The recently available Emacs User Survey made me think, once again, about the
status of the technological world around me. The survey was painstakingly
discussed on the emacs-devel mailing list, and generated some interesting
reactions among people outside the core developing team as well. More
interesting for the perspective of this writing are the reactions to the
emacs-devel, because they reveal how great the distance between
me and some members of the Emacs community has been getting.
You see, I am a failed Free Software supporter. I stopped campaigning in its favour as soon as my wife’s school closed. There I had set up everything with Free and Open Source software, and watching the teachers effectively do their job with technological solutions they were not accustomed to made me happy. They did not really care about the reasons behind my choices, but they respected my contribution and were willing to overcome the first weeks of adaptation as long as I could guarantee a comfortable working environment. When all of this ended and I went back to software development, Free and Open Source software became only a private concern. While still set on Linux1, I left Debian for Ubuntu because I didn’t want to spend time tinkering with my operative system to get the best out of my Dell XPS. My distro-hopping days had come to an end. I just wanted a system that would let me code, write, and browse the Web. I chose the easy way.
However, I have never stopped paying attention to the world around me and behaving consciously. For instance, I hate wasting technology. The 3-and-a-half-year old Dell XPS where I am writing now replaced my 8-year old Dell Inspiron, and my 7-year old HP server is still rock-solid and here to stay. I have a 4-year old Fairphone, my first and only smartphone, that I intend to keep for as long as possible. Beside gadgets, I’ve been on a vegan diet for almost seven years and I consider it one of the best and most important choices I’ve ever made regarding the ethics of what I eat. Come to think of it, as bad as the Coronavirus crisis is turning out to be, it “fixed” the problem of getting to the office every day, cutting my car usage down to once a week for groceries2 and thus decreasing my impact on the environment.
This is why mixing technocraticism with pragmatism bothers me. The words “pragmatic” and “pragmatism” have been kind of a constant in the IT world I live in since “The Pragmatic Programmer” passed on my shelves. As every word in every language, “pragmatic” and “pragmatism” are complex words and their actual meaning is not trivially describable. Immanuel Kant distinguishes between “practical” and “pragmatic”, but without asking him we can quickly see what the dictionary tells us. According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, “pragmatic” means “solving problems in a practical and sensible way rather than by having fixed ideas or theories”. Treccani, however, is closer to how “pragmatic” is known nowadays: “what is being characterised by the prevailing of practical interests over theoretical ones and ideal values”. I won’t digress on the multiple meanings of “ideal” to keep it simple and because “values” is actually the key word for me here.
“Pragmatic” and “pragmatism”, in common parlance, imply a separation between theoretical thoughts and practical action, but it is actually impossible to draw a line between the two. Every action is informed by a thought and every thought shines a light on the action. We can act automatically without thinking about it, sure, but that has nothing to do with voluntary actions. When we act, we act according to a line of reasoning, and it’s that line of reasoning that determines the value of the action. Take my choice of using Ubuntu on this Dell XPS. A deliberate decision born out of my desire to prefer a comfortable option instead of spending time to value more Free Software-compliant solutions. I acted with a plan just as I acted with a plan when I chose my vegan diet. Which choice is more pragmatic? Which one tells you more about my ethics?
For years now I’ve been seeing the IT world as self-involved and rarely eager to discuss larger issues. Problems such as the environmental crisis become material for self-congratulatory speeches at conferences around the world, while in fact the day after the conference we resume our lives as if nothing other than ourselves mattered. We do that because, as Emanuele Severino says, we are scared of what is beyond ourselves. We have replaced religious myths with the myth of technology to find the immediate answers to deep and life-changing questions that we do not want to investigate any further.
It’s not easy to understand the weight of words like “pragmatism” and “pragmatic” in a technocratic world. We live in an age where we believe that technology is our ultimate saviour. We are driven to accept technology as it is because of the benefits it brings to ourselves. We trust our technology because not doing so would result in the effort of questioning it, which in turns may unveil the details that the technocratic world goes a long distance to hide. More importantly, questioning technology could disclose what we really are and need to be, something that takes will and courage to face. In a time like this, Emanuele Severino’s claim that technique is the dominant power of our time sounds as forceful as ever.