Workflows vs. worldviews and other false dichotomies

Thinking about language use when describing people who do not subscribe to the dominate ideologies

I've recently been thinking more about workflows and tools for writing since migrating from Electrical and Computer Engineering where the LaTeX workflow was fairly ubiquitous to Engineering Education in which the ubiquitous workflow involves MS Word or similar. This is not going to be a LaTeX vs. MS Word piece. There are plenty of those out there, though this post was inspired by one in particular (with a bit of an inflammatory title) by Alex Bond who made a ostensibly pragmatic argument as to why he chose to stick with MS Word (for now).

For the most part, I thought Alex's piece was fairly written: while he chooses to use MS Word he makes it clear that one way isn't objectively better, rather his argument centers around "what works for you". Especially in the comments and responses it is clear that he keeps an open mind towards other tools and the conversation itself. I do have a couple minor quibbles: an apples to oranges comparison in his Cost & Access section and the repeated implication that a plain text workflow is the new kid on the block when plain text workflows have been pretty well established since at least the 1970s. This post is not about those quibbles. This post is about a far more serious piece of his argument:

But in my mind, there are two arguments: the practical (A is tangibly better than B), and the philosophical (A is better than B because of ethical, moral, or philosophical reasons). These are both important discussions to have, but in this post, I’m going to focus on the first.

Specifically, Alex's claim that he will focus on practical reasons why one might pick one workflow over the other and leave the philosophical debate for another time (if at all?). I disagree with the premise of his argument. Practice is deeply informed by philosophy in both cases. It is fine to argue that a legitimate reason someone might choose to use the MS Word workflow is "because everyone uses it". It is not fine, and extremely dangerous, to believe that that argument is not philosophical: by making it you are implicitly buying in (literally) to the Microsoft philosophy that created an environment in which "everyone uses it" in the first place. Microsoft's philosphy with Word is that everyone should use it and thus it is designed in such a way to encourage that, and more of a concern, prevent people from using anything else by making it extremely difficult to collaborate with anyone not using MS Word.

There must be a word for the tendency to ignore philosophy/worldview when yours happens to be the dominant one, it is certainly a kind of privilege, but "worldview privilege" feels clunky and I'm not sure it's getting at the issue. Let me provide two examples, incidentally both having to do with Richard Stallman.

The first was in an answer to a Quara question. In his answer, Phillip Remaker wrote

Richard Stallman is a staunch idealogue [sic] prone to outrageous and exaggerated statements in order to get attention for his cause. He is not to be taken too seriously.

There are two sentences in the above quote. The first can generally be taken as accurate, though the word choice is problematic and I will get to that in a bit. It's the second sentence, especially as it is placed after the first that is the real problem. By putting those two sentences together in the way that he did, Phillip is leading the reader to make two assumptions:

  1. Other contemporary computing icons such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs are not staunch ideologues, this is some special quality of Richard Stallman.
  2. People who have strong views grounded in ideology should not be taken seriously.

In my comment to that answer[^1] I addressed both of these. Actually, addressing the first point makes it clear that the second point is invalid.

Personal ideologies

To suggest that neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs were guided by an ideology is flat out naive. Apple's walled-garden philosophy is that the best user experience is obtained when one company (namely Apple) has tight control over both the hardware and software that the user can access. Microsoft's philosophy has historically been that users will use Microsoft software if they are aware of no alternatives. In addition , both companies operate under a business philosophy that suggests the best way to keep customers is to make them dependent on your own product and lock them into a continuous update cycle. I am not arguing that any of these philosophies are objectively "bad" or "good", but I am arguing that it is dangerous to ignore the philosophical underpinnings that has lead to the organizational structure of both Microsoft and Apple and more importantly to the design of their respective software products and user experience. Of course when people describe the strong philosophical backings of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, rather than "staunch idealogue", they might use "business savey", or "perfectionist", both avoiding the negative connotations of the dogmatic views associated with "staunch ideologues". Likewise, when Bill Gates or Steve Jobs expressed their views in an emotional way it was because they are/were "passionate", not "prone to outrageous statements", and Steve Job's abundant use of the word "magic" to describe Apple products was never "exaggerated", it was just "good marketing".

National ideologies

I suspect the reasons why language like "staunch ideologue" and "prone to exaggerated statements" are used with Stallman, but "business savey", "perfectionist", "passionate", and "good marketing" are used with Gates and Jobs has to do with yet another ideology, that of free-market capitalism in the U.S. and the association with wealth and success. Both Gates and Jobs made a whole lot of money off by staying true to their "staunch ideologies", and so in the eyes of U.S. culture they are both "successful", and so their "staunch ideologies" must be the "right kind". In contrast, Stallman quit his job at MIT because he was concerned remaining an employee there would conflict with his ideologies as he pursued his passion for free-as-in-freedom software. To be sure, Stallman makes some money, just a few orders of magnitude less than Gates and Jobs.

Pragmatism and ideology

While I don't intend this post to get into the workflow wars my observations have been that most, if not all, arguments (or favoring) for the MS Word workflow tend to hing on "everyone else uses it". As I said before, that is a fine reason as any, but don't kid yourself for a second into thinking that argument doesn't reek of ideology. It is literally the argument that Microsoft's business model is designed to elicit, it is very much grounded in philosophy and thus, it is a philosophical argument. Of course posts that argue for the MS Word workflow tend not to talk much about the philosophy, and why should they have to? Everyone just agrees to it. It's the same reason quantitative researchers don't need to be explicit about their post-positivist worldview in their writing. The reader knows they are coming from a post-positivist worldview because it's quantitative research.

On the other hand, many arguments for the text-based workflow do explicitly mention philosophy, such as this excellent one. If nothing else I would urge you to view the explicit discussion of philosophy as a sign of honesty and openness, you're not going to find an "everyone else is doing it" argument there.

Either way, use what you are comfortable with and what works for you. But don't say your decision isn't ideological.

Attributions

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates (522695099) by Joi Ito from Inbamura, Japan - Steve Jobs and Bill Gates on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Richard M Stallman Swathanthra 2014 kerala by Ranjithsiji - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons.

Footnotes

[^1]: which has received 30 upvotes so far!