August 6th, 2008
I know it’s pointless—I’m not going to make a dent in it—but I feel moved to say something about the biggest problem in online discourse: pseudo-persuasion.
The term is a bit awkward, but you’ll recognize what I’m talking about because it monopolizes an almost literally incredible proportion of email lists, news groups, blog comments, and IRC chats, and you’ve seen plenty of it. I’m talking about the endless stream of this vs. that. Emacs vs. vi, Ruby vs. Python, Ubuntu vs. Redhat, Mac vs. PC, tabs vs. spaces, and all the monumentally huge and boring rest of it.
Yes, there are interesting comparative points you can make about all of these pairings. Yes, some people make interesting points. I’m not talking about those points. I’m talking about the other 99.99% of online comparative talk, the inexhaustible store of “mine is better than yours” drivel, the vacuous chatter that, despite its vacuity, manages to choke and clog the online world as if it were of substance.
I call it pseudo-persuasion because it sounds like persuasive speech, but isn’t. It is persuasive neither in effect, nor in intent. Millions upon millions of words pour forth—arguments in favor of A and against B, checklists of assertions and accusations, praise of features and denouncement of shortcomings—all delivered in the most fervent persuasive language but not one syllable actually persuading anyone of anything, and not one syllable written in the expectation of persuading anyone of anything.
Have you ever said to yourself, “Gee, someone on IRC said that Emacs keybindings aren’t intuitive, so starting tomorrow I’ll switch to vi”? Have you ever met anyone who, after asking a question about a Linux problem and receiving an answer consisting of the single utterance, “OS X!!”, proceeded to run out and buy a Mac? Did you start using your current favorite programming language because someone told you, in so many words, that the one you had been using sucked and this one was better?
My late father used to say that “No one ever convinces anyone of anything.” He didn’t believe it literally, or he would not have bothered co-authoring the brief in Brown v. Board of Education. In general, he didn’t mean it with regard to legal and forensic argumentation. He did mean it, however, with regard to cocktail party chatter, exchanges among politically widely-separated colleagues, heated classroom arguments among students, and the like: day-to-day exchanges where the urge to state an opinion does not imply an inclination to take someone else’s opinion seriously.
Non-persuasive persuasion can serve a purpose. It’s good, for example, for students to put their thoughts into words, even though they’re not really listening to each other. Usually, though, it’s just a way to fill otherwise awkward social time.
When people yap at each other about Emacs and vi, however, it’s not filling awkward social time. To be honest, I don’t know what it’s doing. It certainly is not debate. It sounds like debate, and it uses rhetorical devices that are also found in debate. But it is not debate. No one can “win”, no one is listening to anyone else, and the likelihood of persuasion being achieved approaches zero. Nothing is at stake, and no one actually expects any conclusion, outcome, or productivity to emerge from the exchange.
But my case against pseudo-persuasion is not that the practitioners don’t take each other seriously enough. They hardly could, given how much of this crap there is. My case against it is that it’s a staggering waste of time, mental energy, and passion. Can you imagine what would have happened if, over the past couple of decades, participants in online forums had taken, say, five percent of the time they’ve spent pissing at each other, and used it instead to collaborate on software or technical writings?