UNIX is "dead," Part II

Sat 25 November 2023 by R.L. Dane

I was re-reading my original UNIX is dead. Long live UNIX article, and I realized something that helped me better classify the various types of UNIX OSes:

I see OSes like the BSDs as UNIXes, while I view MacOS and many Linux distros (particularly the Gnome-oriented ones, more about that later — I promise this isn't a polemic) as more vaguely "UNIX-like" or "UNIX-based." Perhaps the most poignant term would be "UNIX-ish."

How do I categorize them? UNIXes are doing their job when they present a UNIX-like OS to the user: sane and consistent; a text, file, and command line-oriented operating system. UNIX-ish OSes are doing their job when they are protecting the user from UNIX. They use UNIX to do the heavy lifting (usually with many needlessly complex layers stacked on top of it in userspace), but present to the user an OS that is as distanced and "abstractified" from UNIX as possible.

UNIX isn't something to hide away from, nor is it only an item of interest to extreme nerds and crusty neckbeards. While ease of use, simplicity, and minimalism are all laudable goals in presenting an OS that anyone can learn, you can not leave users there. You cannot leave users as iPhone-lobotomized consumers, incapable of doing so much as exploring a settings menu, let alone learning anything as complex as scripting. While that may be an incendiary statement to some, I say that while looking back on the past thirty years of computing, and especially the prevalent trends in the past decade and a half. I've seen some of the most competent and technically-minded people I personally know become digitally-indolent consumers. Technology is now no longer purely empowering people to do more with their lives, it is increasingly steering and controlling them. The "Bicycle for the Mind" has become a set of shackles.

Operating Systems are amazing tools for learning, exploration, and even creativity. They are far more than just a platform to launch a web browser from, and it would be tragic if that mentality continued to spread.

I grew up with nothing but a compact Classic Macintosh, no connection to the Internet, and zero budget to buy interesting books and software. I pored over old MacWorld and MacUser magazines virtually rescued from the dustbin at my dad's office, I asked everyone that knew anything about computers tons of questions, and even often phoned up the local university computer store tech support line to ask them technical questions out of pure curiosity — which they were happy to answer. (The 90s was a different world, folks!)

That machine and its OS had a sweet mix of ease of use, creative inspiration, and technical complexity that always kept me coming back for more. I entertained myself as a teenager for hours learning how to back up my seemingly enormous 20MB hard disk, I tried different data compression programs and tried to understand how they worked by throwing different types of data at them and comparing compression ratios, and enjoyed waiting up to a minute to load and dither an individual, low-resolution "JIF."
I tried coming up with my own 8x8 monochrome pixel wallpaper patterns, and wondered why everything but a few very regular patterns (especially the 50% gray checkberboard pattern) gave me a raging headache.

That little machine with its total lack of connectivity, laughable CPU, memory, disk capacity, and teensy 9" monochrome monitor gave me "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations."

There was one other machine in my life that gave me that kind of feeling: The piddly little VT320s at the University I went to immediately after high school. They were, of course, hooked up to a UNIX server: some Sun machine, possibly just a workstation, but I'm not certain.
Those little green screens were my first exposure to the internet, and to UNIX. Here I was, a post-pubescent Macintosh snob, a GUI connoisseur, clacking away at a dummy terminal and having the time of my life: So many things to learn, so many things to do, and none of if passive and mindless, unlike today's Internet.

I would much rather use an operating system whose only interface is a physical smacking-metal-and-ink-against-paper TTY that promises me:

  1. A logically-organized and comprehensible system
  2. Complexity that is up front and logical, rather than lurking in unseen ugliness
  3. The ability to learn and grow, rather than to be a consumer

...than a beautiful and inviting user interface that has nothing more to offer under the surface.