Writing software is hard, particularly when the schedules keep programmers “nose to the grindstone”; every so often, it's important to take a breather and look around the world and discover what we can find-ironically, what we find can often help us write software better.

When programming and psychology mix, usually it draws rolled eyes and heavy sighs from the programmer community. But when push comes to shove, knowing a little about how our minds work can only help keep us honest with ourselves, and potentially identify some of our bad habits.

Unless you were visiting relatives in Siberia, or living under some kind of rock, during the most recent winter holiday season, you've probably heard about James Cameron's blockbuster flick, Avatar. (If you haven't, boy, is that a rather large rock.) Over US $1 billion sold, at last count, and the movie shows no signs of slowing down any time soon, at least as I write this.

But an interesting debate has erupted around Avatar, and it's not an unfamiliar one - a blogger by the name of Annalee Newitz (email: annalee@io9.com) has posted a blog post entitled "When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like �Avatar'?" in which she writes, “Whether Avatar is racist is a matter for debate. Regardless of where you come down on that question, it's undeniable that the film - like alien apartheid flick District 9...- is emphatically a fantasy about race. Specifically, it's a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people. Avatar and Sci-Fi films like it give us the opportunity to answer the question: What do white people fantasize about when they fantasize about racial identity?”

I won't go on with the rest of the article - it's an interesting read in its own right and worth the time to study and analyze - but it raises an interesting point, because in a rebuttal, another blogger posits, “A white male made Avatar and you think it means something about race. If Spike Lee had made Avatar, there would be an entirely different set of theories about the racist nature of the movie.”

Of Race and Religion

Consider another fantasy epic that hit the big screen a few years ago, the widely-acclaimed fantasy epic by C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Any would-be literary critic who's spent any time at all in the field will be quick to point out the striking similarities between Aslan and Christ - specifically the sacrifice and his resurrection - in the work. But would critics be so quick to draw the analogy between Aslan and Christ had C.S. Lewis not been a well-known Christian author (The Screwtape Letters), and had instead been a pronounced atheist? Or a Muslim? The wizard Gandalf makes a similar kind of sacrifice in The Lord of the Rings, but rarely does anyone consider Gandalf to be a Christ figure (despite the resurrection, white robes and his use of magic that could easily double as miracles), because J.R.R. Tolkien, despite being a contemporary of Lewis', was nowhere near the blatant Christian author Lewis was.

As tempting as it would be to use this column to explore these subjects, let's cast aside the original direction (racism in Avatar or any other movie or religious elements in popular fantasy) for a moment, and focus on an interesting aspect of what's happening here - in all three cases, critics are judging the work based on the context surrounding the creator/author of the piece, rather than on the piece itself.

Is that fair? Isn't it more intellectually and critically honest to criticize the work itself rather than view it in the scope of who made it? How much does the creator's name and circumstance influence our perception of the work?

Or, to put it bluntly, when will Microsoft finally catch a break from the geek community?

Merit, Lineage, or both?

Within the last few years, something of a disparity in treatment has emerged among the various vendors and players in our community. When Microsoft offered an online service for hosting passwords to make it easier to log into a variety of different Web sites, the Internet community erupted into a hailstorm of protests and accusations. Yet, not more than a half-decade later, when Google offers a service that not only hosts passwords but entire documents and e-mail on their servers, geeks all over the world flocked to the service and embraced it eagerly.

Huh? We scream and protest when a vendor offers to hold our keys for us, and then willingly hand over the valuables to a vendor for safe keeping? Does this make much sense?

(By the way, anybody who claims that Google Docs are “more secure” than the Passport service need only talk to the Twitter execs for a while - for those of you who missed the story, Twitter had many of its most sensitive business documents, including the plans for a reality TV show based around Twitter, disclosed to the Internet and later given to media outlets after they were somehow leaked from Google Docs.)

Oh, sure, much of the Internet has reason to be concerned - the classic “vendor lock-in” play says that a vendor releases a compelling product that is non-standard, uses proprietary technology, and aggressively combats any attempts at third-party duplication, all in order to ensure that its hold on a market remains unthreatened and its monopoly over the market safe. Then, once the world has all but made that product the measure by which everything else is measured and reduced competitors to a distant second, that product is then leveraged in various ways to further the company's efforts in other directions and markets.

(Quick - am I talking about Windows, iPhone, or both?)

Bear in mind that this bias cuts both ways, by the way; just as many companies won't touch anything made by Microsoft (just because it's made by Microsoft) there are companies who won't touch anything that doesn't come “out of the box” from Redmond, and certainly not anything that's available for free from the Internet, a la open source tools like NHibernate or Spring.NET. Arguments over “support” and “accountability” will usually be the stated reasons, but it takes much more than a little digging beneath the surface to reveal that management just doesn't trust the developers who wrote it, or the whole idea of open source to begin with.

(A personal story: I was having a conversation with a development team manager a year or two ago. When the subject of using NHibernate came up, the manager emphatically shot down the idea. “I have no idea who wrote it, and I don't trust people I've never met.” I casually asked him how many developers from the C# team he'd met recently, and the subject changed fairly quickly after that.)

This phenomenon, known in philosophy and literary criticism as the “intentional fallacy” (meaning a fallacy about intent, not a fallacy committed on purpose), derives from a similarly-named essay on literary criticism, and is considered by the authors of that essay to be a negative thing: “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” The authors of said essay, W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, said that the evidence used to interpret works should be divided into three categories:

In other words, anything which “leads away from the work” is to be shunned, and the focus should be on the work itself and its immediate surroundings.

Critic's Darling

Like literary critics (and art critics and music critics and any other form of artistic expression judge), as consumers of technology we engage in similar kinds of analysis when we happen across a new technology, whether it be a new operating system, mobile device, or utility framework for managing data within an ASP.NET application. While it used to be a viable concern to consider the author/owner of the technology as part of the evaluation process, particularly in a world where vendors used to impose sickening licensing fees and/or utilize technology “leverage plays” to drag customers along with them into new markets, open source has gone a long way to neutralize the hold a vendor has over their consumers - at least, so long as a de facto standard hasn't already been established.

But evaluating a new technology can still be hard, particularly for evaluators who are used to judging a tech's worth based entirely on its vendor, rather than on the tech itself. With a few liberties we can borrow the three categories of evaluation from Wimsatt's and Beardsley's essay to do a similar kinds of “intent-free” evaluation of the tech:

As an exercise, consider this (admittedly simplistic) framework applied to the emerging field of cloud computing; take just a few minutes and wade through the vast amount of information put forward by various parties on cloud computing, and just loosely categorize it as “internal”, “external”, “contextual” or “intentional” evidence. (Thus far, most of the trade press seems to focus on the “intentional” evidence, which is probably why I don't spend much time reading trade press.)

Most of all, even if you find this particular three-part evaluation to be pure bunk and have your own way of evaluating a technology, the important part is to ensure that it focuses on the technology and not the vendor who makes it.

Unfortunately, much as I'd like to believe that developers (and geeks throughout the Internet) will eventually settle down and resume carefully-balanced and thoughtful analyses of new technologies, casting aside the “you suck/I rock” style of debate that seems to permeate almost any cross-cultural discussion of technology, I'm pretty sure it's not about to happen in my lifetime. Which, I guess, is fine, so long as everybody else knows that they suck, and I rock.

But in the meantime, I still hold out the hopes of one day, as a social and psychological experiment, taking a new-technology press release, changing the vendor and product names, and handing it out to various geeks to see how they react to the exact same press releases ostensibly from Google, Microsoft, Apple and IBM. I expect that it'll be most… interesting.

For those interested in the Avatar-and-racism debate, check out the URLs http://geekgirldiva.entertainmentearth.com/2009/12/racism-in-avatar-my-reponse-to-io9.html and the original post, http://io9.com/5422666/when-will-white-people-stop-making-movies-like-avatar. Some of the explanation of the “intentional fallacy” was drawn from the article on Wikipedia of the same name.