had no interest in trying Arc no matter what form it took. I have read the argument that expectations for Arc were high. What does that mean, exactly? That there were people holding off on trying a new language because they were waiting for Arc? Has Paul spread FUD to prevent people from using Scala or Haskell?
Why aren’t people shrugging their shoulders? Honestly, if you don’t have any career or business capital invested in Arc, what could you possibly care about whether it is more or less than what you imagined it might be?
The response to Arc reminds me very much of the alleged “Ruby on Rails backlash.” Quite a bit of the energy behind the RoR backlash is resentment against David Heinemeier Hansson for daring to promote his web development framework. Stepping forward and aggressively attempting to change the world is something we humans claim to admire, but we have complicated rules for how you are supposed to go about it. We want more Steve Wozniak
, less Steve Jobs. We want people who blink in surprise at the TV cameras and the limelight of fame, not people who seek it out.
It’s easy to understand why. Although we seem to have complex motivations—some of us after technical mastery, some of us after money, some of us after sexual partners, some of us after land holdings—most of what we do can be traced to standing within our social group. We are social animals, and almost everything we do is connected to the complexities of aligning ourselves with some folks and distancing ourselves from others in our tribes. Although I dislike the show, I would offer Survivor as being a true mirror of human nature. We spend most of our time voting each other off the island.
Live the early stages of Survivor, we play a complex game where we have to think about both our overall welfare and also about our standing within the tribe. The shy, quiet genius who invents things we can use without promoting himself is an asset to us. He helps our tribe in battles against other tribes without jeopardizing our own standing in the tribe. Whereas the self-appointed hero may indeed help our tribe, but in doing so he vaults ahead of us.
That’s why Matz
is so well-regarded: he is quiet and unassuming. His behaviour poses no threat to our own place on the ladder. Whereas David is eager to step forward and change the world. His technical contribution to the world of Ruby is at least as valuable as the creation of the language itself, and it is not obvious to me that the world of Ruby would benefit if David hadn’t vigourously promoted Rails. But nevertheless, we are eager to see David “cut down to size,” just as we criticize Steve Jobs while praising Woz.
Which brings me back round to Arc. Paul’s behaviour is now drawing the inevitable response. I personally think it is almost irrelevant how much technical strength the language may have had, there has been a noticeable anti-Paul tone on many programmer forums for quite some time. And what is at the root of it all? Resentment against what some people think is relentless self-promotion.1
Resentment against his occupying a place above us on the nerd social ladder.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling that way, if you choose. We are humans, and it is folly to pretend otherwise. Social behaviour matters. But if that’s what it is, let’s “Call a spade a spade” and not pretend that we are disappointed with Arc. Let’s be up front and say that we are angry with Paul for daring to elbow us aside on his climb up the ladder. Let’s admit that we want to be the admired one.
And let’s admit that even if Arc had cured cancer, we would still resent Paul. It’s just that we would have been forced to bide our time, to wait for him to stumble on something else. Just as we are still waiting for Apple’s stock to fall and for Rails to fade into obscurity.
- That sentance originally read “Paul’s relentless self-promotion.” I wrote that as a reflection on what people perceived to be the case, but I should have been more explicit, thus my edit. Paul challenged this. Paul is an essayist, he distributes his ideas and, in a sense, promotes the ideas and not himself. That is very true. It is also true that David promotes Rails and Steve Jobs promotes iPods. The perception of a large number of people—and this article is about those people, not about Paul specifically— is that promoting your ideas is exactly the same thing as promoting yourself. These things are not particularly rational.