Parochial vs Cosmopolitan Computing

There is an old saying that travel broadens the mind. I think that a wide experience of different technologies can have the same beneficial effect for computer users.

A person who has traveled can distinguish between human traits that are peculiar to a particular area, and those traits that are universal, that are part of human nature. Such knowledge gives them a broader, more sophisticated view of the world. Ultimately, it teaches them compassion, and acceptance. Such people gain a willingness to see the good in people with customs different from their own.

The same can be said of computer users who have experience with multiple operating systems and multiple tool sets. People who use only one operating system, and one set of tools, generally don’t have as deep an understanding of computing or computers as do people who have wide experience with several operating systems and several different tool sets. A specialist may have a deeper understanding of a particular field, but their overall understanding of computing in general may be limited. This limitation traps them in a series of narrow minded prejudices which are both rude and limiting. It is hard for them to make good choices, because they don’t understand they options open to them.

There has long been a general prejudice in favor of people with a cosmopolitan or broad outlook and against people who have a parochial or narrow outlook. The reason a term like hick or yokel is considered derogatory is because people from rural areas who have not seen much of the world tend to have restricted or narrow points of view. For instance, there is something innately comic about a rural farmer from 100 years ago who lived off collard greens, chitlins and pigs feet reacting with disgust to the thought of a Frenchman eating snails. The joke was three fold:

  • Chitlins and collard greens are themselves exotic foods. There is something innately comic about people with exotic tastes making fun of someone else for having exotic tastes.

  • Though southern cooking can be delicious, it was not uncommon to see chitlins and collards prepared poorly, while French escargot, as a rule, was a delicacy prepared with exquisite refinement by some of the best cooks in the world.

  • The final, and most telling part of the joke was that southern cooking in general probably owed as much to French cooking as to any other single source. By deriding the French, our hapless yokel was unintentionally deriding his own heritage.

Most programmers start out using a particular computer language, such as Java, VB, C++ or Pascal. At first, their inclination is to believe that their language is the only "real" language, and that all other computer languages are "dumb." Take for instance, a deluded Visual Basic programmer who tries to use a PRINT statement in C++, finds that it won’t compile, and comes away thinking that C++ is a hopelessly crippled language. The truth of the matter, of course, is that C++ does support simple IO routines like PRINT, but the syntax in C++ is different than in VB.

This kind of narrow computer prejudice is similar to the viewpoint of our rural farmer from a hundred years ago who is suddenly transplanted to Paris. She goes home and tells everyone that there is nothing to eat in Paris. "They just don’t serve real food there. They think we are supposed to live off snails!" Or perhaps they conclude that Frenchmen are cruel because they laughed when the farmer started ladling up the flowers from her finger bowl with a spoon. What they forget, of course, is that everyone back home in Muskogee will laugh at a Frenchman who tries to eat corn on the cob with a knife and fork.

There is an interesting moment in the life of many developers when they start to understand parochial computing. As stated above, programmers tend to start out by getting to know one particular language in great depth. To them, their language is the computer language, and all other languages pale in comparison.

Then one day, disaster strikes. The boss comes in and tells them that they have to work on a project written in a second language, let’s say Java. At first, all one hears out from our hapless programmer is that Java "sucks." They are full of complaints. "You can’t do anything in this language. It doesn’t have feature X, it uses curly braces instead of "real" delimiters, the people who wrote this language must have mush for brains!"

Then, over time, the complaints lessen. After all, you can type a curly brace faster than the delimiters in their favorite language. That doesn’t make Java better than the developer’s favorite language, but it "is kind of convenient, in a funny kind of way." And after a bit, they discover that Java doesn’t support a particular feature of their favorite language because Java has another way of doing the same thing. Or perhaps the feature is supported, but the developer at first didn’t know where to look to find it. Of course, they are still heard to say that Java isn’t nearly as good as their favorite language, but the complaints lack the urgency of their initial bleatings.

Finally, after six months of struggling on the Java project, the big day comes: the developer has completed his module and can go back to work on a project using his favorite computer language. But a funny thing happens. At first, all goes swimmingly. How lovely it is to be back using his favorite editor and favorite language! But after an hour or so, curses start to be heard coming from his cube. "What’s the matter?" his friends ask. The programmer inaudibly mumbles some complaint. What he does not want to give voice to is the fact that he is missing some of the features in the Java language. And that Java editor, now that he comes to think of it, actually had a bunch of nice features that his editor doesn’t support! Of course, he is not willing to say any of this out loud, but a dim light has nonetheless been lit in the recesses of his brain.

Perhaps, if he is particularly judicious and fair minded, our newly enlightened programmer might suddenly see that though his language enjoyed some advantages over Java, Java was in some ways better than his own language! It is precisely at that moment that he begins to move out of the parochial world of prejudice and into the broader world of cosmopolitan computing.

The OS Bigot

The type of narrow viewpoint discussed here has no more common manifestations than in the world of operating systems. We have all heard from Microsoft fanatics, who, when asked to defend their OS, say: "There are more Microsoft users than users of all other operating systems combined." Yes, that is true, but it is also true that there are more people in India than in the United States. But believe me, there are few Americans who want to go live amidst the poverty, technical backwardness, and narrow provincialism of even a "thriving" Indian city such as New Delhi.

Microsoft users might also complain that it is hard to install competing OS’s, such as Linux. When asked to defend their point of view, they will eventually confess that their opinion is based on experiences that they had some five years earlier, when it was in fact true that most Linux installations were difficult. Today, Linux usually installs more quickly, and with much less fuss, that Windows.

Of course, people on the other side are no less narrow minded. A Linux install may be simpler and faster than a Windows install, but Linux typically does not have as good driver support, particularly for new devices. Thus it is not unusual for a Linux user to have no trouble with his video and sound cards, but to have to do work to get his CD burner working or scanner working.

It is true that the Windows GUI environment is still better than the one found in Linux. But the advantage seems to shrink not just with each passing year, but with each passing month. For the last year, and for most of the last two years, the KDE Linux environment has been at least as good as the GUI environment found in Windows 98, and in some areas it is superior to that in Windows XP.

Conversely, just as Windows has a slight advantage in the GUI world, Linux has long enjoyed a significant advantage when working at the command prompt. A typical Windows user will say, "So what? Who wants to work at the command prompt?" That’s because they are used to using the Windows command prompt, which has historically been very bad. But watching a skilled user work at the command prompt in Linux can be a revelation. There are things you can do easily with the BASH shell that are hard, or even impossible, to do with the Windows GUI. But in recent years, even this truism has been shown to have its weaknesses. The command prompt in Windows XP is much improved over that found in Windows 98 or Windows 2000, and the porting of scripting languages such as Python and Perl to Windows has done much to enhance life at the Windows command prompt.

Freedom

Linux users often argue that their software is free in two senses of the word:

  • It has zero cost

  • And it comes with source and can be freely modified

All that is true, but Windows has a wider range of available applications. Who would deny that there is a very real sense of freedom that one gets from using a beautifully designed piece of software?

And yet, if you are a student, or an older person on a limited income, you might not be able to afford all that fancy software. In such cases, you might be better off using Linux, where you can easily find free versions of the tools you need.

Again, one might read the above and come to the narrow conclusion that proprietary software is always better than open source software. But this is not always true. For instance, Mozilla is clearly a much better browser than the Internet Explorer. It more closely conforms to the HTML standard, it handles popups better, it has a better system for handling favorites, and it has a feature, tabbed windows, that gives it a massive usability advantage over IE.

On the other hand, there is simply nothing in the open source world to compare to a tool like DreamWeaver. There are probably a hundred different open source web editors, but only the HTML editor in OpenOffice provides even the rudimentary features found in DreamWeaver.

The Historical Perspective

The ultimate irony, of course, comes when a person with a limited perspective imitates another culture, and goes about crowing about this borrowed sophistication as if he invented it himself.

I used to do this myself, back when I promoted Delphi for a living. Unknowingly, I often championed features in Delphi that were in fact borrowed from VB. I would say, Delphi is better than VB because it has feature X. I didn’t know that VB not only had the same feature, but that the creators of Delphi had in fact borrowed the feature from VB.

I have seen the same thing happen when advocates of C# crow about how much better it is than Java, and then use one of the many features that C# borrowed from Java as proof of the fact. The same often happens when a user of a DotNet based application approaches a Linux user and shows off the great features in their product. The fact that not only the feature, but the entire product and its architecture was stolen directly from an open source application written in PHP is of course lost on the advocate of DotNet’s prowess.

In fact, it is generally true that Microsoft is a company that uses derived technologies. DotNet is just an attempt to emulate the features found in Java and PHP. C# is for the most part simply an imitation of Java with a few features from Delphi thrown in for good luck. IE is an imitation of the features found in the old Netscape browser. The Window’s GUI is an imitation of the Mac GUI.

One of the signs of a cosmopolitan person is that they have an historical perspective, and can know something about where cultural habits originated, or from which sources they were derived. A provincial person thinks not only that his culture is best, but that his country invented the very idea of culture.

Of course, one should rise above even this insight. It is true that Microsoft is a company based on borrowed ideas. But Microsoft does a good job of borrowing technology. The old joke states that Microsoft begins by deriding new inventions, then imitates them, and ends up claiming they invented them. But what people forget is that Microsoft often does "reinvent" technologies in a meaningful way by implementing them very well, and by adding special touches that improve upon the original product.

So the correct perspective is to recognize that derivation lies at the heart of Microsoft technology, but to also recognize their technical expertise. Gaining that kind of nuanced world view is part of what it means to be a sophisticated computer user. Knowing such things can help you make informed decisions, rather than decisions based on prejudice.

Summary

Ultimately the kind of narrow prejudice found by advocates of single platforms or single technologies offers a frighteningly restricted world view. Such people are indeed a bit like a hick or yokel from 100 years ago who arrives in the big city and feels overwhelmed by a kind of sophistication that they had never imagined and cannot comprehend. They dislike the big city not only because it is different, but because it threatens them. They are suddenly a small fish in a big pond, and from the heart of their insecurity, they begin to mock the city sophisticates who swim in the urban sea.

This is not to say that our yokel might not have cultural advantages over a "snob" from the big city. For instance, it is well known that rural farmers in America 100 years ago were renowned for their friendliness. It is true that such people often worked together to help a neighbor through a tough time, and they often worked together and shared resources in ways that their friends from the big city could not even imagine, let alone imitate. And of course they would have a specialized knowledge of how to survive in their rural world that the Parisian could not match.

The key difference, of course, is that a truly cosmopolitan person could have the perspective to appreciate all this, while a person from a rural area would be more inclined to adopt a narrow, provincial point of view. The cosmopolitan person could admire both Parisian society, and rural America.

This is the perspective that Alexis de Tocqueville brought to his book Democracy in America. Alexis de Tocqueville understood both European culture, and American culture, and that gave him the insight needed to write so trenchantly about American society.

The mark of the cosmopolitan is that she will:

    • Be gracious enough to help without condescension foreigners who are unfamiliar with the customs of her land.

    • Have enough perspective to laugh goodnaturedly at herself when caught out not knowing the customs of a foreign land.

    • Have the perspective to see what is truly best in any one culture because her perspective is broad and informed.

A cosmopolitan person has these traits instinctively, and without self consciousness. She knows that each land has its own customs, and that deep down where it counts, people are the same when it comes to matters of the heart and soul. The may have different habits, but it is narrow minded, provincial, even parochial, to regard people with a different perspective as innately inferior to oneself.

Software developers who have broken out of the narrow prejudices formed when using their first language and first OS have the same advantages. They know what is best in multiple worlds, and therefore have the wisdom to search for those features on whatever platform they use. They don’t waste time embarrassing themselves by making snide, narrow minded comments, that polite people can’t even correct without sounding condescending or unemotionally hurting someone’s feelings. They have gained a sophistication, and a broader perspective, that makes them better at everything they do, regardless of their toolset.

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