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I don't think it's anywhere near that complicated. People argue about languages because languages become part of their identity: It's common to think of oneself as for example a "Lisp Programmer". And if a language is part of your identity than people saying less than amazing things about that language feels like an attack on you personally, and very quickly the discussion devolves into an argument that has nothing in particular to do with the actual languages as such.

(http://paulgraham.com/identity.html talks about this some, I'm sure there are other better references I can't find right now.)

I think you are bang on about this.

The problem is one of identity. We will protect anything that we attach to our identity because we perceive any attack on it as an attack on us. To have intelligent, unemotional conversations that has to be decoupled.

In general it can lead to problems if we map our identity externally - whether to a programming language, or something else - of course this is easier to preach than to practice.

But why do programming languages become part of people's identity so readily, whereas many other things do not?

(What do programming languages, operating systems, and text editors all have in common? They're big parts of people's identities...)

Can you point out some things that don't become part of people's identity? My experience is that anything that someone spends more than a tiny amount of time with immediately starts becoming part of who they are.

The boundary of our self is constantly spreading outwards onto the things around us. Seems to be part of human nature.

Psychologists have a concept known as "self-complexity" (wiki it). Basically, it's our view of ourselves, in terms of the many attributes, relationships, skills, deficiencies, etc. we possess. Someone who thinks of themselves in broad terms, filling many roles and with many aspects, is said to have a high self-complexity. Someone who thinks of themselves in terms of only a single aspect has low self-complexity. Think of "I'm a world-class kernel C hacker" vs. "I'm an awesome C programmer" vs. "I'm a good programmer" vs. "I'm a decent human being".

By itself, self-complexity is neither good nor bad, but it does have consequences. High self-complexity buffers you against negative events or negative appraisals of those aspects you identify with. Someone who's devoted their life to low-level kernel hacking is going to take it more personally when you say C is obsolete and only a fool would be involved in OS design in 2013. Someone who also sees themselves as a husband and a father and a good friend and a church leader and not all that bad at Javascript web programming either is probably going to let it roll off them; they may think you're wrong, but they'll just shrug and say "Whatever; you're entitled to your opinion" and not bother to argue the point.

So no, it's not bad for new activities to become part of your identity. It can be bad for them to become your whole identity, because it leaves you really vulnerable to outside attacks on your self-conception.

(On a side note, it seems to me that a lot of the Silicon Valley startup mythology is focused on encouraging low self-complexity and an obsessive focus on external success. Now that I re-read some of PG's early essays, several of them seem actively harmful to one's mental health. The YC application used to ask you "How are you an 'animal'?", in reference to an early essay where he suggested that successful startup founders often act like caged animals - as if denying your humanity is "success".)

Generally really like your post, but I have to correct you about PG's essay.

It's people who work at normal jobs that he calls caged animals, and founders are the wild animals.

"In fact, getting a normal job may actually make you less able to start a startup, by turning you into a tame animal who thinks he needs an office to work in and a product manager to tell him what software to write."


I was thinking of a different essay:


"One of the best tricks I learned during our startup was a rule for deciding who to hire. Could you describe the person as an animal? It might be hard to translate that into another language, but I think everyone in the US knows what it means. It means someone who takes their work a little too seriously; someone who does what they do so well that they pass right through professional and cross over into obsessive."

Almost everything is part of someone's identity. But I would venture for most people on this forum, they have a car but don't identify with a car brand.

It used to be of course that you were a Ford man or a Chrysler man. But nowadays it's become much rarer.

I agree that it's natural, but I think that the targets for identification shift over time and I don't think it's random.

I think it's because we invest so much time and energy working with them. Most humans can't do that without becoming attached.

Once you identify with something it becomes difficult to be objective about it. So discourse about technical tools is mostly emotion, however rational it pretends to be. That's why the core debates never end.

By the way, you can add version control systems to your list.

Because you think in programming languages. They're not just a tool to get from X to Y, they're part of your thought process and literally a significant part of your life experience.

Maybe because we used to differentiate people based on the language they speak? Sort of nationality thing? Just my guess.

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