David Heinemeier Hansson

December 21, 2023

Challenging the guardians of the paradigm

I swear the intention isn’t to constantly start fights with guardians of every sacred paradigm in the tech world. To be honest, it’s been a bit exhausting at times to concurrently argue on at least three major flanks. But that’s just how this year has turned out, given the work we’ve been pursuing.

Whether it’s telling people that you can save a lot of money by leaving the cloud, or that SaaS software might just have seen the peak, or that #nobuild is a viable path on the front-end, or any of the myriad of other minor technical heresies we’ve committed this year, it’s all come from believing the underlying thesis and living the conclusions!

And I think that’s part of what at times create such a flammable discourse. If you’ve staked your identity on a certain view of reality, say, The Cloud Is The Future, or SaaS Will Reign Forever, or Bundling JavaScript Is A Must, it’s a threat when someone dares not just argue, but ship an irrefutable counterpoint.

Because intellectual arguments can always be countered in the abstract realm of the debate. But shipping proof isn’t so easily refuted by clever rhetoric or calls to authority. Even if the shipping thesis is limited in scope, it still has the quality of a black swan against the postulate that “all swans are white”. It takes just one flapping bird of the wrong color to undermine a categorical premise.

That’s why you see such furious activity around policing the borders of the paradigm. Why the goal posts are constantly moving to ensure no striker can ever be said to have scored. Like going from “of course the cloud is cheaper!” to “okay, maybe it’s not cheaper all the time, but it is for most!” to “whoever said the cloud was cheaper? It’s about agility!”.

Tim Urban introduced me to the motte-and-bailey fallacy in his excellent book What’s Our Problem. I highly recommend it. It’s about politics in general, but most of the observations about low and high debate culture apply directly to the tech discourse as well.

Anyway, the bailey is “the cloud is always cheaper” and the motte is “actually it’s about agility”. You chase a compelling argument because you know it’s persuasive, but then retreat to the less compelling argument when it comes under attack.

That’s a lot of what these paradigm guardians spend their time doing. Advancing compelling but hard-to-defend arguments, then retreat to the motte when they come under attack. And to some extent we all do that, at least in our heads. Changing our minds about things we believe is hard! Even if the evidence appears to warrant such a change.

I’m liable to this too. Everyone is. But I try to combat that natural human instinct by forcing myself to see “being wrong” as “learning more”. If you can judo your instincts like this, it’s a lot easier to acquire a more accurate map of the world. And who doesn’t want that?

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.