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Great Ideas and Religious Fervor in Linux

© October 2004 Tony Lawrence

Referencing: Are the "Open Source" advocates mentally healthy?

This fellow paints programmers as having mental illnesses.

Yes, he might be nuts himself, but that's OK because amid the gross distortions, he does have a point or two worth thinking about. One comment caught my attention:

The Linux fanatics seem to have more trouble with criticism
than "normal people"

I'm not quite sure that's true as stated. In fact, the great majority of people have strong reactions to criticism, either because they are "insecure" and see criticism as reflecting upon their own self-worth, or (at the opposite end) because they have tremendous egos and can't see that they could be wrong. The article seems to suggest something more in line with insecurity:

Many Linux people do not respond to criticism with intelligent
arguments. Rather, they react with panic. Some react by running
away and hiding. Initially I assumed it was because some many
Linux fanatics are children, who tend to hide behind mommy or
daddy when something frightens them. But I have since noticed
that many of these frightened Linux fanatics are adults!

I wonder if what he's really run into is of the second sort (ego) or perhaps even a complete misinterpretation on his part. For example, if I bopped into a Linux newsgroup and suggested that Linux would be vastly improved if it used structured file types and dispensed with pipes, I'd either be ignored or treated with utter scorn. Reactions to my "criticism" would be strong or non-existent ("running away and hiding"). It would be my fault for making a truly moronic suggestion, but I might not know that.

However, there is a germ of truth here. It can be difficult dealing with people on newsgroups. In my experience that's true no matter what the subject is, and it usually boils down to two root causes: most people can't express themselves well in writing and quite a few people can't comprehend written material as easily as they can when the same material is presented verbally. Often sharp criticisms and attacks are provoked by one or both of these. A poster doesn't initially explain their point well, someone else doesn't read carefully, and off we go to another mini-flame war. There are web pages that suggest posting rules designed to lessen misunderstanding ( we even have one here: https://aplawrence.com/newtosco.html#newsg), but even the most careful post may run afoul of someone elses careless reading - in fact, careful posting may lengthen a post which may in turn encourage careless reading!

With specific regard to Linux, there is a little bit of the under-dog mentality mixed in here too. When you know in your heart that you are "better", yet the world doesn't see it, criticism can be harder to swallow.

But there is something more. After all else is considered, I think it still can be true that some non-trivial number of Linux oriented people do react badly to outside ideas. I have myself complained about the "group-think" evidenced by posters at sites like Slash-Dot and Groklaw, and it is easy to find examples of the type of thing this writer complains about. It does sometimes seem (as this person insists) that Linux is a religion in some respects, and that those who see it that way are not always interested in logic or reason.

Is that a bad thing? I don't think so. Open Source and Linux are "Great Ideas" that can (we hope) change the world. Great ideas are embraced by both those who reason and those who follow blindly - that's part of what makes them of real consequence: if the idea can't light up religious fervor, they won't get very far. As most of us learn sooner or later, emotion is a much more important force in this world than reason. Yes, we need logic, but logic without emotion won't gain wide acceptance. So, while this person may be frustrated by the un-thinking aspects of the Linux wave, it's actually very necessary.

I do understand his frustration. While the great majority of people are less adept at logical transactions than emotional, many technical people are the opposite, at least to some degree. I have leanings in that direction myself, though as I have gotten older I have developed more emotional intelligence and am now more understanding of emotions. I understand that dealing with blind, unreasoned allegiance can be somewhat maddening, but I see that aspect of Linux/Open Source for what it is: a necessary component of the whole.

Maybe the world would be a better place if we were all more Spock-like, but the simple fact is that we generally are not. If we want wide adoption of Open Source, we need religious fervor. We need illogical people who refuse to think about certain things and just flat believe. We need the rational people too, of course, and as I have noted, people can be both rationally and emotionally entangled. It can be frustrating when the person you are dealing with is obviously capable of rational thought and yet turns rationality off when certain subjects are broached, but that's just part of what makes this so powerful: without that emotional entanglement, we don't have enough.

Think about it. Or better yet, don't.. :-)

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