Around about 1991, when I was finishing university and wondering what to do with my life, I spent a lot of time reading the New Hacker’s Dictionary (the book incarnation of the Jargon File), feeling at once both inspired (“There’s a whole subculture of people that I identify with”) and mournful (“I don’t know any of them! And I suspect I wouldn’t fit in even if I did!”). But the basic sensibilities of the book, particularly when it comes to unixish technologies, have stuck with me.
Just now, I was Googling for a better way to turn off Emacs’ default backup behavior when using Git (or, as it turns out, in general). I found it here, in the generally helpful emacs wiki. But was struck by several classic hacker affectations that, I’m sure, I once would have found endearing, but now I just found trite and annoying. To wit:
"Myanmar, Independence Day" At the top of the page (when I visited the site, January 4 2009), underneath the nav stripe. Presumably there’s a different message for each day. But why? First, I don’t need the emacs wiki to tell me interesting factoids about today’s date: that’s just noise. (It’s also noise to spiders indexing the site, so it’s actually a functional defect). Second, Myanmar isn’t very independent, what with being under the control of a pretty brutal and oppressive regime. Third, even though this bit of fluff is date-related, it’s not presented as such — unless you twig to what’s being done, it seems totally incongruous. I know what’s happening — someone decided it would be fun to have their templating system pull an interesting date-factoid for each day. Whee. But that kind of stunt — like .fortune files and random email signatures stopped being amusing and started becoming an attention drain. If I want to know interesting shit about what happened on January 4, I can look that up. This is just noise, and it’s noise of a “Look at the exciting creative things we hackers love to do” flavor. Editing, folks: that’s where creativity gets real. Editing.
The smug tone. “This is primitive and boring”. “Civilized people…” I’m just tired of it; tired of people making disparaging assertions about other folks over things that are, really, really pointless. I’ve let emacs do it’s tilde-appending thing to me for close to twenty years; apparently that means I’m not civilized. Again: editing. You want to be informative? It’s had to do that while being judgmental.
The affected quirkiness. “…out of the box in Emacsen…” I had to think about this before I realized that “Emacsen” wasn’t the name of some variant of emacs; it was just the aren’t-we-wacky irregular plural of “Emacs”. Worse than that, it’s grammatically singular, because it should agree in number with the the later pronoun in the sentence “..in Emacsen with its…”. So not only is it obscure for no reason, it’s wrong!. “Emacs installations” is better.
The total plaintextness. Folks, an hour spend building a CSS file for the site would go a long way. You don’t have to change any of your HTML. It’s not hard, and graphic design is a part of interface design, and interface is part of software. Make your software better and lose a bit of the “plain text is best” attitude.
All of these things seem to be part of (I now realize) an attitude of smug, judgmental quirkiness that seems very dated. For me, at least, some of the trappings of hacker culture have lost their shine as I got older.
(also, what’s up with the “Cette page est …” at the top of the page? What kind of hacker builds localization like this — with manually inserted links? Geez)