It’s not new

by havoc

If you’ve ever written a technical article, or announced some software you created, chances are someone commented “this isn’t new, it’s just like _____.”

Commenters of the world, slow down. Think about why you would say that. Readers, ask why you would think it, even if you don’t comment.

Do you mean:

  • I have already heard of this, and the article was written only for me, so you wasted your time.”
  • “This is not suitable for publication in an academic journal.”
  • “This could not be patented due to prior art.”
  • “There was another article about this once, so we need never mention it again.”
  • “I don’t know why you wrote this software, the only reason to write software is to demo a novel idea.”

I guess all of those are pretty silly.

So here is my theory. There’s an old, in no way new, cliché question: “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective?”

Most of us software people, at some point, had our self-esteem tied up in the idea of being “smart.” (Try to get over it.)

When we don’t watch ourselves, we would rather be right than effective. And we would rather think about a shiny new idea than learn, practice, refine, and teach a tried-and-true idea.

There are lots of old, endlessly-repeated ideas out there which you are not applying. I’m sure you can find some thousand-year-old ones in the world’s religious and philosophical heritage, unless you have your shit together a lot more than I do. And I’m sure you can find some 5- and 30- and 50-year-old ones related to software, which you should be using, and are not. I know I could.

So when someone writes an article about one of those ideas, or brings together some well-known ideas in a new piece of software, it is not because OH MY GOD I JUST THOUGHT OF THIS. Effective people do not ignore old ideas, nor do they consider “knowing” an idea to be the purpose of ideas. Ideas are for applying, not for cataloging.

Commenters, I’d ask you to work harder. Link to related articles and software; compare and contrast; discuss how you’ve used the idea; add to the discussion.

Here’s the thing: if you click on something on the Internet, and it’s not news to you and you learned nothing, the rest of us don’t need to be told that. We don’t plan to launch an initiative to remove all information you already know from the net. So close the browser tab, and move on.

Thanks for listening to this rant, and I welcome your pointers to prior art.

P.S. I drafted this post some time ago, but was just reminded to post it by a comment on an article about racial (re)segregation. Someone said “this is not new” and cited a previous academic research paper! The comment seems to be gone now (perhaps they came to their senses).

My Twitter account is @havocp.
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