Originally Published: Monday, 18 September 2000 Author: Matt Michie
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux Is Not Linux

What is Linux? Look deeper and beyond your immediate answer. Linux is not the latest tweaked out Enlightenment window manger or your Helix GNOME desktop. Linux is not your bash shell. Linux is not your 50K .vimrc. Linux is not your C compiler. Linux is not your /etc or /dev directories. Linux is not even the kernel.

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What is Linux? Look deeper and beyond your immediate answer. Linux is not the latest tweaked out Enlightenment window manger or your Helix GNOME desktop. Linux is not your bash shell. Linux is not your 50K .vimrc. Linux is not your C compiler. Linux is not your /etc or /dev directories. Linux is not even the kernel.

Linux is a virus. Linux is a mental virus which exhibits emergent behavior on a scale of millions. Don't believe it? Show me Linux. Point to exactly what it is. I already told you it isn't a kernel, and it isn't an operating system either.

I can tell you still want to tell me that Linux is ultimately a kernel. I counter that the kernel is nothing but C and assembly source code, then I tell you that Linux is not source code either. Perhaps you say, "you are just being semantically picky; source code is the instructions for building a kernel, whose job is to talk to the hardware and manage programs."

Oh? What good is source code to me? Source code doesn't talk to hardware or manage programs in my world. Source code without the right compiler won't somehow start to operate computer hardware. Even after one compiles the source code into a "kernel" what do you have? Are you trying to tell me that /vmlinuz is Linux? I can create a file called vmlinuz on my Windows partition. I can even compile Linux there. Is that Linux?

When does /vmlinuz become Linux? What is the exact moment after I boot my computer that Linux exists? Can you open up my CPU and show me how the electrons are flowing through the transistors differently when under the influence of Linux? Sure, you can tell me about the way Linux multi-tasks or manages its memory. You can even try to argue that together these algorithms form into a unique way of putting together CPU instructions that could be fingerprinted. Is that Linux?

No. Linux is an idea. Yes, perhaps it is ultimately an idea that manifests itself through source code, but it goes deeper than that. What most of us refer to when we say Linux is more than just a pattern of instructions in our CPU, and more than just some ASCII characters stored on our hard disc drive.

Stallman is part right when he insists we say GNU/Linux. What most people mean when they refer to Linux contains their bash shell, their GCC, their textutils, their EMACS, or their info pages. But Linux is still more than that. Linux is your hand crafted .muttrc. Linux is your GIMP, and Linux is the root background you spent 3 weeks searching for. Linux is BSD utilities. Linux is your Perl scripts.

So how is Linux a virus? If you walked this far along with me, you'll see that Linux is not easy to define. Linux is not something you can point your figure to and say, "there it is!" Yet, Linux is "spreading" at exponential growth. What is it that is spreading? Commercial distributions? Sure. Community distributions? Sure. Home brewed distributions? Sure. Kernel source code? Always.

Much more importantly however, are the ideas and methodologies behind open source. To be honest, only recently has Linux been a remarkable kernel. This is one of the reasons Yahoo.com and Hotmail.com chose FreeBSD as their server of choice. This is why FreeBSD is used on some of the busiest FTP servers in the world.

So why has Linux enjoyed such tremendous success even while starting out technically inferior to already available open source, UNIX-like operating systems? Because Linux is also the Linux community. No one can say how many people are running Linux at any one time. Is it 5 million? 10 million? 20 million?

These millions of people are part of a community distributed across the Earth, sharing a common ideal. They have been brought together by a concept called Linux. This viral meme infects one person that infects another who infects a hundred who infect a million.

You don't even have to run Linux on your computer to be infected by some of these ideas. Open source/free software is increasingly becoming an accepted way of doing software. Even the largest commercial companies are giving lip service to this methodology.

Linux is even more than that. Linux is a way of scaling communities. Linux is finding out how to get millions of people who don't all speak the same language communicating. Linux is about sharing information. Linux is about helping your neighbors, even when your neighbors live in a different continent.

Linux is about exploiting the potential of the Internet. The Internet is currently over-hyped, but in a century or two historians will look back and classify the Internet at a higher level than the invention of the Printing Press. The Internet will be just as important to human-kind as the invention of writing.

We've only begun to explore the possibilities. There is no guarantee that the Linux community will hold together or continue to scale well, but maybe . . . that idea will float into that one person in the world that can make it happen. The methods and tools we use to build the Linux community will eventually be adopted for other even greater projects.

Are you that person? Have you already been infected? Are you Linux?

Matt Michie exists in the New Mexican desert. Please visit his web site at http://daimyo.org.





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