What If Operating Systems Were Religions?

Yesterday, after writing my way past the notional halfway point (both of the current novel manuscript, and of the trilogy it's the middle volume of), I went and overindulged in food and drink with friends.

Over the beer, the conversation turned—for no sane reason—to computer operating systems. There being some non-technical folks at the table, I then had to cough up a metaphor to contextualize the relationship between Mac OS X and UNIX, thuswise:

There is one true religion in operating systems, and it is UNIX. Or maybe it's not the one true faith: there's an earlier, older, more arcane religion with far fewer followers, MULTICS, from which UNIX sprang as a stripped-down rules-deficient heresy in the early days of the epoch. Either way, if MULTICS is Judaism (and the metaphor is questionable at this point, for unlike MULTICS, Judaism is still alive), then UNIX is Christianity.

In the early days, the UNIX faith spread underground among nests of true believers; but they evangelized their friends and neighbours and gradually it began to spread in strange communities. And with the spread came the great split. By the mid-1970s there were two main sects: AT&T UNIX, which we may liken unto the Roman Catholic Church, and BSD UNIX, which we may approximate to the Orthodox Churches. And then lo, there were many schisms.

In an attempt to control the schisms, the faithful formed learned congregations who at major conferences defined a common interoperating subset of the one true religion that all could agree on—the Nicene Creed of UNIX is probablyPOSIX, but let us not forget the congregation of the X/Open Portability Group and others. The bishops and cardinals of UNIX were fierce in the defense of their own particular schismatic sect, and formed alliances to develop credos that excluded their rivals while cunningly embracing their temporary peers: thus was the holy war prosecuted.

Today, the biggest church within the Orthodox community—possibly the biggest church in the whole of UNIX—is Mac OS X, which rests on the bedrock of Orthodox BSD but has added an incredible, towering superstructure of fiercely guarded APIs and proprietary user interface stuff that renders it all but unrecognizable to followers of the Catholic AT&T path.

But in the late 1980s, the Catholic Church succumbed to the sins of venality and simony, demanding too much money from the faithful. And so, in 1991 or thereabouts, Linus Torvalds nailed his famous source code release to the cathedral door and kicked off the Reformation. The Reformation took the shape of a new, freely copyable kernel that all the faithful could read with their own eyes. This Protestant heresy spread like wildfire among the people but was resisted with acts of vicious repression by the high priesthood of Corporate IT (arguably in connivance with the infidel invaders from the Caliphate of Microsoft). The Linux wars were brutal and unforgiving and Linux itself splintered into a myriad of fractious Protestant churches, from the Red Hat wearing Ubuntu Baptists.

Reformation came at a price: another wave of religious conclaves that tried to hammer out a common ground between the various reformed churches. (See also the Linux Standard Base, and also the internecine war between packaging systems such as RPM or DPKG—the correct way to print and bind a Bible. This was, arguably, won by DPKG, which should therefore be considered the King James Version of the Linux holy scripture.)

More recently, a deviant faith has sprung from Linux, grafting an entirely newuser interface revelation atop the same kernel: Android, which true adherents of the UNIX faith (even die-hard reformed Church Linuxers) mostly deny the UNIX-dom of. Android is the Church of Latter Day Saints of UNIX: hard-working, sober, evangelizing the public, and growing at a ferocious rate. There are some strange fundamentalist Mormon Android churches living in walled communities under the banners of Samsung and Amazon, but for the most part the prosperous worship at the Church of Google.

Note that, as with all religion, those sects with most in common are the ones who hold the most vicious grudges against one another.

Is that clear?


This post first appeared on the blog of author Charles Stross. It's republished here with kind permission. Image by Jesus Cervantes/Shutterstock.