Friday, July 22

So I got into a bit of a disagreement with my Ubuntu install the other month. It went something like this:

Ubuntu: You should upgrade me to the latest stable version, Natty Narwhal.

me: You know, I've heard some things about —

Ubuntu: Naw man it'll be fine.

me: Ok, I'm gonna trust you this time. We've been getting along ok.

Somewhat later...

me: Look, I'm a little concerned about this. Nothing works. Why does nothing work?

Ubuntu: Fuck you.

I decided I was switching back to Debian. It hasn't been a completely smooth transition. Sometimes Debian is all like "I don't know what you're talking about that software hasn't been updated since 2007". Sometimes Debian doesn't want to talk to your wireless hardware.

Still, I haven't regretted it. As operating systems go, this is still the one that feels the homiest and least painful to me.

*

In some ways, operating system choice is a considerably more vexed question these days than it was in 2005 or so. The apparently suicidal impulses driving the latest Ubuntu release might yet abate, but even if it returns to form as the Linux your mom can use, this episode has been revealing. The free desktop is in a considerably shakier state than one would like. The whole project of libertarian1 software feels more vulnerable than it has in ages.

Then again, this may be a distraction from where the real action is these days. Between the web and phones, the whole question of openness and power in software has scaled way, way beyond what OS runs on any given device. Every piece of device-level system software in the world could conform to the Debian Free Software Guidelines, running on open hardware with nary a proprietary device driver in sight, and most of the software people are aware of using would still be closed.2

The hippies usually win, sooner or later, but the victory has a strange way of being subsumed into the scaffolding of the next system that will demand their opposition.

 

1 Note lower-case "l".

2 Sun was right, 15 years too late for their empire to have become the one we're going to have to subvert: The network is the computer. Now that we have built that reality (on open code and open protocols!), we're going to have to face up to its pathologies.

Not that I want to claim the modern dispensation is rotten through and through. A lot has actually been achieved, and there is a profoundly democratic/anarchic element to the modern network even in places where traditionalist standards of technical openness are almost entirely unmet.