Writing Without a Mask

Clearly, there’s something I’m not doing right.

It is my third full day at the writers’ refuge and I am researching my article’s topic, the muscles in my neck and shoulders simultaneously taut and compacted such that I find my range of motion constrained.

IMAG1268.jpgI am in a veritable paradise, with astounding natural beauty, a sublime and comfortable writing environment, surrounded by books and supplies and various corners and nooks into which I can settle and work my craft, smart and friendly people around who are both few in number and fully understanding of my need for solitude, but also interesting and enlightening when I do get into conversation with them, and two weeks to pursue this project in any way I please. Oh, and I am right now looking at a different tectonic plate than the one on which I stand. Seriously, it’s right there. Also, deer aren’t afraid of us, and they hang out and eat apples. Oh oh oh and there’s a hawk that flies around my part of the house, sometimes so close I can look into its eye.

And I’m lost. Whereas I had begun this retreat with a lot of enthusiasm for this project and eagerness to get it going, I’m now overwhelmed by the breadth of the topic, unsure of the degree of depth that is most appropriate, ignorant of the best practices for this kind of work, anxious about the unwise use of my time, and generally feeling beneath the task. I even think I broke the electric kettle in the kitchen.

I am being treated to more privilege than billions of people will ever experience, and here I am, angsty. I hope I at least get credit for recognizing the absurdity of my own hangups.

I know there is no right way to go about this. That’s really the point of this retreat, to give writers the space and time to take things at a pace and within a structure that suits the writers themselves. I’m so accustomed to stop-and-start times, specific formats and styles for particular written products, and an established approval process, that this freedom, this liberation, is bewildering.

But now that I think about it, I suspect that what’s really going on is very similar to the distinction I make between performing as an actor on stage in a play and giving a presentation on a real-world topic for my job. There is too much of me riding on it.

Let’s begin with the theatre/work-presentation distinction. Upon learning of my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis, many people who know me from my theatre life are in disbelief. How can I feel anti-social, afraid of human interaction, uncomfortable in crowds, and oversensitive to stimulation and also thrive on stage? It’s a perfectly reasonable question (though I bristle at the skepticism of my diagnosis that it implies), and one that took some time to for me to understand myself.

When I’m performing a role in a play, there is no question as to what I will talk about. My words are predetermined, and not just for what I will say, but when I will say it. The play will also have been blocked, meaning that where I am in space will also have been set and rehearsed well in advance. Through the rehearsal process, it will be determined how I will say all these words, how I will conduct myself physically, and even how I will imagine my character to have reached those various decisions. There is always room for change, iteration, adjustment, and depending on the production, sometimes even improvisation, but the structure is always there, and it is firm. Most importantly, I am not me. I am someone else. Not literally, of course, but there are sufficient layers between me and the audience (and even between me and my fellow actors on stage) that the excruciating discomforts associated with my autism are, if not wholly eliminated, sufficiently dampened. The role is a mask.

But take me out of the world of the performing arts, and into the world of speaking on behalf of an organization or a cause, and those layers are stripped away. If I am, for example, expected to give a talk about communications work, I know I will be utterly exposed. Not only can I not play a character (try as I might), but the “real me” must also lay bare whatever degree of expertise I have, or claim to have. “I’m Paul, and this is what I know.” My words, my physical comportment, my inflection, my gestures, and even the very contents of my brain are open to public scrutiny. There is no mask. That is unbearable.

So let’s apply this basic idea to writing, and, in a way, the dynamics flip, with two different areas of my life producing opposite results. As I mentioned, my writing for work is routinized with established formats and processes. As with a public presentation, I am the one producing the words, but I am rarely writing them in my own voice. In a very real sense, when I write press releases, emails to supporters, and newsletters, I am writing “in the character” of the institution I work for. I’m playing the role of my organization. My job title and the institution’s logo, they are my masks. Those layers are sufficient, once I am settled into the given employers’ needs, processes, and, importantly, voice.

Here at the refuge, I am attempting to write a long form magazine article on a topic of great interest to me. But I am not writing or “reporting” it in the voice of my institution, nor in the voice of the publication in which it will appear, as one might do with a straight-news newspaper article. With this project, the speaker is me. The facts I present, the sources I’ve chosen to mine, the people whose perspectives I’ve sought, the conversations and quotations I’ve initiated, the things I’ve chosen to omit or gloss over, and the conclusions reached, they’re all me, in my own voice. Whatever is wrong or unsatisfying or weak about the final product is a reflection of me, with no mask to hide behind. That, I tell you, is dizzying.

Now, one might then wonder, hey Paul, you seem to have no trouble opening every one of your precious little wounds and examining them in detail on this little blog of yours. Too true! And I’m not certain why this kind of writing that I’m doing right now doesn’t make me feel just as vulnerable. But I suspect it’s because I’m rather sure of the topic at hand, that being myself. Even if I’m completely deluded about what is going on within my own tempestuous morass of a psyche, there’s no one else in existence who can claim a greater level of expertise or comparably intimate knowledge. There is relative safety in that. Whatever the reason, exposing my inner thoughts and struggles is far less perilous than claiming the authority to expound upon an external subject.

So perhaps a healthy approach, and even a more fruitful approach, is to lean into my own inclinations and preferences, and tackle the subject of this project through my own lens. In other words, rather than present facts and an argument impersonally, maybe I can chronicle my own experience of the subject as I absorb it, and recount for the reader my intellectual journey to better understand it. The cliché is that one ought to “write what you know,” but I really don’t know much. So maybe the best thing to do is to write what I am coming to know – of the project’s subject and of what it comes to mean to me personally.

Okay, maybe I can do that. Take it easy now, oh knotty neck muscles of mine. Let’s get a few deep breaths in. Let’s take in the vast scene of nature around us and indulge in its otherworldly peacefulness. Let’s let the brain soak up what it’s learning and let the new information bounce off the thoughts and values that are already there.

And then, let’s write.

(And pay for the kettle I broke.)


Why yes, you certainly can support my work through Patreon.



A Sore Thumb, a New Face

I’m on a plane to California, about to spend two weeks at a refuge for writers, a retreat for which I was nominated by a colleague who had himself been a resident as part of a fellowship for writers in the freethought community.

Being selected for this wasn’t just a surprise. Certainly, I went through all the thoughts of “what an honor” and “what a wonderful opportunity,” and they are very sincerely felt. But my dominant attitude is, “Oh, dear, they’ve made a mistake.”

Wait, this isn’t the usual imposter-syndrome lament. Let me go at this sort of orthogonally. As I was preparing for this excursion, I figured I ought to get at least a couple of new shirts or pairs of pants, since so many of the nicer items in my already spare wardrobe are looking worse for wear. As poked around the men’s section, haplessly, I found myself fixed to an idea of what a “real writer” is supposed to look and dress like. It wasn’t a fully conscious thought, just something I became gradually aware that I was aiming for as I shopped. Despite the anxiety this caused me, whatever that writerly image is or was, I’m fairly certain I did not achieve it. I’ll come back to this is a bit.

This retreat will take place in what appears to be a big, gorgeous house in a ridiculously picturesque area of Southern California, overlooking a fault line I think, and yes, the weather is supposed to be heavenly while I’m there. Apart from a couple of formal meet-and-greet meals held by the proprietors, writers are otherwise left to themselves to work on whatever it is they’re working on. When not writing or sleeping, we’re encouraged to take advantage of the local restaurants, outdoor activities, and I think there’s even a tennis court.

I’ll be in residence with two other writers, selected, I assume, through different means, since my spot is specific to those writing about freethought and secularism. These two writers, my soon-to-be housemates, are very accomplished, particularly for their ages, as I suspect they are both a good decade younger than me, though that’s just a guess. One is an award-winning novelist, the other a journalist with bylines at prestigious outlets and publications. Me? I’ve written a whole lot of press releases and email newsletters. I have a personal blog that more or less no one reads. I have a blog for work where I round up news stories and make dumb jokes. That’s…kind of it. And I’m gonna be 40 soon! I mean, I also now host a podcast that is listened to by a few thousand people, but I was selected for this retreat well before that got started. So what am I doing here, on this plane, heading for this gorgeous place and joining these amazing people?

I’m not seeking validation. I mean, I usually am, but not here, not for this. I actually do think I’m a pretty good writer, so my discomfort and foreboding aren’t due doubts about my skills. I suck at many, many things — but I’m fairly sure I can write. 

But I also know I don’t have the resume, the credentials. For the vast majority of my public writing, there are several layers separating me from the material. I am writing in the voice of an institution, not my own. I am rarely writing in the first person, or from my own personal perspective at all, but from the point of view of an organization or one of its leaders. Even were I to grant that my work was uncommonly exemplary, it wouldn’t even begin to approach the prestige or cultural significance of what my fellow residents have achieved with their work. My predecessor for this fellowship who nominated me to succeed him is also incredibly accomplished. Holding a similar position to mine in his own organization, he has been a well known and highly respected leader, not just in secularism, but in political advocacy in general. He’s written books, academic articles, and has had a leading role in the advancement of the cause for which he fights. He’s not only qualified to be at a writers’ retreat like this, he’s overqualified and overdue for even greater honors.

Oh but hey, I’m kinda funny on Twitter!

Okay, well, they knew all of this when I was nominated and selected. And they didn’t hedge their invitation with anything like, “Well, you don’t quite have the pedigree we normally look for in our residents, but your friend seemed to think you might be worth a shot.” They were as warm and welcoming and excited about my arrival as they would be for anyone else. (Or at least they made it seem so, which is almost the same thing. As a parent, I know all too well the emotional and psychological cost of feigning enthusiasm.)

Remember the clothes shopping? Half-consciously, I was focused on looking the part of what I think they think a real writer is supposed to be. I didn’t want them to think of me as a weird outlier, an exception to their usual standards. Just as I have always done as an unknowing-autistic for all of my life, I was aiming to pass.

In attending this retreat, I am entering a world that is both aspirational and alien to me. I have always wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, a thinker, a creator. I’ve been on the cold street, looking in through the window at that society of the humanities, the creative class, the intellectuals, feeling simultaneously compelled to become one of them and certain that I could never, ever truly belong. So I never stood close enough to that window to fog up the glass. Someone might have noticed me.

In my mind, this is a world of people with deep, varied, and rich life experiences, who have achieved greatness in their fields, who have been intellectually and creatively ahead of the curve since toddlerhood. And now, they write thinkpieces and longform articles and nonfiction books and novels and poetry, and are rewarded with respect, admiration, income (I assume), a place in a network of brilliant and thoughtful people seeking to learn from and collaborate with each other, invitations to speaking engagements, conference panels, NPR interviews, generous fellowships, and, of course, retreats.

The stereotype in my head gets richer still! They love nature and trekking about in it. They also love the city and its unrelenting stimuli. They love fancy and eclectic restaurants. They also love — really love — dinner parties, where they drink and laugh and eat exotic food and swap stories of their adventures and the many, many books they’ve read.

I’m not one of these people (whom I’ve mostly made up). I don’t like dinner parties or almost any kind of party. I don’t like exotic or unfamiliar food. Hell, I don’t even really like eating at all. I wear silly T-shirts and ratty jeans, I read very slowly, and I am averse to being outdoors, what with the sun and bodies of water and insects and all that. My education has been modest and not culturally rich, and both my acting and nonprofit communications careers have been fairly static, owing in large part to my own reticence to do what is necessary to advance socially and professionally. I’m an awkward little man with Asperger’s and a lifetime of experience considering myself broken, failed from birth, only achieving what I have by dint of happenstance and people making exceptions for me. I am the sore thumb. Humiliation is my default expectation.

But here I am on this damn plane. Here I go, nonetheless, onto alien soil. My best hope would be to go there, to *be* there, as me, unapologetically, and perfectly content with myself as I am, without crossing the line into being ungenerous or unaccomodating. If I am truly not “like them,” then so be it. They asked me to come, and this is who they get. It’s not like I’m going to do any damage or hurt anyone’s feelings. I just might not be the usual thing, or what they expect.

I want it to be okay to jut out a bit, not like a sore thumb, but simply to stand out as a new face. The face of someone who thinks and acts a little differently and has something meaningful to offer. Someone who, if he’s not liked or appreciated, is okay with that too.

I suppose I’ll find out if this is possible, at least to some meaningful degree. I’ll enter that world in a few hours. I guess we’ll see what things look like at the other side of a fortnight.

If you would like to validate me by monetary means, you could always support my work through Patreon.

One Man’s Blogspam is Another Man’s Engaging Content

The truth is, folks, I don’t maintain a blog purely for the joy of doing so. I do love to write, but one doesn’t blog unless one wishes not just to write, but to be read. Even on a somewhat high-profile platform like Patheos, even coming with the cred of being the mouthpiece of a major secularist organization, and of having been the substitute-Friendly-Atheist a few times, this little blog simply isn’t making much of a dent in terms of readership.

I’d like very much for that to change. There are surely lots of things I could do to make some progress: I could post more often, I could fashion my posts to be more in line with click-bait principles, I could write about things that interest a broader range of people, or conversely, write about things that drive a small number of passionate people nuts. But the fact of the matter is that I want to write what interests me, frame and express it in a way that reflects who I am, and do so as often as I am inspired to do so. Perhaps that mean I am an entitled and privileged. Go ahead, you can say it. You wouldn’t be the first.

Given all this, the best way I have found to generate at least temporary spurts of traffic is to get my material posted to sites like Reddit or into active communities on Google+. But very often, these communities and subreddits and whatnot live by an ironclad “no blogspam” rule, which means simply that they don’t want the authors of written content linking to their own stuff.

Which I get! I’m sure, given the opportunity, thousands of “bloggers” would clog up whatever feeds they could with their own material. That’s spammy, and online communities are right to police this kind of thing.

But here’s the situation I run into: I have a piece I’ve written and that I’m proud of, and I think it will resonate with a particular audience. I can go find the appropriate subreddit or Google+ community or what have you, and share it with them. But then I get a message from a moderator telling me that I’ve violated their rules against blogspam, that the post is being removed, and that I now risk being banned.

Now, if I made a habit of plastering my material willy nilly into these communities, they’d have me dead to rights. But is there no middle ground between never promoting your own material and spam? Shouldn’t there be some allowance for an author deciding that a particular piece is relevant to a particular group and sharing it? It can always be ignored or downvoted if the community in question doesn’t like it or isn’t interested. Being immediately policed seems to me to be overkill.

Again, I appreciate and share the desire to keep unscrupulous self-promoters from sullying online communities. I have to think that when one of those people come around, though, it’s pretty obvious, and that the occasional sharing of one’s own material, when relevant, is equally obvious. But since I don’t have that kind of community moderating responsibility, I could be missing something.

Maybe there’s a better way, a way that allows me to do the work I want to do and earn the attention I think it deserves. Or perhaps that’s the problem. Maybe it already is.

Industry as an Intrinsic End

Alan Jacobs foreswears the Internet of analytics:

Twitter and Tumblr […] have something important in common, which they share with most social media sites: they invite you to measure people’s response to you. For many people this probably means nothing, but for me it has always had an effect. Over the years I developed a sense of how many RTs a tweet was likely to earn, how many reblogs or likes a Tumblr post would receive – and I couldn’t help checking to see if my guesses were right. I never really cared anything about numbers of followers, and for a long time I think I covertly prided myself on that; but eventually I came to understand that I wanted my followers, however many there happened to be, to notice what I was saying and to acknowledge my wit or wisdom in the currency of RTs and faves. And over time I believe that desire shaped what I said, what I thought – what I noticed. I think it dulled my brain. I think it distracted me from the pursuit of more difficult, challenging ideas that don’t readily fit into the molds of social media.

His decision:

I won’t be writing less, nor will I be producing fewer words online, I suspect. But they’ll come in larger chunks, and I’ll either be getting paid for it or working out less coherent and fully-formed thoughts right here on my own turf, where Google Analytics isn’t installed, where comments are not enabled, and where, therefore, I don’t have the first idea how many people are reading this or whether they like it.

In the same space of time, I read this piece from before Christmas by Arthur C. Brooks, in which he advises against excessive “attachment” to the rewards of our labors. He’s talking about assigning too much emotional and existential value to money and material goods, but presume the inference is to something like “pageviews” instead of money, to get where this is going:

Our daily lives often consist of a dogged pursuit of practicality and usefulness at all costs. This is a sure path toward the attachment we need to avoid. … Countless studies show that doing things for their own sake — as opposed to things that are merely a means to achieve something else — makes for mindfulness and joy.

So if not for the eyeballs, if not for the attention, why bother? That’s my usual question. Brooks says:

This manifestly does not mean we should abandon productive impulses. On the contrary, it means we need to treat our industry as an intrinsic end. This is the point made famously in the Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita, where work is sanctified as inherently valuable, not as a path to a payoff.

So my best bet in order to mitigate my chronic and recurring ennui over blogging and podcasting and other creative endeavors would be to stop trying to find out whether anyone’s paying attention. Ignore Google Analytics, ignore my favs and RTs on Twitter, disregard shares and likes on Facebook, etc. Just do the work because I want to.

I frankly don’t know if I’m capable. But I should think about it.

Montaigne: A Skeptic and Secular Humanist Before It Was Cool

Montaigne is a huge influence on my writing, as he exemplifies what I love best about the form of the “essay,” where certitude about a subject is put aside for self-reflecting deliberation. He’s also the prime influence of Andrew Sullivan, who also inspires my writing, and Sullivan is currently hosting at his site a book club series on a truly wonderful book: Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne.

Of particular interest to folks around these parts of the blogosphere is how Sullivan and his readers keep returning to Montaigne’s apparent lack of religious feeling and his general skepticism. Indeed, it is often said in these posts in one form or another that skepticism was Montaigne’s key trait, the thing that differentiated him from the rest of his contemporaries, and fueled the very creation of what we now know as an essay.

Here’s how Sullivan puts it in the introductory post, with my emphasis:

[Montaigne’s is] a philosophy rooted in the most familiar form of empiricism. It is resolutely down to earth. …  This is a non-philosophical philosophy. It is a theory of practical life as told through one man’s random and yet not-so-random reflections on his time on earth. Andit is shot through with doubt. Even the maxims that Montaigne embraces for living are edged with those critical elements of Montaigne’s thought that say “as far as I know” or “it seems to me” or “maybe I’m wrong”.

Now read on as what we began talking about as Montaigne’s skepticism begins to sound like something else:

[H]ere’s what we do know. We are fallible beings; we have nothing but provisional knowledge; and we will die. And this is enough. This does not mean we should give up inquiring or seeking to understand. Skepticism is not nihilism. It doesn’t posit that there is no truth; it merely notes that if truth exists, it is inherently beyond our ultimate grasp. And accepting those limits is the first step toward sanity, toward getting on with life. This is what I mean by conservatism.

And this is what I mean by secular humanism. (Not necessarily that truth is “beyond our grasp” — I would modify that to an acceptance that there may be things our meat-based cranial wetware can never quite process, but not that we know this to be so.) Life is finite, but in the time we are conscious and mobile we have an opportunity to investigate and make meaning as we will. To do that, you need to come to terms with mortality and, if not the non-existence, then at least the inaccessibility, of the supernatural.

For the record, though I have accepted the lack of a supernatural, coming to terms with mortality is a state of being that continues to prove elusive to me.

There’s more. As the conversation at Sullivan’s blog goes on, readers begin to clamor for a discussion that answers not just whether Montaigne was a skeptic, but whether he was an outright atheist. (Indeed, they really want to know if he qualifies as a “New Atheist,” which I think is a pointless question.) To try for an answer, they go to the authority, Sarah Bakewell:

I am an atheist myself and therefore quite inclined to look for an atheist Montaigne. On the other hand, I came to feel that this would be an over-simplification.

By temperament and general world-view, Montaigne was extremely skeptical, and this inclined him towards atheism. But he was skeptical about all claims to a single truth about the world – both religious claims and what we might now call scientific ones. … I think I’d sum up my impression of Montaigne by saying that he was not necessarily an atheist … but that he was profoundly, enthusiastically, gloriously secular.

That sounds right to me. Ascribing atheism to historical figures for whom such an outlook would have been extremely alienating I think is largely a fool’s errand. We do it with Jefferson, Lincoln, Shakespeare, and on and on, and while any or all of these individuals were certainly skeptical, contemplative, analytical, and prone to challenge outlandish notions, they lived in times when out-and-out atheism would have been quite a leap, and even if they were privately entirely atheistic, we’d likely never know. So too, I think, with Montaigne.

I went back into my notes from my first reading of the Essays to unearth some of his better skeptical passages, and I tell you my cup runneth over. Take away some of the more archaic structure of the 16th century prose, and you could read these passages in Skeptical Inquirer:

‘Tis very probable, that visions, enchantments, and all extraordinary effects of that nature, derive their credit principally from the power of imagination, working and making its chiefest impression upon vulgar and more easy souls, whose belief is so strangely imposed upon, as to think they see what they do not see.

Or how about this for a way to describe the latest flimflam artist or psychic:

These ape’s tricks are the main of the effect, our fancy being so far seduced as to believe that such strange means must, of necessity, proceed from some abstruse science: their very inanity gives them weight and reverence.

That’s awesome.

He also leaves clear room for the existence of God, even if he finds such a being wholly out of his ability to comprehend. But he does so seemingly as a hedge:

[R]eason has instructed me, that thus resolutely to condemn anything for false and impossible, is arrogantly and impiously to circumscribe and limit the will of God, and the power of our mother nature, within the bounds of my own capacity, than which no folly can be greater. If we give the names of monster and miracle to everything our reason cannot comprehend, how many are continually presented before our eyes?

Some say God is responsible for this or that event, but Montaigne says that making such claims limits the potential power of said God, and leaves no room for actual discovery or investigation.

Thence it comes to pass, that nothing is so firmly believed, as what we least know; nor any people so confident, as those who entertain us with fables, such as your alchemists, judicial astrologers, fortune-tellers, and physicians.

“God” is such a big idea, so open to interpretation and imagination, with so many ways it could be presumed to manifest, that it makes sense that Montaigne doesn’t tell us that such a thing absolutely doesn’t exist. But his experience in the real world allowed him to be keenly and unabashedly skeptical. And as he does not seem to have lived his life nor written his works in any explicitly Christian mode, we can also say, as Bakewell does, that he was indeed “profoundly, enthusiastically, gloriously secular.”

Spark! A Telekinetic Girl Superhero is Pitched for a Brilliant New Comic


A few weeks ago I came upon perhaps my favorite website ever, Little Girls Are Better At Designing Superheroes Than You, where Alex Law and others are sent photos of real little girls in their own, self-designed superhero costumes, and illustrate them in full comic book glory. It’s one of those “I’m glad to be alive to see this” kind of websites, delightful for a number of wonderful reasons, like its rejection of girls’ stereotypes, its celebration of creativity and imaginativeness, and the pure joy that permeates each entry.

Now Law is taking another step in a similar direction, pitching a new superhero comic book whose central hero is just such a young girl, outfitted with a persona of her own design, but with actual super powers: Spark– who can assemble and control machines with her mind.


Law and her collaborator Ted Anderson (who’s done some of the latter-day My Little Pony comics) have posted a 15-page “preview” of the com
on the Little Girls Tumblr, and it just looks great. The cast of heroes is colorful and original, the art is gorgeous, and the character’s relationships are already dynamic and full of dramatic potential. And Spark’s parents are pretty great, too.

I don’t know what the status of the pitch is, whether it’s definitely destined for publication in some form, but I hope so. If it is, I’ll be buying it, and reading it to my little boy and little girl.

Humanism in Software. Stop Laughing.

Image by Shutterstock.
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.