Post hoc, ergo melius hoc

FashionLady

I’m just doing my bit to propagate this viral Latin phrase.  Roughly translated, it means "Newer, therefore better."  It doesn’t appear to have ever been spoken by a citizen of the empire, but rather by Latin scholars in other periods.  There is an obvious and intentional irony in this, since those using this phrase are appealing to the authority of the archaic, the notion that what is older and more obscure is inherently wiser, as they make the claim.  Ergo, it would seem, the phrase is always used ironically.  (An interesting blog-spanning discussion of this phrase can be found here, here, and here.)  Personally, I like it even better in French: Après cela, donc meilleur que cela, due to a predisposition to believe that everything is always better in French, for instance Poe and Bukowski — not that my French is any better than my Latin, which is undoubtedly why I cleave to this peculiar prejudice.

In technology, however, this motto should perhaps be taken at face value.  The beta release of a product is always better than the alpha, the RTM is better than the beta, and the first service pack is generally the first stable release of the product.  Unlike in previous eras, our concept of technology has the notion of progress built into it.  This makes everyone in technology a bit of a trend follower, trying to keep on top of the newest technologies and trying to anticipate what will succeed (Entity Framework) and what will not (Linq to SQL).  Once one begins speaking of trends in technology, however, we naturally undermine the notion of progress a bit, and instead are led back to Descartes’ observation about fashion:

…[J]usques aux modes de nos habits, la même chose qui nous a plu il y a dix ans, et qui nous plaira peut-être encore avant dix ans, nous semble maintenant extravagante et ridicule.

To some extent this is a valid point.  Isn’t SOA simply a return to the type of functional programming that used to be done for mainframes and dummy terminals?  Just because Silverlight is the hottest newest thing in Microsoft development, is this a reason for everyone to jump onto the Silverlight band wagon?  Must we always chase after the shiniest piece of tinsel?

Of course we must.  Those who have been in this profession much longer than I have, who have made the leap from mainframe programming to object-oriented programming to service-oriented programming, who have gone from client-server to n-tier to distributed programming with WCF, have learned that it is better to take a descriptivist view on the phenomenology of progress rather than a prescriptivist view.  Isn’t this the secret to understanding Darwinian evolution — that it is based on a tautology?  Survival of the fittest determines what exists and what does not; existence, in turn, determines what is fit.  Post hoc, ergo est (et non est hoc).

Perhaps this is the most unfortunate aspect of technological progress.  It robs us of our sense of irony.

4 thoughts on “Post hoc, ergo melius hoc”

  1. As the person whose sometimes intemperate remarks inadvertently sparked the blogging frenzy that you mention, I’d like to make one comment.

    When I independently coined the phrase post hoc, ergo hoc melius, without knowing its provenance, there was no ironic intention. I merely wanted to honor the Ancients and their Latin versions of common logical fallacies, such as post hoc, ergo propter hoc. I saw the irony that you mention only later.

    Thanks for helping to propagate the meme, in any case. I’ve long wanted to see this concept and phrasing become better known in English, even if it transpires that I did not invent it. 😉

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