The Emacs Lock-In Effect or the Emacs Sunk Cost Fallacy

Show Sidebar

Update 2021-07-24: Reply/comment by Deep-Fox6860

This is an extended comment from this original reddit thread where Deep-Fox6860 wrote:

Hi all, wanted to raise a discussion about a thought I had.
As a moderately experienced Emacs user (8 years), I've invested a LOT of time into learning and configuring Emacs (including email, RSS, browsing, calculator, etc). I can say that it does what I want and how I want it. I won't go into the fact that it's a never ending process because tastes and interests (+ jobs) change.
I would reckon that we all stick to Emacs, at least in some small part due to the sunk cost fallcy. Basically it means a price already paid in the past on our actions keep influencing our decisions in the future even though it shouldn't. From the link:
»People demonstrate "a greater tendency to continue an endeavor once an investment in money, effort, or time has been made."«
The question of whether the time invested in Emacs is worth the productivity gained is discussed here all the time. My view is to justify it by a combination of the following: believing in FOSS, (related to that) text centricity, and it could be viewed as a mental hobby, a creative outlet.
However I might admit that I exhibit some sunk cost fallacy thinking. It becomes clear when I realize that I WON'T recommend Emacs to new users - unless they are going to invest large amounts of time learning it, like I did.
What are your thoughts on this? would you admit that there's some irrational thinking in choosing Emacs over some other tools, e.g. the longer you use it the more you're convinced it's the best even though new tools are keep being developed.

I think I understand what you're writing here and to some extend, I do agree.

However, I would like to challenge the point of view to this good philosophical question on tool choice with this article.

Property of Flexible Tools in General

Yes, Emacs is a platform that requires investment in time and knowledge to be mastered. But what you get is a system that is as flexible as possible to deal with present and future changes of requirements.

I can not think of a different situation where you are using a flexible tool that you adapt to your situation which does not come with the sunk cost fallacy or some kind of lock-in effect, how I call it in my PIM lectures.

Openess and the Right Tool Choice Process

Another aspect is: everything within Emacs and org mode as a frequent use-case is open. So you're free to switch to a different tool. The positive side is that your problem is not "getting all of your data out of Emacs". Your problem will be to find a more suitable tool which lets you import all this accumulated data or which is able to drive your processes and workflows.

In other words: In any situation where somebody finds a tool which fits to her/his set of requirements, working with it for a long time, adapting to the requirements step by step, generating data, managing information and knowledge, you will get to a point where switching to a different tool will cause you a high level of effort. This is nothing specific to Emacs in particular. In most cases, you will learn that you can't even get out all of your data any more. And here is where the openness of Emacs shines.

I've written down my proposal on how people should choose their (software) tools. If you followed this principle and your tool suits you well, you don't have to change to a different tool. (And if you do need to switch, following my tool choice process made sure that you are able to switch without data loss.)

Important Long-Term Aspects

My personal opinion on Emacs is that I'll probably never switch to anything different in my life any more. I learned to embrace its flexibility so that I can not think of many situations where Emacs does not provide me the features I need for my personal information management. From this perspective, I do have a perfect lock-in situation which I usually try to avoid as much as possible. This is the single lock-in situation I can think of that is a perfectly good thing to be in.

Another aspect why I do not consider time investment in technology like Emacs is a bad thing: Emacs knowledge is long-term knowledge.

I did learn many things for proprietary tools over the last decades. A large percentage of this effort is now useless, making this past learning effort to a temporary one. Some knowledge got obsolete as fast as the next major release was published.

On the other hand side, whatever I've learned for technologies like Emacs, LaTeX, GNU/Linux, and so forth in the nineties, is still valid and useful to me nowadays. This can not be stressed enough: instead of un-learning and re-learning, I was able to improve and learn new things. This scales much better than any proprietary or temporary knowledge.

Scheuklappen-Effekt (German for "blinkers effect" or "tunnel vision")

In German "Scheuklappen-Effekt" means that you have a narrowed view for some reason.

The difference between "using Emacs for a long time and thinking less of other tools" to the mentioned sunk cost fallacy situation may be that I don't think that I'm using Emacs just because I don't think of alternatives any more. I use it because all in all, it's the best package I can get for now and most probably also for the future.

I'm using many tools outside of Emacs which could be replaced by Emacs-modes/methods right away (email, web browsing, most of file management, ...). However, the openness of Emacs (and Org mode) allows me to work with Emacs and other tools in parallel, interfacing them smoothly so that I don't have much pain with these "borders".

Reply by Deep-Fox6860

With this comment on reddit, Deep-Fox6860 added interesting aspects:

Regarding the openness, I started with org because I was hooked on the idea of having everything as simple text files and I thought I would be able to leave in the future, if I want to. I mean, the exits are well marked and still people choose to stay, it seems.
Regarding the flexibility; what if flexibility is bad? what if you want to minimize flexibility? first, it can reduce cognitive load (like not having to choose what you wear but instead use some system), the software works in a specific way and that's it. Secondly it means we can all swap laptops and we would be able to do our job - similar to how you SSH to a remote machine and VIM is the same. I really don't know why we tend to appreciate flexibility so much. Is it because people are different and we want to impose our personal wants (not exactly needs) on our tools? what if we trust someone to make the best choices in the tool's design?

Here is my answer to that:

Your remark on the openness and ability to move away is really interesting. It seems to be the case that people might tend to stay with tools that makes them more easy to leave. If this assumption is true, it has a certain level of irony, hasn't it?

Flexibility as a bad thing? Of course! In my PIM lecture, I do have a section where I explain that there are (very simplified!) two categories of tools: simple tools and advanced tools. Both categories are perfectly valid for matching requirements. The issue is that people use simple tools when an advanced tool would provide them much more advantages in the long run. Likewise - and this is what you are referring to - when you choose an advanced tool like Emacs can be for requirements where a simple tool would be the better fit, you do have to face issues. The point is that we need to teach people to do deliberate and wise choices for tools before they do face issues because of wrong tool choice or lock-in effects.


Comment via email or via Disqus comments below: