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December 12, 2009

Macs and PCs, Catholics and Protestants: Umberto Eco

I've been enjoying the comments on Nullspace, in which I am guilty of hijacking the thread, so I thought I'd continue the PC vs Mac riff over here. The essay below, by Umberto Eco in 1994, is the best thing I have read on The Great Schism.

Insufficient consideration has been given to the new underground religious war which is modifying the modern world. It's an old idea of mine, but I find that whenever I tell people about it they immediately agree with me.

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.

You may object that, with the passage to Windows, the DOS universe has come to resemble more closely the counter-reformist tolerance of the Macintosh. It's true: Windows represents an Anglican-style schism, big ceremonies in the cathedral, but there is always the possibility of a return to DOS to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions: When it comes down to it, you can decide to ordain women and gays if you want to.

Naturally, the Catholicism and Protestantism of the two systems have nothing to do with the cultural and religious positions of their users. One may wonder whether, as time goes by, the use of one system rather than another leads to profound inner changes. Can you use DOS and be a Vande supporter? And more: Would Celine have written using Word, WordPerfect, or Wordstar? Would Descartes have programmed in Pascal?

And machine code, which lies beneath and decides the destiny of both systems (or environments, if you prefer)? Ah, that belongs to the Old Testament, and is talmudic and cabalistic. The Jewish influence, as always....
Umberto Eco

I believe one test of great writing is whether it remains relevant in the face of subsequent events, and I submit that Eco's essay retains pertinent. There has been a tremendous amount of evolution change in the world of computers and yet Eco's theme remains valid.

His description may have anticipated the rise of the platform-agnostic Linux community and even the humanistic DIY Open Source Movement. We leave to the future the placement of the Apple-iPhone/Google-Android conflict along this spectrum, and tend to ignore the comments of those who believe that the appearance of a Google phone will signify the beginning of the End Times.


C. Briem said...

What OS Would Max Veber Use?

Vannevar said...

Chris, thanks a lot for your comment which caused me to spend an hour reading on Weber. I've added The Protestant Ethic to my Amazon wish list.

bjacobs said...

I'm just surprised that Eco didn't mention the position of Jobs as pontiff, a comparison with few contrasts, I'm sure.

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