Humanism in Software. Stop Laughing.

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When I talk about humanism, I’m really talking about compassion. Whatever the tenets of a given strain of humanism, whether you think it should have religious elements or be utterly devoid of ritualistic trappings, whatever version of whatever manifesto one might subscribe to, for me, humanism is really all about compassion for other folks, acting on that compassion, and all without any supernaturalistic component to any of it.

And heck, let’s throw liberalism or progressivism in there, too. For me, it’s all ways of saying and acting on compassion.

What a serendipitous stroke, then, as I get this blog ostensibly about tech and humanism off the ground, that I come across this post by Ben Brooks (via Patrick Rhone) about compassion in software.

What now? I know, but it does make sense, it’s not some dippy hipster thing.

Brooks sets up a dichotomy between compassion and fairness, which have absolutely never occurred to me to be in conflict, and uses the tax system as an illustration:

We should strive not to be fair on a whole, but to achieve fairness with each person. If paying taxes means you will go homeless, there should in fact be compassion there to analyze the situation and make a decision on a person-by-person basis. Fairness be damned.

But, what likely happened, is that another tax payer caught wind and shouted the most feared words in all of America: “THAT’S NOT FAIR!”

Motherfucker, life isn’t fair, get over it.

Life is about compassion, not fairness.

He then cites several examples of software that are “fair” in the sense of being as many things as possible to as many people as possible, versus those that are “compassionate,” in the sense of suiting the explicit needs of particular users in particular circumstances.

Here’s the marketing copy from Microsoft on Word:

Polished documents, anytime, anywhere, on all of your devices

Here’s the marketing copy from Ulysses III:

If you love to write, and write a lot, you’ll love Ulysses III.

Word tells you what it can do, and Ulysses tells you who it is for.

Comically, here is the one take away from Photoshop’s marketing:

Get all the latest creative apps, plus seamless ways to share and collaborate. All right on your desktop.

Compare with Acorn:

Everyone needs to edit photos at some point, but not everyone has the time to learn complicated super pricey photo editing software. This is why we created Acorn.

Again Photoshop is about its features, and Acorn is perfectly humanistic in what it will do with you.

Look! Humanism! And software! I told you this was a good find.

Now look, I don’t want to take the idea of the righteousness of user-specific software too far. But we are fortunate enough to live in a world today in which so many of the tools we use, being primarily bits of data, can be “compassionate,” having a mind to serve an individual’s need rather than check off an ever-expanding array of boxes.

When we were using typewriters, that was more or less the only available technology, so while there were different varieties of typewriter, they were all still banging-and-dinging mechanical keys and hammers slamming ink against paper. Today, you can choose the software tool that suits your specific writing needs. I’m writing this right now in TextEdit, because all I need in the drafting process is a plain text app. I don’t need Word and its vast feature set.

Come to think of it, even the hardware options today are more “compassionate” (except for the fact that they’re freaking expensive, but we’re just stretching an analogy here). You can still use a typewriter if you want (if you can find one), or you can write on a laptop (big or small), a tablet (big or small, with or without a keyboard), a phone (big or small, perhaps even using voice dictation), or pen and paper.

Now on the enterprise side of things, or perhaps in education, when one kind of software or hardware is “deployed” to many people at once, maybe “fairness” is the way to go, but even then, it seems to me that it’s in productivity’s interest to have more custom options for individual employees rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. But again, the customizing approach is likely more expensive.

All that said, I think I’m going to take another look at Acorn.

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