Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Programming Karma

A couple people commented on my post yesterday about Programming Support by Google, and I wanted to clarify a few things. Mostly, just soften my position.

Both Janet and Kenny pointed out that giving help to others online, with little realistic expectation of being remembered, was pretty altruistic. One of the fundamental rules of building community is that people give as well as get; and if I benefit from the postings of others, I have karmic debt to repay. Not only should I feel free to post my discoveries (no matter how ego-motivated they may be) but I have a moral obligation to do so. That karma is bigger than just the geeky world of programming; all of society is ultimately based on collective action, and we can't expect to have world peace and justice unless people give in to the urge to help others just because it's the right thing to do.

There are also perfectly rational (but still self-serving) reasons to share one's knowledge. Most of the people who maintain blogs or post in newsgroups are consultants like me, programmers for hire who want to generate attention for themselves and demonstrate their chops. There is no pretense that they are sharing their code out of the goodness of their hearts, unless you're hanging out with the Richard Stallman crowd of GNUbies and think proprietary code is evil. The posters are just out stumping for their new book, or their professional services, or just doing their jobs as technical evangelists. So it isn't just cheap ego-thrills -- it's just good business.

And besides, it's not always the ego boost that you expect it to be. Often people will post to say that your code doesn't work for them, or doesn't work in all situations, or even that it's a retarded way to do it and you should try this instead. Those with superior knowledge will trump you constantly. The feedback can be bracing.

The best motivations are probably the predominant ones: sympathy, and enthusiasm. You, also, have suffered with intractable problems, and felt relief and gratitude when you found the answer thoughtfully prepared by someone else. It makes you feel good to know you can make someone's day, recover their lost weekend, and maybe save their marriage by your gift. But that's hardly ever spoken. It's the enthusiasm, the naked thrill of technology, that has voice: "Isn't this cool?!"

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