inessential by Brent Simmons

Software + zealots + personalities

One of the things that kept me away from Git for a while was the evangelical stuff — and that Linus Torvalds is its daddy.

I don’t mind advocacy, and I absolutely, completely love it when people write with passion about cool stuff — but there’s a border. On the other side of that border are the zealots.

Git, like Linux, has more than its share of zealots, and I’ve always had the impression that Torvalds is not someone I would like very much in real life. (I’m probably wrong — I tend to like most everybody I meet, and I’d probably like him tons.)

I hate that personalities can get in the way of looking at technology. I admit, I had to make myself take a look at Git. That’s a shameful thing on my part. (But at least I did it!)

Thought experiment

I’ve been using Apple computers for 29 years. But what if I hadn’t? What would I think?

I’d probably look at Steve Jobs and think he was precious and over-rated. Arrogant and fiddly. The kind of guy who’s so lonely because he’s the only person in the world who’s always right.

I would have to make myself take a look at Macs and iPhones, the way I had to make myself look at Git, despite not wanting to be in that guy’s world.

I’m not saying I actually do think that of Steve Jobs. I’m imagining an alternate universe.

But it points out the trouble of taking personalities into account too much when considering technology. It would be a shame to miss out on iPhones and Macs just because of that stuff — and it would be a shame to miss out on Git for those kinds of reasons too.

Cool stuff is cool, despite the source, despite the behavior of some of the people who like it.

Theory: zealotry == nil

I’ll try this out: The absence or presence of zealots indicates absolutely nothing about the quality or lack of quality of a piece of technology.

It’s like weather. Not random, but close enough. You can ignore it completely. Zealots are wasting their time.

Similarly: the perceived arrogance of a leader indicates nothing about quality.

However, there does seem to be a correlation between certain types of leaders and the presence of zealots.

What’s a zealot?

A fanboy is somebody who really, really, really likes something.

A zealot is somebody who really, really, really likes something — and thinks it will change the world, and that everybody who doesn’t like it is living their lives wrong and hurting everybody.

Zealots like to apply the phrase “just doesn’t get it” to people who differ. (Beware that phrase! But beware even more when people say of you that you “get it.”)

How to develop a cult of personality

If you want your own corps of zealots, first you need some truly great technology. Don’t skip this part.

Then you need a philosophy that people adopt as a cause.

Then you need to state your opinions boldly. Make them as simple and direct and uncompromising as possible. The impressions of deep intelligence, candor, and certitude are key.

Your goal is to turn off the skeptical and analytical gears and ignite the pack-following engines.

It’s nice, but not essential, to actually be right, or partly right, much of the time.

(I think that’s it, but I might be missing something.)

Beta dogs

The ambition of every pack follower is to be the beta dog. They can’t be alpha, because fearless leader is alpha — but they can be second-in-command.

The surest route to beta-dog-status, our instincts wrongly tell us, is to be the best zealot.

(I want to get in a literary reference here about Paradise Lost and Lucifer saying it’s better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. But, of course, I’m slightly afraid that religious zealots will take it the wrong way. So I’ll skip it — I’ll just stick it in this parenthetical note, knowing full well that while parentheses look like shields, they’re really not.)

None of the above matters

I could go on and on. But the thing is, none of it says anything about how good is any given piece of technology. I still have to look and decide for myself.

It’s tough, because my personal tendency is always to hate Top 40. I’m always suspicious of the song that’s rising up the charts with a bullet.