‘Iacta alea est’

The Python Paradox, Elitism and the Mainstream

Penned on February 5th 2016

The Python Paradox was coined by Paul Graham in the eponymous post of August 2014, which states:

if a company chooses to write its software in a comparatively esoteric language, they’ll be able to hire better programmers, because they’ll attract only those who cared enough to learn it. And for programmers the paradox is even more pronounced: the language to learn, if you want to get a good job, is a language that people don’t learn merely to get a job.

Now, having stated the rule, there will always be those who follow the rule to obtain the benefit in place of those whose behaviour proved the rule; those that love and care enough about programming languages to learn an esoteric language in the first place, absent from commercial interests or promises of financial return.

There is therefore a disconnect, in time, between the point at which these ‘early-adopters’—who technically are just ‘adopters’ because at the point of their adoption there is as yet no trajectory or indication that what they are adopting will be successful enough to have an adoption curve big enough for them to be early—a disconnect between their adoption and that of the early and late majorities, usually called the chasm that a technology has to cross before it becomes mainstream by virtue of wider adoption.

This pattern naturally espouses a meritocratic elitism, those that take the time to learn something before everyone else get to sit at the top of the pyramid as that pyramid grows underneath them. Therefore, meritocratic because it relies on someone having done the work (leaving aside for a moment the opportunity to have done it) and elitist because only those who have done the work are qualified to occupy the privileged position.

In a sense there has to be some measure of elitism in order to hit the mainstream in the first place. Human nature being what it is, needs an initial desire, on the part of the early adopters, in order to trigger the mimetic desire of the majority.

On another level the early adopters are thus because they alone are qualified to make the judgement of what is good, the majority, without the faculty—or desire to exercise that faculty—rely on the taste-makers to do the thinking for them so that they can fall in behind, like sheep following a shepherd.

(Note: This is why you should often distrust those things that become popular, because this popularity does not necessarily rest on innate qualities but on the ability, external to the subject, to ‘market’ it effectively. This of course does not preclude popularity that exists precisely because the thing is good.)

And this is precisely why being an early adopter is valuable, because they did not have a crowd of sheep bleating to influence them down this particular path, they thought and acted for themselves, for better or for worse.

Friday 29th January 2021.