Importance of Context

Today I discovered the 99% Invisible podcast on architecture and design. Their latest podcast, Pruitt–Igoe Myth, tackles the problems associated with the Pruitt–Igoe housing project which was built in the 1950s in St. Louis to provide affordable housing in the St. Louis urban core. Due to a variety of reasons, which the podcast explores, it was torn down in the 1970s. From Wikipedia:

[Pruitt-Igoe’s] 33 buildings were torn down in the mid-1970s, and the project has become an icon of urban renewal and public-policy planning failure.

After listening to the podcast, you come away with the impression that this isn’t a fair assessment. It was built at the beginning of the White Flight, in a part of the city that saw a decrease in population, not the projected 100,000 every decade increase that was forecasted. These and other issues contributed to it turning into the very thing it was trying to prevent: a slum.

The building is considered the example of the failure of Modernist architecture as it applied public house, but if you view it in the context above you can see that there are many external factors that contributed. It’s easy to pick one particular piece of the puzzle and lay the blame on that for the failure. It’s much harder to try and understand the complex relationship around what caused the issue.

Applied to Programming

This type of logical error is present in many (not all, but many) of the conversations about what framework or language to use, what methodology should be adopted, or even where to found your startup. It’s easy to point to one success or failure and declare “X is why Z happened, so if I want to duplicate Z, then I must/must not do X.” This type of cargo-cult behavior is dangerous and should be guarded against.

Yesterday I tweeted this:

Whoa! JustinTV is moving from #rails to #django. I’m telling ya, Python & the web with a little Django mixed in is about to blow up.

It gives the impression of just that type of “Y leads to X” kind of thought process that I’m against. To clarify, I whole-hearted expected what kvogt wrote when explaining why they’re moving to Django. To paraphrase: “it just makes sense right now to be on one platform.” isn’t going to suddenly take the world by storm after moving to Django any quicker than they would have if they had moved their Python backend to Ruby.

That said, I stand behind the final point of that tweet. There are tons of shops using Python and Django that aren’t vocal about their use. Python is powering business logic that runs on servers sending me music, tracking my location, displaying my news, and a whole host of other things. Python can do everything low-level system tasks to scientific and financial analytical calculations to high-level business logic for websites and everything in between.

I can’t help but thing there’s going to be more announcements this year: shops standardizing on one language and that one language being Python.