Some Past and Future Cliches Regarding Linux

By Danny OBrien, 17 December 2002

It is regarded by many as the most serious challenge yet to Microsoft’s domination of global computer culture. But the Linux operating system has also furnished us with many a potent metaphor for the belief structures we use to make sense of this culture. Between them Linus Torvalds (Linux), Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Richard M. Stallman (the Free Software Foundation) provide us with enough gods, prophets, saints and devils to populate a whole new religion. So why are we still using the old ones? More importantly, why are we using religion at all?

“My name is Linus, and I am your God”–Linus Torvalds, Linux Expo, Durham NC, 1998

It’s like the Mahabarat of Code

A gently-rocking Bill Gates, the 20th Century’s Greatest Living Autist, makes a Jesuitical distinction to an unimpressed circuit Judge. The US government goes for his sallow throat, and the whole system of proprietary software begins to collapse. Elsewhere, Richard M. Stallman, recipient of a $240,000 MacArthur Foundation Genius grant, a man so consumed by his Great Work that he once let his own home burn to the ground rather than leave his workstation, pulls the trigger on a Colt .45 ACP Officer’s Model semiautomatic pistol in an Atlanta gun shoot. Hitherto peaceful, he mulls over his options as Eric S. Raymond, respected commentator on Free Software to Corporate America – and also a self-proclaimed “neopagan anarchist wacko” – suggests, jokingly (but “ha, ha, only serious” say the hackers), that this revolution should arm itself.

This is not your everyday computing story. The technological press is not configured to describe these events – or even the possibility of these events. The vocabulary of the Office Integration Pack Group Test and Review cannot hold. So how can the technological ghetto explain to the rest of the world how these fierce emotions are burning?

Well, which religious metaphor would you like to use today?The Martyrdom of Saint Ignucius

Here’s the Authorised Version of the Free Software story. In the Sixties, software was created free, out in the high temples of Western technological academia: MIT, Stanford, enlightened corners of Bell Labs. The Internet was created here, they say, as were the purer artefacts of the programming art: LISP, and C, and UNIX. The future was dedicated to the dissemination of incorruptible knowledge, passed on and improved through the frictionless channels of the fledgling Net.

But then (thunderclap on soundtrack, please) the software hoarding began. Graduates sold out to companies, who retailed their code without sharing the knowledge behind it. Software that, when bought, could not be changed, or fixed, or improved. Frozen forever – imprisoned by the greed of its owner, who did not want his secrets revealed or his product redistributed to the needy.

Horrified but isolated, Richard M. Stallman, at MIT’s AI Lab, made a stand. In 1984, he dedicated his life to preserving the ideals of Free Software: he formed the Free Software Foundation and began building the tools that would one day allow a computer to be used without having to purchase any hoarded, proprietary software at all. Free Software – not just free as in for nothing, but also free as in free to be distributed, modified, improved; fixed by anyone who has a different plan from the blinkered view of the binary-pushing corporations.

Stallman is viewed as a saint by many in the Free Software movement. And, if you ask him, he’ll dress like one. He has a costume. He is called St. Ignucius.

This fact has not passed unnoticed by profile writers. []


1990 was the annus mirabilis for Microsoft. Before that year, the company was a shadow of its present self. Every IBM machine, true, had its MS-DOS software installed, but Microsoft Word and Excel – the future cash-cows – were merely players in a market counterbalanced by Lotus and WordPerfect.

Then, in 1990, Microsoft released Windows 3.0.

It was an unprecedented success. All competition was instantly deposed: master of programming for MS-DOS, Microsoft found that no one was buying DOS software any more. Everyone was buying into Windows and wanted Windows software to run on it. And guess who beat its competition to market, with a slew of pre-written applications?

And from then on, Bill Gates lead his followers into the promised land. He transformed himself overnight from successful businessman to cultural icon: he had ascended to the heaven of 20th century celebrity, and never looked back.

Meanwhile, back in the Wilderness

Stallman slaved away, coding, proselytising – slowly, very slowly. He was dedicated, and had help – he was allowed to work at the MIT campus, although he drew no salary. His flat did indeed burn down (a colleague e-mailed him to let him know): mostly, he lived in the AI lab next to his machine. For seven years, the Free Software Foundation supplied tools to grateful programmers, but no central operating system: the long awaited GNU (Gnu’s Not Unix) system. Wherever Free Software had been used, it had perforce been run on an enslaved machine running a proprietary OS, bought from a software hoarder. In 1990 the FSF’s Great Work, a UNIX-compatible operating system called the GNU HURD, was nowhere near completion.

But then, the herd came to him.

The Messiah

In 1991, Linus Torvalds, a Swedish-speaking Finn at Helsinki University, mentioned a project he’d been working on to the newsgroup comp.os.minix. At the bottom of the message, as an aside, was a request to test another program of his, a hack of the Unix ‘finger’ program that most half-decent Unix programmers could rustle up in their sleep. The first project was a plan to write his own, UNIX-like operating system. The disparity between this minor achievement and his aims couldn’t be more stark.[]

Years later, industry pundits hailed this as a seminal moment in the history of computing. Thomas Scoville, writing in Salon Magazine, described it in terms of Luther nailing his anti-papal theses to the doors of Wittenburg Church and smashing the dominion of the Church (Bill Gates). (Scoville also designed the Silicon Valley Tarot pack, which includes cards like The Hacker, the Salesman of Networks, and the Four of Cubicles). [

But if the religion had a leader, where were the followers to come from?

The Children’s CrusadeLike Gates’s competition, the enthusiastic part-time programmers who drove the home PC market had honed their skills in DOS. Like Gates’s competition, they were discovering that Windows was almost impossible to code from scratch without expensive assistance from Mr Gates. Programming Windows was also a lot less fun. In the brief moments between Gates gassing his enemies and introducing cheap and cheerful development software – Visual Basic – for the devoted Windows fans in 1992, his followers had a precious chance to wander off.And who was this flock composed of? Teenagers and uni students, mainly, acting out the same actions as Bill Gates when he was that age. Hungry programmers, joined by the orphans of platforms murdered by Bill – the Atari owners, the Amiga hackers, some Mac coders. All milling around, wanting to do something – anything – with the increasingly powerful equipment that was falling into their laps, but prevented from doing so by the corporate interests of Microsoft. A crusade of orphaned, illegitimate children. Hobbyists.

The initially simple Linux, as a way of handling this machine, was perfect to these hobbyists in just the way that Windows was not. Windows (unlike DOS before it) is almost incomprehensible to one person. One might say, deliberately so: if Microsoft were to make it any simpler, it might be successfully cloned and replaced by a competitor. Linux, by contrast, has to be simple enough to be understood by one person – at least in overall structure. If it gets more complex than that, Linus Torvalds’s head would explode.

By choosing a UNIX-compatible system, Linus’s OS could use all of the tools created by Stallman. Before his system could even boot, it had an editor, a development suite, and hundreds of vital utilities already prepared. Dabblers were also introduced to Stallman’s credo that all software should be shared, just as the code they were using was shared with them.

Whenever some new feature was needed by the new OS, it was joyously written by the crowd. Because they understood the benefits, they fed the code back into the whole. Linux, and the numbers of Linux users, grew.

The New Hacker’s Jihad

“Our hacker heritage is just what they need to make moral and mythic sense of the infant cyberspace struggling to be born out of the Net.”–Eric S. Raymond, The New Hacker’s Dictionary[]

The fit between the old Stallman worldview and the Linux hackers was not perfect. It was only by the somewhat forced collation of the two groups by mediators such as Eric S. Raymond (who pointedly documents the old hacker ways in his New Hacker’s Dictionary with the explicit intention of explaining them to the new audience), that the two groups could meld at all.

One could say that the connection between that tradition and the new, GNU generation, was like the relationship between Muslim antiquity and the Nation of Islam: a heritage adopted to solidify an inexpressible alienation, rather than a tradition. But, just as importantly, that alienation dictated the vitality of the movement. Rudderless, still young, and distrustful of authority, Gates’s bastard children injected the emotional charge into the technical culture that so many still insist it lacks.

One could say that.

Gates as Existentialist

“Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.” –Bill Gates, Time magazine

Or perhaps it was Bill Gates who – while at Harvard, just a few miles away from the cradle of hackerdom – was the one struggling against the dominant geek culture? In some ways he was the abandoned child: furnished with the gifts that grew from the free software (Microsoft’s first success, BASIC, was based on an academic software project at Dartmouth University), but set apart from the ethical mitochondria that surrounded it. Gates and Stallman were – very briefly – contemporaries at Harvard in 1973, before Gates dropped out. He would have been 18, Richard Stallman 20.

Instead, Bill met his future vice-president and marketing genius, Steve Ballmer, and forged his own ethical habitat from his background among the affluent bourgeoisie. Instead of sharing the software, he insisted – in his infamous 1976 “Open Letter To Hobbyists” – that copying software was stealing. Was this, rather than Linus’s query about Linux, in fact the quintessentially Lutheran moment? []

And do you see how easy this is, now?

Choose your own Metaphor

Or, perhaps the difference lies in nationalities. Is Linus drawing upon his own country’s traditions? In one of the earliest outings for Linux in the mainstream press, Glyn Moody in Wired suggested that Linux’s collaborative nature harked back to the Kalevala, a patchwork mythology that helped form Finland’s national self-image.[]

Or do we have the wrong religion? It’s worth noting that two of the key figures in Linux development – Eric S. Raymond, and Alan Cox (the Welsh deputy to Linus in the loose organisation that maintains the kernel) – have connections with the Neopagan movement. Raymond is recognised as the founder of a Wiccan lineage that still worships today. Perhaps something can be made of that? It’s only a matter of time. And, of course, there’s all that gun-toting libertarianism in the background, which can only spell religious fanaticism and Waco to a European mind.

In the Cathedral of the Bizarre

“Ha ha only serious” – a phrase that aptly captures the essence of much hacker discourse... Indeed, the entirety of hacker culture is often perceived as ha-ha-only serious by hackers themselves; to take it either too lightly or too seriously marks a person as an outsider. For further enlightenment, consult any Zen master.–The New Hacker’s Dictionary[]

You can spool these spiritual comparisons forever – and if the wave of pro-Linux articles in the mainstream continues, you’ll be force fed many more of them.

Why? Because when we don’t understand the motivations of others, religion stands first in line to explain. The use and re-use of these metaphors to describe Linux indicates how any motivation beyond the purely financial gets attributed to the mad, religious drive. What font of faith drives these holy men to work without pay – because without money, surely all projects are nothing?

Richard Stallman’s stock reply when asked “If no-one paid them for software, why would programmers work?” is: “because programming is fun.” And programming has a culture, because creating a culture is fun. Stallman, for all his projected evangelism, objects to ‘software hoarding’, because he sees it as an impediment to sharing that enjoyment. People hate Bill Gates, because he spoils that fun too – at the very least, by making it too expensive. At worst, by simply refusing to join in. Because fun for Bill is not hacking, but accumulating.

Creating a work of art as complex, ornate and powerful as Linux is as enjoyable as creating the complex, ornate, metaphors drawn up to describe its phenomenon. Just because it’s practical doesn’t mean it has to be motivated by greed; just because it’s non-commercial, doesn’t mean it has to be driven by a spiritual yearning. And just because the metaphors are pretty, doesn’t make them true.

The idiocy of the modern computer is that it is a toy. It is a toy designed to amuse hackers which could only spread that enjoyment if all the world pretended that it served some commercial use. Like art, which whores itself with its own po-faced seriousness, to somehow justify why anyone should dance or paint or sing.

And if there is a religious lesson to Linux it’s that, given enough beauty, one man’s bright and entertaining idea will eventually be sucked dry by some straight-faced St. Paul loser trying to pad out his own barren life by turning it into a religion, or turning it into a buck.

Sadly, the principals of Free Software delimit the extent of the last part, so we’re stuck with issues of faith.

And for that, you should pray. For all our sakes.

Tales from the Godhead

On USENET, in comp.os.linux.advocacy, Stephen Edwards writes:>Oh, how fugging pathetic. Next thing you know, people will be wearing>”L”s on gold chains around their necks, and praising Linus Torvald’s sacrifices>and teachings.

On USENET, in comp.os.linux.advocacy, Linus replies:What the h*ll? They don’t already?




Danny O’Brien xdanny@spesh.comx is an editor on Need To Know [], Britain’s most sarcastic weekly technological update. He doesn’t mean what he says.

Opposite: Richard M. StallmanAbove: Lucas Cranach, Martin Luther, 1592

Opposite: centre ring: Linus Torvaldsouter ring and other: Bill Gates and Noel Godin

Opposite: Richard M. StallmanIllustrations by Catherine