“If it’s not a Mac, it’s not worth jack!”
“There is one true operating system, Linux, and Linus Torvalds is its prophet!”
Those of us who hang around tech circles have heard sentiments like these. And we’ve seen the defenders of one OS rise up in flame wars against the acolytes of the competition. Wars of words have erupted between Mac and Windows users, Android and iPhone supporters and, seemingly since the dawn of silicon, EMACS and vi programmers. They usually carry a whiff of nearly religious zealotry.
Sometimes these conversations can be fun to engage in or just listen in on. All too often, though, they turn mean, and civility evaporates. And occasionally they turn even uglier.
Take, for example, Gamergate. When it began, I’m sure that some of its participants were trying to engage in an earnest debate about ethics in video-gaming journalism. But it rapidly mutated into a series of vicious attacks, with vile death and rape threats that were shocking in the online forums where the war was primarily waged but were infinitely worse when they became credible real-world threats.
Gamergate is a fairly recent example, but it unfortunately is not unique for its venom. Other online spats have produced death threats that had to be taken seriously. I myself have received death threats from readers who were utterly enraged by articles I wrote. One person was so scarily vehement that I eventually sicced the FBI on him.
What is behind all of this apparent madness? Why is it that when some people start to talk about technologies, they become passionate to the point of seeming crazy?
Perhaps you’ve noticed a certain “Death to the infidels!” intensity in some of these arguments. Well, it turns out that the idea that the technology wars are similar to religious wars just might be on target. Keisha Cutright, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has conducted a series of studies on how brand-name products can influence people’s religious commitments. What she and her researchers found was that some people’s loyalty to certain brands, such as Apple, borders on the religious.
According to the study, “Brands, like religion, help individuals express themselves by articulating their self-worth to others, communicating aspects of their personality to others, and signaling their desired affiliations.”
Substitute “technologies” for brands and you’ll see where I’m going. Indeed, brands and technologies are intertwined. According to Interbrand, the brand management company, Apple is the most popular brand in the world. You’ll also find in the top 20, in order, the following technology companies: Google, IBM, Microsoft, Samsung, Cisco, Amazon, Oracle and HP.
With so many technology companies in our heads, perhaps the wonder is that we don’t have more fights over technologies!
After all, as Cutright observed, people don’t see Apple, Google or Microsoft as brands that are separate from them. They see them as emblematic of their very personality, indeed of their fundamental beliefs.
That explains a lot. When people get totally worked up over their defense of, say, their Microsoft Surface Pro 3, it’s not because they’ve calmly and rationally decided it’s the best available device; it’s because they’ve found their self-worth as a Microsoft supporter.
To tell them that a MacBook Air is better causes them to react with rage because they take it as a personal attack. Sure, to any outside observer, these kinds of arguments may appear inane, or even insane as the intensity creeps up, but for the people involved in them, it strikes close to the core of their identity.
Is it any wonder, then, when this level of commitment is invoked by a gadget, program or operating system that people grow so impassioned?
If we would all acknowledge this dynamic, maybe we could take a step back when we find ourselves getting enraged over a disagreement about what, after all, is not really us. You may hold a deep regard for your iPhone 6 Plus, but realize that it’s just a gadget, and in fact it will be out of date by next year, with the arrival of the iPhone 7, and obsolete in three years’ time.
Let’s save the outrage for things with a bit more durability than that. And let’s can the rape and death threats entirely.
This story, "In Gadget We Trust" was originally published by Computerworld.