how to choose between equivalent options

10 July 2008 2:32 PM (gnome | choices | direct action)

All the time we are presented with options. Should I get my vegetables from the greengrocer's, the supermarket, or the farmer's market? Should I buy a PC or a Mac? Should I start my new project in Ruby or C#? All of these options are equivalent: they're just vegetables, they're just computers, they're just languages. So how to choose?

Some people make choices on technical grounds: for example, "I'm going to buy a Mac because it has a video editor." This is rational, but its rationality degrades over time. The next time you go to buy a computer, you just buy a Mac because it's what you got last time.

To take another example that Robert Collins mentioned on Monday, if you choose bzr over subversion because bzr does merges, what happens in a few months when subversion finally gets merge support? So you make your decision for a reason that turns out not to mean anything. If people go massively for git because of git's workflow and in-place branching, you can be sure that bzr will get the same workflow in the future, and in fact has some of it now.

What I would suggest is that we should make choices not on strictly technical bounds. Instead we should make a choice based on culture. When you choose something to be a part of your future, it affects your culture, the world around you. You invite a tool, a set of people, a set of social relations into your life and into your future.

Technical considerations form a part of culture. Anyone who knows something about Silverlight and Mozilla knows that the technical differences in the projects reflect different values. These values translate into different futures: a world where technology flows from Microsoft, out to the world, or a world in which hackers collaborate in the open to shape their own destiny, our own destiny.

It is especially important not to make decisions about perceived market share, perceived uptake, or the like. For one, these perceptions are easily manipulated. This is the task of the propaganda industry, euphemistically referred to as "public relations". For another, when we choose to invite e.g. GNU into our lives, we affect the future, and especially that part of the future that is in our immediate surroundings.

So in conclusion, and for the GNOME audience, we as hackers build the structures that we are going to live in for a long time. When we make decisions about technology, we begin relationships with people, and to some degree take their values on as our own. We should make sure that we recognize this, and that the values of the technologies we choose mesh with our own, as individuals and as a community.

(For another take on "what makes us the same are not technical similarities, but cultural similarities", and especially in relation to a possible GUADEC / aKademy joint event, see Lambda, the ultimate political party.)

4 responses

  1. Joe Buck says:

    But with FOSS software like git or bzr, the penalty for changing your mind and switching is much smaller. If you buy a Mac, then over time you'll accumulate all kinds of stuff that only works on Macs, and you lose most of that if you switch. If you invest your time in a social networking site that doesn't let you get your data out, you have to recreate it (if you can) if you switch.

    But the DVCS systems are all going to grow until they all have the same features (other than features developers don't consider important), and it won't be hard to convert the entire history of a project from one to another. So I don't think people have to sweat too hard about predicting the future: those who pick "wrong" can switch later without a significant penalty.

  2. MDK says:

    I actually wish the FOSS community made more decisions based on pure spot-on technical merits than "culture" which doesn't benefit the end user in any way... but rather serves the purpose of creating fake impression of "higher cause" and justifies bad decisions.

    I'd rather have us create great software with poor culture and leave the culture to the other guys.

  3. Ricky Youngblood says:

    Very succinct and well written. I like it and I think it voices in a more precise way a process I have increasingly used to approach decisions in my life. I am also relieved that the link at the bottom is to something about lisp and not some embarrassing failed communist organization.

  4. sergio says:


    under a very "understated" heading :-), this post resounds very much with a question which is old (at least) as the industrial revolution and had many different declinations: whether the technological realm is autonomous from the social and political one (like adam smith pretended about the free market thanks to his "invisible hand"); or, whether technology is "neutral" (aka: it all depends on how you use it; for now, just strive for the best technological solution, then leave to politics the decision about what to use it for); or, finally, whether technology has got a rational inner logic that sets it apart (above?) from cultural implications like psychology, values, and even justice.

    i would like to contribute a bibliographical starting point: david f. noble, "progress without people. in defense of luddism.", and more generally noble's talks at several conferences, like "technology at present", "automation madness", "command performance" (the last one on military implications). the "progress without people" title is particularly effective, i think, and reminds me of another important book (i mention it although it's a bit OT respect to this post, but it is not respect to your overall blog): profit over people, by noam chomsky.

    more strictly to the post, my take is that technological considerations should inform decision making (when technology is involved in what is being decided, of course), but then this should be only of the dimensions of it. of course, in a community made out mostly of hackers, i expect that the technological dimension gets a predominant weight, either we like this or not, and how we get out of the "single-minded" nature of such (actually any) community is a godd question. i think that the effort to broaden the view is left to the (few) ones that are able of doing it, but another path could be accessible, if you think the hackers community also as provider of informed data to a broader community that is the subject of decisions (you could say to the "people", but maybe this is a bit too wide a concept).

    this brings me to another topic which is of paramount importance to me (but i think more in general in a society like ours where technology is so important and difficult to grasp for "common" people): who is the subject of decision and how the decision making process should be carried through. and to my final bibliographical hint: michael albert, "parecon. life after capitalism", mostly where he talks about "self management".

    sorry for being pedantic, i myself hope this is only a reflection of the importance of what you say in your post... :-)

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