Holy Wars of Computing

June 29, 2021 — Josh

I'm looking to compile a list of historic "wars" in computing, just for personal interest cause they're fun to read about and can sometimes be insightful.

Here's what I have so far:

Some of these are singular events, others are long-standing.

If you can think of others send them my way :-), josh at josh8 dot com.

To set the scene, read these two relevant excerpts discussing computing, identity, and religion:

Ted Nelson - Computers For Cynics 0

NB: this is a transcript from a video, there may be some inaccuracies.

The computer world deals with imaginary, arbitrary, made-up stuff that was all made up by somebody. Everything you see was designed and put there by someone, but so often we have to deal with junk; and not knowing whom to blame, we blame technology. That's the main thing I want you to understand -- as you consider the thousands of methods, thousands of products, the fanaticisms, the hopes and dreams, the apparent possibilities, the grim reality.


So that's what this series is about, the ideas and fights behind what laymen call technology. Technology exists, but it's like marital fidelity -- there's a lot of it, but a lot less of it than people think. And often what people call technology, isn't. "I dont understand technology" often means something like "I dont understand the crappy menus of this stupid camera". People often say "you can't argue with technology" -- of course you can! All kinds of junk is foisted on the public in the name of technology; you have to know what else is possible.


The greatest myth of technology is the myth of determinism. The belief that technology is determinate, objective, inevitable, that the nature of computers is given. It ain't so, it's all been imagined up. Many people think God created the 'real world', but no one that I know of believes that he, she, or it created the computer world, though many act as if they think so.

Key example: why cant you put marginal notes on a Microsoft Word file, or a PDF, or a web page? The naive answer is "because computers don't allow it". The real answer is because Chuck Simone and John Warnock and Tim Berners-Lee didn't think you needed it. Yes, it comes down to invidivduals.


Everyone has passionate ideas and ideals, and wants to create software to fulfill those ideas and ideals. There are so many ideas to care about, and with ideas come the politics of ideas. There are thousands of computing ideas, and so there are thousands of computer religions (that is, ideas people care very much about) -- every faction wants to pull you in. Every faction wants you to think they are the wave of the future, and because there are no objective criteria, as in religion there are no objective criteria, there are thousands of sects and splinter groups.


The concepts go on and on and many of them have fanatical following. What are the principle computer religions? Oh, Microsoft, Apple, Linux, Open Source, Venture capital, program provability, God knows what else. Specific languages, everyone has a favorite language they're fanatical about. <further examples> Particular conventions of punctuation have fanatical adherents; I refer to the One True Brace Style in C. <further examples>

All of these have their believers. So who gets to decide? Who gets to decide what methods will be used, what ideas will be followed in creating software? Ahh, that's the politics of the computer world.


These decisions are determined how -- by some objective mechanism? Hahaha, that's politics for you. They're determined by fighting and jockying and internal politics and maneuvering in projects and in companies. Everyone's trying to get leverage and creative control.

Now, in Hollywood they have it down to a system. They determine who directs, but everybody understands that everybody wants to direct, and it's an issue they call creative control. In the computing world, everyone wants to design software, but they don't call it creative control -- it's exactly the same. In software it's the same issue as in Hollywood, but nobody recognizes it.


Was the Unicode mess technology? No, it's culture politics masquerading as technology. Technology is a mask worn by all kinds of political parties in all kinds of fights and situations.

I've left out a lot of interesting stuff, you should watch the video in its entirety on your own time.

Paul Graham - Keep Your Identity Small

I finally realized today why politics and religion yield such uniquely useless discussions.

As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?

What's different about religion is that people don't feel they need to have any particular expertise to have opinions about it. All they need is strongly held beliefs, and anyone can have those. No thread about Javascript will grow as fast as one about religion, because people feel they have to be over some threshold of expertise to post comments about that. But on religion everyone's an expert.

Then it struck me: this is the problem with politics too. Politics, like religion, is a topic where there's no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. All you need is strong convictions.

Do religion and politics have something in common that explains this similarity? One possible explanation is that they deal with questions that have no definite answers, so there's no back pressure on people's opinions. Since no one can be proven wrong, every opinion is equally valid, and sensing this, everyone lets fly with theirs.

But this isn't true. There are certainly some political questions that have definite answers, like how much a new government policy will cost. But the more precise political questions suffer the same fate as the vaguer ones.

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan.


There is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

Graham's post is from 2009 -- here in 2021 discussions about JavaScript also turn into religious wars right away :P.