Guest Editorial: World Domination
Eric takes a serious look at what the world will be like when Linux is the dominant operating system—or is he just kidding?
World domination. It’s a powerful and faintly sinister phrase, one you might imagine some B-movie mad scientist muttering as he puts the finishing touches on some infernal machine amidst a clutter of bubbling retorts and crackling Tesla coils. It is not a phrase you would, offhand, associate with cuddly penguins.
When Linus says he aims at world domination, it seems as if he wants you to laugh at the absurd image of a gaggle of scruffy hackers overrunning the computing world like some invading barbarian horde—but he’s also inviting you to join the horde. Beneath the deadpan self-mockery is dead seriousness—and beneath the dead seriousness, more deadpan self-mockery. And on and on, in a spiraling regress so many layers deep that even Linus probably doesn’t know where it ends, if it ends at all.
The way Linux hackers use the phrase “world domination” is what science-fiction fans call a “ha-ha-only-serious”. Some visions are so audacious, they can be expressed only as ironic jokes, lest the speaker be accused of pomposity or megalomania. It is in much the same spirit that I sometimes describe myself as Linus’ Minister of Propaganda, as if I were some evil communist bureaucrat in a campy remake of Orwell’s 1984.
Such conscious self-subversion can serve many purposes. There’s a touch of Zen in it—a reminder from ourselves to ourselves not to take our desires so seriously that we stop noticing reality. It’s also tactically valuable. Like the cuddly penguin mascot, it invites our most dangerous adversaries not to take us seriously. They’re serious-minded people themselves, too caught up in competitive testosterone games to have any room for Zen. When they hear “world domination”, they don’t hear the irony, and thus tend to write us off as nutcases or flakes. That’s good; it gives us time and room to blindside them.
Of course, articles like this are part of that game. We hackers are a playful bunch; we’ll hack anything, including language, if it looks like fun (thus our tropism for puns). Deep down, we like confusing people who are stuffier and less mentally agile than we are, especially when they’re bosses. There’s a little bit of the mad scientist in all hackers, ready to discombobulate the world and flip authority the finger—especially if we can do it with snazzy special effects.
So, “World domination now!” we declaim, grinning at the hapless suits and wondering which ones are smart enough to be in on the joke. Because, of course, a world of mostly Linux machines wouldn’t really be a domination at all. Linux has no stockades, no guard towers, no barbed wire, and no End User License Agreement saying you can’t modify and can’t look inside and don’t have any kind of title to the bits on your own disks. When Linux “dominates”, there won’t be any predatory monopolies bluffing, bribing and bullying competitors to protect the market for their own overpriced and shoddy software. When Linux “dominates”, software consumers and developers will win big—and only the kind of people for whom domination really does mean controlling other peoples’ choices will lose.
That’s a future worth working for. Linux world domination means no domination anywhere—a statement which is ironic in the strict rhetorical sense (“expression of something which is contrary to the intended meaning”) but dead serious all the same, and no regress need apply.
No domination anywhere, but rather a rich ecology of competing projects and distributions and customizations, each one of which constantly brings its own improvements to the globally shared code base. A world not of closed pseudo-standards that lock people in, but rather of true open standards that enable humans and programs to cooperate in ever-richer ways. A world not of lock-step uniformity and five-year road maps, but rather one of rapid evolution and variation and flexibility and almost instant market responsiveness to user needs. A world in which programming means solving new problems every day, instead of wastefully repeating work that somebody else locked up and hid away. A world in which play becomes the highest form of work, and vice versa.
The future of “no domination anywhere” will be a better world; not a perfect one, but perhaps the best that we, working as designers and programmers, can hope to create. So if you aren’t yet part of our barbarian horde, join us! There’s a lot of working and playing to be done in order to get from here to there. It won’t be hard to find us; we’ll be the mob yelling “World domination now!”–and smiling.