operating systems & the Reformation

I wrote this some years ago in a post that has now been taken down — reposted here — but with Umberto Eco’s death the topic is fresh again. Thus this excerpt: 

Have you heard the one about computer operating systems and the Reformation? You probably have. Most people got the story from the Italian semiotician and academic superstar Umberto Eco. In his telling, from an article he published in 1994, it goes like this:

The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach — if not the kingdom of Heaven — the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

More on this interpretation in a moment, but I can’t go any further without commenting that my friend Edward Mendelson — professor at Columbia, literary executor of W.H. Auden, and occasional character in the novels of Alexander McCall Smith — made the point six years before Eco did, and just as wittily and incisively:

In the 16th century the printed book helped make possible the split between Catholics and Protestants. In the 20th century this history of tragedy and triumph is repeating itself as farce. Those who worship the Apple computer and those who put their faith in the IBM PC are equally convinced that the other camp is damned or deluded. Each cult holds in contempt the rituals and the laws of the other. Each thinks that it is itself the one hope for salvation.

Each of these cults corresponds to one of the two antagonists in the age of Reformation. In the realm of the Apple Macintosh, as in Catholic Europe, worshipers peer devoutly into screens filled with “icons.” All is sound and imagery in Appledom. . . . A central corporate headquarters decrees the form of all rites and practices. Infallible doctrine issues from one executive officer whose selection occurs in a sealed boardroom. . . .

As in Protestant Europe, by contrast, where sects divided endlessly into smaller competing sects and no church dominated any other, all is different in the fragmented world of IBM. That realm is now a chaos of conflicting norms and standards that not even IBM can hope to control. . . . When IBM recently abandoned some of its original standards and decreed new ones, many of its rivals declared a puritan allegiance to IBM’s original faith, and denounced the company as a divisive innovator. Still, the IBM world is united by its distrust of icons and imagery. IBM’s screens are designed for language, not pictures. Graven images may be tolerated by the more luxurious cults, but the true IBM faith relies on the austerity of the word.

My first thought on re-reading Mendelson’s extended metaphor, which I went around quoting for several years after it first appeared, is: How much has changed! It is growing increasingly difficult to remember that IBM was once a colossus striding the earth, and that people spoke of almost any non-Apple computer as an “IBM machine.” In 1988, the major players were hardware manufacturers.

Six years later, when Eco develops the same conceit, there is one subtle but important shift: he doesn’t speak of “IBM” but rather “MS-DOS” — not a maker of computers but an operating system. And this is the path the conflicts would take: not Apple versus IBM, but Mac (conceived more as an operating system, as a way of organizing and presenting data, than as a physical machine) versus Windows.