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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - The Right Size for an Editor - Is Emacs an Argument against the Unix Tradition?

Is Emacs an Argument against the Unix Tradition?

The traditional Unix view of the world, however, is so attached to minimalism that it isn't very good at distinguishing between the adhocity-trap problems of vi and the optional complexity of Emacs.

The reason that vi and emacs never caught on among old-school Unix programmers is that they are ugly . This complaint may be “old Unix” speaking, but had it not been for the singular taste of old Unix, “new Unix” would not exist.

-- Doug McIlroy

Attacks on Emacs by vi users — along with attacks on vi by the hard-core old-school types still attached to ed — are episodes in a larger argument, a contest between the exuberance of wealth and the virtues of austerity. This argument correlates with the tension between the old-school and new-school styles of Unix.

The “singular taste of old Unix” was partly a consequence of poverty in exactly the same way that Japanese minimalism was — one learns to do more with less most effectively when having more is not an option. But Emacs (and new-school Unix, reinvented on powerful PCs and fast networks) is a child of wealth.

As, in a different way, was old-school Unix. Bell Labs had enough resources so that Ken was not confined by demands to have a product yesterday. Recall Pascal's apology for writing a long letter because he didn't have enough time to write a short one.

-- Doug McIlroy

Ever since, Unix programmers have maintained a tradition that exalts the elegant over the excessive.

The vastness of Emacs, on the other hand, did not originate under Unix, but was invented by Richard M. Stallman within a very different culture that flourished at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in the 1970s. The MIT AI lab was one of the wealthiest corners of computer-science academia; people learned to treat computing resources as cheap, anticipating an attitude that would not be viable elsewhere until fifteen years later. Stallman was unconcerned with minimalism; he sought the maximum power and scope for his code.

The central tension in the Unix tradition has always been between doing more with less and doing more with more. It recurs in a lot of different contexts, often as a struggle between designs that have the quality of clean minimalism and others that choose expressive range and power even at the cost of high complexity. For both sides, the arguments for or against Emacs have exemplified this tension since it was first ported to Unix in the early 1980s.

Programs that are both as useful and as large as Emacs make Unix programmers uncomfortable precisely because they force us to face the tension. They suggest that old-school Unix minimalism is valuable as a discipline, but that we may have fallen into the error of dogmatism.

There are two ways Unix programmers can address this problem. One is to deny that large is actually large. The other is to develop a way of thinking about complexity that is not a dogma.

Our thought experiment with replacing Lisp and the extension libraries gives us a new perspective on the oft-heard charge that Emacs is bloated because its extension library is so large. Perhaps this is as unfair as charging that /bin/sh is bloated because the collection of all shellscripts on a system is large. Emacs could be considered a virtual machine or framework around a collection of small, sharp tools (the modes) that happen to be written in Lisp.

On this view, the main difference between the shell and Emacs is that Unix distributors don't ship all the world's shellscripts along with the shell. Objecting to Emacs because having a general-purpose language in it feels like bloat is approximately as silly as refusing to use shellscripts because shell has conditionals and for loops. Just as one doesn't have to learn shell to use shellscripts, one doesn't have to learn Lisp to use Emacs. If Emacs has a design problem, it's not so much the Lisp interpreter (the framework part) as the fact that the mode library is an untidy heap of historical accretions — but that's a source of complexity users can ignore, because they won't be affected by what they don't use.

This mode of argument is very comforting. It can be applied to other tool-integration frameworks, such as the (uncomfortably large) GNOME and KDE desktop projects. There is some force to it. And yet, we should be suspicious of any ‘perspective’ that offers to resolve all our doubts so neatly; it might be a rationalization, not a rationale.

Therefore, let's avoid the possibility of falling into denial and accept that Emacs is both useful and large — that it is an argument against Unix minimalism. What does our analysis of the kinds of complexity in it, and the motives for it, suggest beyond that? And is there reason to believe that those lessons generalize?


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The Art of Unix Programming
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