Compare and Contrast: Eco versus Stephenson on Operating Systems

In 1994, Umberto Eco wrote an essay in which he compared the Macintosh to the Catholic Church and DOS to the Protestants. “Indeed,” he says “the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits.” DOS, he says, is Calvinistic, as it “allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation.” Eco knows his religions, but his interpretation of DOS as lying on the extreme end of the spectrum of reprogramability is fairly laughable to anyone who’s spent time around real operating systems. Five years later, Neal Stephenson wrote his seminal essay, ‘In the Beginning was the Command Line,’ tracking the rise of the Operating System as a saleable commodity, and providing a set of metaphors for various OS’s structured around cars and munitions, rather than religious movements. Stephenson grants that his essay is “more review than research paper,” but justifies this by noting that “ever since the Mac came out, our operating systems have been based on metaphors, and anything with metaphors in it is fair game as far as I’m concerned.”

These two are some of the most interesting historical thinkers of our age (IMHO), and to see them both addressing the same issue of contemporary culture in historical context but each from their own unique background perspective is fascinating. I’m not sure if Stephenson was aware of the, much shorter, Eco essay when he set out on ‘In the Beginning.’ It is easy to imagine that he was not, as it was published in Italian and as far as I know only provided in translation recently. Still, it is nice to imagine Neal and Umberto sitting down in a cafe and hashing through the issues interface metaphors and reformation politics.



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