I want to have an honest conversation about evangelism. Here I mean evangelism not in the religious sense, but more in the sense of being an enthusiastic advocate. I have never considered myself as a particularly evangelical person. I like to let people make their own decisions and just try to make people aware of opportunities and pitfalls. However, I have to admit that in the past I have been evangelical.
That's not to say that being evangelical is always bad. There are scores of things that deserve to be evangelised. Things such as gender equality, human rights, compassion, and a sense of urgency around not fucking up our planet, just to name a few. I engaged in some portential evantaglism the other day.
In non-religious contexts, the word evangelism is often used to refer to someone promoting things we dislike. This means that it can be very hard not to "evangelise" for things one believes in. This is especially true on an omni-directional medium like the public internet. Out here, I don't have a say in whom I am addressing.
While I want to stay away from discussing religion in this blog post, there is one quote I want to share:
"Sir," [he said,] addressing the preacher, "if I believed what you and the church of God say that you believe, even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it, if need be, on hands and knees and think it worthwhile living, just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that!"
Ravenhill, Leonard (1987). Why Revival Tarries. Bethany House Publisher. pp. 19.
I've thought a lot about that quote over the past few months. The things I'm about to discuss are not as grandiose as that, but it's a very illuminating thought experiment. It exemplifies why I sometimes evangelise without meaning to: I believe in stuff I talk about, or, well, believed, but we'll get to that.
Why I evangelise
I'm hoping for this blog post to be a two-way street. I am attempting to go through some honest introspection about my own tendencies, and I hope you will too, dear reader. By nature of this medium, it is impossible for me to address you in particular. However, there are patterns of behaviour I wish to address. So know that when in this blog post I address you, I am not speaking to you as a person but to a hypothetical person who exhibits these behaviours. I will leave it up to you to examine how these patterns may or may not apply to you.
We already started out by describing one reason for my evangelism: they are things I believe in and the recipient of my message may not. But there is another cause: someone antagonising me.
To explain, let me paint you a picture. You have a somewhat positive opinion of phenomenon A. Now you are talking with someone who is convinced that A is terrible. They claim it is the scourge of humanity, a blight upon the world, nay the potential end of civilisation itself!
Every time A is brought up, your interlocutor makes outlandish claims about the dangers of A, which you do not believe are true. So you push back against these claims. Your interlocutor, in turn, pushes back against you. Not wanting to let the false claims stand, you continue arguing. As the debate continues and you have to keep reaching for more positive aspects of A to avoid being steamrollered by this other person. After a long and intense debate, you realise that you've been passionately defending a position that you don't even believe in!
I think this description is a big reason why I evangelise. It shows how the "controversial" topics I enjoy talking about become evangelism. Note the quotes round controversial, because sometimes these things shouldn't be. This is why I sometimes try to avoid discussing my views on the medical establishment. The medical establishment is far from perfect. I'm not denying that. But trying to raise and examine the legitimate criticisms risks your being lumped in with the anti-vaxxers. There is a blog post about this subject in the works so I won't talk about it too much here, but I hope you can see where I'm coming from. I know I am part of this dynamic, but it is enfuriating.
Before I wrap up my analysis on evangelism, I want to talk about two topics that have sparked this blog post: AI and Rust.
There was a time when I was genuinely excited about the possibilities of AI, even if I was apprehensive about it. I have always regarded AI, as overloaded as that term has become, as a scientific tool with enormous potential, akin to correlation. (In fact, AI is just a very complicated version of correlation, but I won't take you down that rabbit hole today). While it can teach us incredible things, it has to be regarded with care and at least some scepticism, and has a tremendous potential for misdirection. Just as any respectable scientist must regard their results with suspicion and scrutiny, so too should we regard the insights that AI gives us. We must seek to verify its claims as rigorously as possible. This rigour has been, to this day, almost wholly absent in my experience.
So, ever since I've been part of AI, I've tried to pump the breaks on the AI hype train. I tried to be a voice of caution in the room. However, thinking of AI as another tool in a toolbox, one that we've been adding to over centuries, doesn't get you the seed funding you need. I am sick of the dichotomy of having to make promises I'm sceptical about being able to make or risk having my opinion discarded.
I still maintain AI has a much greater potential than is being utilised right now. You might scoff at that given how pervasive it is. But the potential of this technology is being overlooked by many who are more interested in using it for advertising, enabling online scams and undermining democracy. Why they choose those goals instead of using AI for things that play into the strengths of AI is beyond me. Some AI proponents would prioritise creating an AI to replace human cleaners over an AI that can adjust medication regimens based on numerous comorbidities. That. is. insane.
Since ChatGPT has entered the fray, I more or less consider this a lost battle for the time being. The genie is out of the bottle; the ship has sailed, and it's not coming back for quite a while. Hallucinations by ChatGPT can be so subtle even experts can read over them. This is just so dangerous, and I'm feeling like I'm shouting into the void about this. I'm sick of being painted as a doomsayer and a detractor. Fine, then, enjoy your scummy adds and your hallucinations.
I have loved Rust for a while now. In some places, I've had a reputation as "the person who likes Rust too much". Funnily enough, I care very little about some of Rust's "main selling points", like concurrency. The culture around how software in Rust is written differs from other languages. CLIs in Go, Python and Rust each have a unique feel to them, and I prefer the ergonomics of Rust based programs. Rust has a culture of very good and robust tooling and documentation that I've loved working in. Sure, it's young and complex sometimes, but I'm fine with that.
However, this love and excitement has been dragged down by the haters trying to put words in my mouth about how production ready the ecosystem is. I'm tired of arguing about whether Rust is faster than Go or Python, or if the time otherwise spent debugging justifies the extra mental effort. It doesn't matter to me anymore. It feels like every conversation I've had with a non-Rust user about Rust ended on some variation of "borrow checker hard". I am done having that conversation.
Unfortunately, many promising aspects of Rust, such as scientific computing, have, thus far, failed to materialise. Perhaps it still may, and I still hope it does, but I find myself less and less enthusiastic about these possibilities.
People often joke about how Rust proponents suggest rewriting every application in Rust, but I also found the other side to be the same. I can barely mention that I like what Rust has to offer without detractors responding, "oh, here comes the Rust Evangalism Strike Force again", instead of letting me explore some cool alternatives. Not all software has to be production ready or even useful.
Not only that, but one thing that always attracted me to Rust was the community. When I started getting into Rust, the community felt cosy and welcoming to me. Despite its complexity, I found Rust and people who use it to be warm, welcoming, and much more understanding of beginners than, for example, C developers.
However, feeling like I have to defend it every time I discuss it has led me to no longer discussing it. The problems and drama that have come out of the Rust foundation and other prominent members also don't help maintain my enthusiasm for it. I remember being worried when the moderation team resigned. Worrying that might be a sign of things to come. So far, that has proven to be true, and I am very sad about that.
The allegations of systemic racism in the Rust community have also exhausted me. To be clear, I am not in any way bemoaning the people who speak up about this; I have not witnessed it myself, but that does not by any means mean it is not there, and I will always support people speaking up about experiences like this. That doesn't detract from the fact that it is very draining to have to engage with it (yeah I know white tears, this is my blog, gimme a break). I don't know what to do about this, and it just makes me sad.
Bringing it all together
So, when reflecting on my approach to evangelism, I believe it is only fair to consider the situations in which I am evangelised as well. Because look, I get it. It fucking sucks being evangelised to. Folks who know me will be familiar with my rant about anyone who suggests meditation or yoga in response to my disabilities or mental health issues. And that's putting aside being evangelised to about the "delusions" I have for being queer or a socialist.
I think the frustrations with this evangelism come from a couple of places. First, if the suggestion is fairly obvious, it was likely the first or second idea I came to, but discarded down the line. Even if it is meant in supportive ways, this feels very demeaning. It feels a bit like suggesting to "take a deep breath of air" to someone who is drowning.
That last metaphor also surmises the second reason being evangelised to is so damn infuriating. It's the feeling that suggestions like that trivialise the problem. Your life would be so much easier if you just… Just believed in God. Just had some confidence. Just maintained a healthy sleep schedule. Just ate healthier. Just got enough exercise. Just eliminated distractions. Just, just, just… The same answer always comes up with me in these situations. "Do you really think that I wouldn't have done that already if it were that easy?"
I think the heart of this evangelism debate lies in this last idea. The feeling that being evangelised to trivialises the problem and, in fact, may exacerbate it. Because now, besides dealing with whatever problem you have, you now also have to spend time and energy having the same damn conversations over and over again about why the proposed situation doesn't work for your case.
But here's the kicker. Having a healthy sleep schedule, eating nutritious food, getting enough exercise and meditating? They have all worked. Not as much as some have claimed but they have worked. They have all been instrumental in getting both my disabilities and mental health under control. But that is the last idea I wanted to entertain while I was in the middle of it. Even though they were all true, I didn't want to believe them.
This brings up another point that is important to consider when thinking of evangelism: timing. To illustrate what I mean, let me tell you two anecdotes. The first is a very unfunny joke:
Q: "How do you know if someone is a vegan?"
A: "Oh don't worry, they'll tell you"
Now I don't know about you, but I've never met a vegan like this (and yes, I have met plenty of vegans, they're lovely people). The humour lies in the stereotype that vegans will bring up their veganism and try to convert you, even in wildly inappropriate situations.
Here is the other anecdote. A while back my city painted a park bench in the pride colours. I think that's neat, but don't care all that much. However, some time after the bench had been painted, someone had scribbled "God loves us all" or something to that effect in chalk on the ground around the bench. Now it's possible that this was meant as an encouraging sentence meaning "god loves us all, no matter our creed or sexuality". However, I hope you can see, given the history of how that sentence and sentiment has been used against us, how that did not sit well with me. It is acceptable to proclaim that your god supports the queers, but if you want to do it, consider how, when and where your message of support might land.
So, I think that the solution to this conundrum lies with both the evangeliser and the evangelisee. Honestly, this advice is going to come down to act in good faith, and expect the other to do the same. Inspect the things you want to advocate for, how they might be received, and whether this is an appropriate time to do so. If someone is trying to convince you of something, consider giving them a chance and assuming they have the best intentions. (if you can, always safety first)
Some final housekeeping
Perhaps you've been able to tell from the paragraphs above, but I'm a little burnt out on these subjects. There is just too much bad faith going around on whatever side you fall for me to keep enjoying discussions about them. Since I started my new job at Deltares, I've been in a much less charged environment and I think that has improved my well being. So I'm taking a step back from AI, data science, Rust and (hopefully) evangelism. As I've outlined above, it's a little more tricky than just saying "I won't evangelise anymore", but I'm going to try. That doesn't mean I'm promising to cut ties with them completely or never mention them again, but I'll be prioritising other things for now. I just don't want them to be part of my identity anymore like they have been so far. I don't know, maybe I'll go do some front end stuff for a while where the stakes aren't so high.
After this blog post goes up, I'll be making updates to the website, starting with the name and URL. For posterity's sake: this website used to be called
howtoai.fyi. However, I want to take some time away from AI and the intense polarisation. So I'm rebranding (yes, again, I know). Orignally I wanted to wait posting this article until all of the changes were done but that is proving to be a longer process than anticpiated, and I feel like I've been sitting on this topic for far too long already. So I'll be rolling out the new things like names, logos possibly designs incrementally, though the old links should still continue to work. The new "brand", so to speak, even though I hate using that term, will be called
slowcoder.org. It is about focusing on a slower, more deliberate kind of software development. Hopefully, one with less blaming, flame wars or evangelism. Take care y'all.