Technological allegiances

I used to wonder why people “convert” from one technology to another. For example, someone might convert from Windows to Linux and put a penguin sticker on their car. Or they might move from Java to Ruby and feel obligated to talk about how terrible Java is. They don’t add a new technology, they switch from one to the other. In the words of Stephen Sondheim, “Is it always or, and never and?”

Rivalries seem sillier to outsiders the more similar the two options are. And yet this makes sense. I’ve forgotten the psychological term for this, but it has a name: Similar things compete for space in your brain more than things that are dissimilar. For example, studying French can make it harder to spell English words. (Does literature have two t’s in French and one in English or is it the other way around?) But studying Chinese doesn’t impair English orthography.

It’s been said that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small [1]. Similarly, there are fierce technological loyalties because the differences with competing technologies are so small, small enough to cause confusion. My favorite example: I can’t keep straight which languages use else if, elif, elseif, … in branching.

If you have to learn two similar technologies, it may be easier to devote yourself exclusively to one, then to the other, then use both and learn to keep them straight.

Related post: Ford-Chevy arguments in technology

[1] I first heard this attributed to Henry Kissinger, but there’s no agreement on who first said it. Several people have said similar things.


13 thoughts on “Technological allegiances

  1. I find a good explanation for this observation is this recent article by Golman et al. (2016) in the Journal of Economic Perspectives:

    They explain how people feel more threatened by other people who hold different beliefs, but come to their conclusion from the same information. If people who are similar to you reach different conclusions, then something must really be wrong with your view of reality. They argue that this can explain why small differences make people react so emotionally.

  2. Thanks. I make plenty of typos, but I meant that one as written: do the first, then the second, then the third.

  3. By the way, I think there is a “grass is greener” effect as well. We grow tired of the quirks and limitations of one system and switch to something else that works differently.

  4. I suspect it depends on the “cost” of OR vs AND. I’ve resisted Apple technology, not because of its cultishness, but because I’m too cheap to buy one to keep my Windows machines company. But I’ve happily added R programming to my repertoire, because it’s even cheaper than I am. Of course, when teaching statistics to a diverse audience (biologists, engineers, and actuaries), I don’t have the luxury of being statistically monolingual.

  5. “I’ve forgotten the psychological term for this, but it has a name: Similar things compete for space in your brain more than things that are dissimilar.”

    Concerning allegiances, maybe you are thinking of the “narcissism of small differences.”

    This exists in other arenas too. Musical rivalries are always between performers in the same genre. American liberals feel more animosity toward center-right figures like Romney than they feel toward extreme left movements. Northerners find Southern trailer park occupants humourous while genteel Southerners regard their trailer dwelling neighbors with contempt.

  6. I’m familiar with the idea of narcissism of minor differences, and it’s related to this discussion, but I don’t think it’s what I have in mind. Narcissism of minor differences has to do with how people interact with each other. If you’re studying French and it messes up your English spelling, that conflict is happening just in your head, not in conflict with anyone else.

  7. Freud’s concept has been related over the years to the intensity of civil conflicts (especially the Balkan wars) and the difficulty of getting a group of psychiatrists to select the drapes for their conference room (thank you, Janet Malcolm). So it seems quite apropos here.

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