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There Ain't Nothin' New Under The Sun

A tutorial on some scientific software package –I don’t remember what– reminded me that it’s easy to see familiarity in novel settings. The author of this tutorial saw three environments worth describing in the context of trying to use this software. Linux and Windows were two. The third is UNIX. UNIX, the author explained, is a venerable and robust operating system with a long heritage. The modern context in which you would see UNIX is on a Mac.

Of course, this author is correct. macOS – well, some specific versions that have been submitted for certification – officially is UNIX, the Open Group own the trademark and they say so, because Apple pays them to say so. But many Macintosh aficionados will be up in arms. UNIX is an implementation detail, macOS is so much more than that: it’s the windowing system, the user experience, the graphics subsystem, the Swift programming language, the App Store, the integration with phones, tablets, and the cloud: it’s a whole philosophy of computing, of which UNIX is one legacy implementation detail.

Still others will be abhorred. Macs are just round plastic children’s toys, they may have some warmed-over Mach hybrid as a bootstrap but they aren’t really UNIX systems. A true – or should I say TRU? – UNIX can only be found on a computer you can’t lift. And yes, that includes the laptops: those Tadpole SPARCbooks aren’t light.

We saw the same thing in the 1993 movie Jurassic Park. When Lex exclaims “It’s a UNIX system! I know this!” she is not focusing on the same part of the computer experience as much of the audience. The user interface looks less like the then-standard Common Desktop Environment than a fancy HollywoodOS installation. It is, in fact, an advanced window manager from Silicon Graphics. Other appearances of common operating systems in movies, including the installation of Linux on Dillinger’s glass desk between Tron and Tron: Legacy, tend not to get commented on in-universe.

What all of these analyses have in common is that we look for the familiar to help us understand the novel. macOS is indeed a UNIX, or a NeXT Workstation, or a Macintosh, or a mass-market triviality. What we need to understand is how the novel parts fit in, to expand our capabilities. It’s a UNIX and…. It’s a Macintosh and….

Thing about the and is surprisingly hard. Alan Kay talked about the creation of ideas in terms of the pink and blue planes. The pink plane is where incremental improvements to existing paradigms, practices, and technologies are found. The blue plane, being orthogonal to the pink plane, is where departures from the status quo live. This is where break-out ideas come that redefine our expectations, open up entirely new fields of endeavour, and let us do entirely new things rather than doing the same things more efficiently.

Kay unfairly puts all of the effort onto the inventor, and all of the failing onto everybody else: it’s up to Alan to have the great idea, and you’re all bozos for not getting it. As we’ve seen, letting the novel in along with the familiar is hard, and it’d be easier if we worked together. The inventor needs not only to have the idea, but to demonstrate its possibilities and benefits. As we have seen, Object-Oriented Programming and Smalltalk did not take off just because they were good ideas, but because Adele Goldberg and others promoted, developed, and explained the ideas.

Also, the audience needs not only to listen to the idea, but to be receptive to the idea that it contains something new. Any subculture contains geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths, and it’s going to be the geeks to turn to here. They’re the ones who see the new idea, the development, the radical departure, when everyone else sees a repeat of last year’s news. When you look at a new music player and think “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.”, there are others who see a new way of experiencing music.

Technology is only cyclic when you choose to experience it as a cycle.

Cover photo by Tadd and Debbie Ottman, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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