Operating Systems as Politics

As much as we like to stay away from letting real-world politics bleed over into our ongoing discussion of tech politics, I found an interesting essay over at The Economist’s “Democracy in America” blog that draws a parallel between Apple’s Mac/iPhone user-friendly ecosystem and the Microsoft Windows freer-but-more-chaotic ecosystem and how that lines up along the authoritarian/libertarian spectrum of real-world political division. They don’t mention Open Source in this essay, but I’m sure it could make an interesting addition to the discussion. The essay’s main point is that, in governance, attempts to make life more user-friendly for citizens usually ends up giving them less freedom of choice, and a certain segment of the political establishment will reliably oppose such moves. The idea that the tradeoff between choice and usability persists into the world of governance really set me to thinking. What kind of country would you rather live in? An Apple one, a Microsoft one, or an Open Source one?The Economist essay takes a crack at the issue through the lens of the current US political obsessions, health care and financial industry reform, noting that more consumer “freedom” often just results in consumers being victimized by sophisticated corporate predators or failing to take adequate precautions and harming themselves or others. Likewise, the availability of 999 nearly-identical sound cards supported under Windows doesn’t really benefit users, and increases the chances of a user picking a really crummy one whose drivers will make the system unstable. And Windows’ support for ancient APIs might be welcome to ISVs or ossified IT departments that depend on them, but creates a headache for everyone else.

As we discussed in a previous user-friendliness article a few weeks ago, if you make things too user friendly, it can be the tyranny of the over-simplified. Let’s just say the word “iPhone” and leave it at that. Truly, if we’re going to rank computing environments in order of user freedom, you have to break iPhone and Mac out into separate categories. But let’s face it, even though once you have a Mac, you’re free to do pretty much whatever you want with it, a big part of the Apple user experience is the frustration of finding the machine you really want from among Apple’s necessarily-restricted product lineup. And you can make a Hackintosh, but that makes you a psuedo-outlaw. To tie it back to health care, it’s like trying to pick a doctor when you’re in a nationalized system or a restrictive private HMO – restricted choice.

The Wintel PC ecosystem, like most methods of government, developed largely by happenstance and accidents of history. Microsoft is like the governments of most countries: it wants to serve and please you, not least so you’ll keep giving it money; it can be incompetent and inefficient, corrupt and jealous of its power; in the end, it gets the job done, but you’re always wary of counting too much on it, because it can always let you down. But despite the flaws, Windows is flexible and runs on a staggeringly-vast array of hardware. But never forget that Windows isn’t really made for you. Microsoft’s masters are the OEMs and large corporate IT departments. Developing an OS for end-users is just an economy of scale. Likewise, a government must serve many constituencies, and some are more influential than others. The most influential ones can easily distort the whole system to the detriment of the common citizen.

Then there’s Linux. It’s sort of like the Utopian Anarchy. It works really well for small groups of enlightened people, and really shines when it’s used for a carefully-delineated purpose. Utopian anarchy works really well for organizing a potluck barbecue among neighbors, and also for a webserver. Here’s where this silly analogy breaks down a little, or maybe becomes more interesting. Linux is mostly used in two vastly different scenarios. It’s used as a server and workstation by highly-skilled people who are heavily engaged in its inner workings. But vastly more people these days use Linux everyday in a very different way. They use it when they’re using Gmail, or any number of other web-based apps, or even just plain web sites, or in their DVR, or other appliances. They don’t even know they’re using Linux, and they have no control whatsoever over its inner workings. They’re wholly dependent on the efforts of a remote and mysterious overclass of administrators. Because of its impenetrability, is Linux really more like an Oligarchy (or even a Theocracy?) It’s really a theocracy where it’s relatively easy to be admitted to the priest class, but the vast majority of citizens never bother, because the government is so benevolent and gives them free web apps and records TV shows for them.

So what kind of operating system would I want my government to run? Well, my political philosophy is a little hard to sum up. I’m a Centrist, strong social libertarian, fiscal conservative, anti-authoritarian, internationalist, pro-free trade, moderately anti-war, but also sort of an elitist, anti-populist who really does believe that some people are smarter than others, and I value reason above emotion. I prefer a strong constitutional republic to counter the minority-persecuting tendencies of direct democracy. I never have anybody to vote for!

I think that places me right in the middle of a triangle between Mac, Windows, and Linux. I think that to some extent it’s logical that government be practiced by a trusted elite of sysadmins who make sure my shows are recorded on time and that the email never goes down, but that these sysadmins must be accountable to their users, their policies transparent, and access to the levers of power be strictly meritocratic, so if I want to participate in the process there will be a variety of ways that I can engage in civic participation. I would prefer that the government wouldn’t stand in the way of OEMs manufacturing a wide array of peripherals and configurations, but as a consumer, I would appreciate if they would act as a watchdog and provide some oversight of the marketplace so the vendors can’t use their superior access to the courts and influence with the government to prevent me from getting good information about which products are good and which aren’t. But, heaven help us if the Government ever tries to set up a strictly-access-controlled App Store. That’s when we take to the streets.


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