Originally Published: Tuesday, 2 November 1999 Author: Maurice Entwistle
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux Quality

I just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Persig's classic novel on "the philosophy of Quality." Of course there is a lot of description of motorcycles, their maintenance, a cross-country ride, and a lot of general philosophy. But most importantly the book is about the essence of Quality....

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I just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Persig's classic novel on "the philosophy of Quality." Of course there is a lot of description of motorcycles, their maintenance, a cross-country ride, and a lot of general philosophy. But most importantly the book is about the essence of Quality.

What would an understanding of Persig's Quality have to say about Linux? Quality, as Persig finally comes to realize, is not in the object (a computer OS) nor in the subject (a person), but rather in the relationship between the subject and the object. This is a very astute observation. It could lend some critical thinking regarding GNU/Linux -- and, of course, considerable debate.

By taking Quality out of the object and the subject, and making it the relationship between the two, Persig has really opened up the field. This approach provides great depth and variety while it also accounts for individuality. A great piece of art may or may not appeal to everyone. Why? Because the quality does not lie solely in the object. The subject gets to have his opinion -- something Linux users value highly.

However, a great piece of art does have something that many value highly. And those with more artistic training may, in fact, value great art more highly. This is perhaps due to the fact that experience has given them a more sensitive set of eyes with which to look. Remember the film "The Gods Must be Crazy," where an airplane drops a coke bottle among an aboriginal tribe? The bottle becomes the most highly prized possession they have. Why? Because they have nothing like it. They find that it has all kinds of uses that are beneficial to them.

The coke bottle in the film serves well as an illustration of Persig's theory. A coke bottle in our culture isn't even a commodity; it's the contents we crave. But the aborigines had a whole different relationship to the bottle. It was a Quality relationship to them, but not to us.

And how does this relate to Linux? There is obviously a Quality relationship between Linux's programmers and their OS. In fact, Linux is so valuable that people work for free! Oh sure, there's "meta pay" (see Maslow). But doesn't meta pay imply something of high value, something that is worth more than money? For Linux contributors and users, the meta pay can probably best be described as freedom - freedom to see the painter's paint (the source code), and the freedom to pick up your own brush and redo the painting to their own liking.

Can any non-open source OS claim this relationship? No way! Proprietary software takes so much away from the relationship between the programmer and the user that the Quality (the relationship) suffers. And what proprietary software company has to worry about how the programmers feel about what is being done? They don't. You get good pay and do what you're told. GNU/Linux programmers do what they like. Of course, if you want to get your code into the kernel, you'd better write it well, and it had better be very useful. But at least you have the freedom to create it and to use it, regardless of whether or not anyone else does.

The individuality that this "relationship Quality" incorporates also implies flexibility. Again, GNU/Linux excels in this area. We have a basic configuration that's endlessly modifiable, not just by "them," but by you, or anyone you hire to do so. If you like freedom, and you like flexibility, and if you enjoy taking some initiative, you're bound to be a GNU/Linux lover.

Think of Quality in this way. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Since more and more people are seeing the beauty of GNU/Linux, then the relationship between Linux and users must be developing. And that relationship is the Quality! If there ever was a technology that supported Robert Persig's theories of Quality, GNU/Linux is it.

Maurice Entwistle, maurice@linux.com





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