We came so far for beauty: a useful metaphor

The sub-set of Mac OS X users and developer who actively prefer the platform to others = Oscar Wilde.

The sub-set of Linux users and developers who actively prefer the platform to others = H G Wells.

The metaphor’s potential use is in its ability to make evident the often cross-purposes arguments of each community.

Both Wilde and Wells were concerned about the good people could and should do.

Wilde, however, saw good in aesthetic terms. Good is a form of beauty, and to the extent something isn’t beautiful, it is not as good as it could or should be.

Wells, by contrast, saw good in ethical terms. Good is a form of worth, and to the extent something isn’t worthy, it is not as good as it could or should be.

This simplifies the concerns of both men enormously, of course. And it doesn’t map perfectly to the two communities, either.

But I’ve found these notions useful when I encounter yet another interminable ‘Mac OS X is just empty prettiness’ trolling from the Linux community, or the roughly equivalent Mac OS X moron’s troll: Linux is just a tech-weenie’s paradise, with no idea of what ordinary people want or need.

Neither of these bits of trollish invective are useful discussion points. But they reveal assumptions both communities do appear to hold about the other.

And, when I apply the differences between Wilde’s and Wells’s concerns and priorities as presented above, it’s easier to prise the assumptions out from the rhetoric.

To the stereotype Linux user, those Wildean, effete, Mac OS X users care only for prettiness, and this is a bad thing because it excuses or ignores the unworthy, even evil, things Apple and others do.

The stereotype, Wildean, effete, Mac OS X user, in response, argues that beauty is not just a surface quality, but a fundamental aspect of an object’s purpose and existence. Moreover, inflicting ugly things on the world is deeply wrong: it causes real harm, even deadly harm.

To the stereotype Mac OS X user, those Wellsian, phlegmatic Linux users care only for engineering, and this is a bad thing because it excuses or ignores the pain, even hurt, this ugliness causes.

The stereotype, Wellsian, phlegmatic Linux user, in response, argues that engineering is not just an annoying necessity, but the basic truth of an object’s purpose and existence. Moreover, inflicting poor engineering on the world is deeply wrong: it causes real harm, even deadly harm.

And, of course, both my faux-literary-giant straw men are right and both my faux-literary-giant straw men are wrong.

Wilde’s aesthetics didn’t make him blind to practicality, any more than Wells’s ethics made him blind to beauty.

But, their ability to understand, or at least appreciate, the other’s perspective didn’t mean their differences were only ones of degree.

To agree with Wilde is to agree that beauty is a fundamental part of the problem of ‘how to be and do good’. To agree with Wells is to agree that function is a fundamental part of the problem of ‘how to be and do good’.

From the Wildean perspective, beauty is part of how things (indeed the entire world) function. From the Wellsian perspective, beauty is a consequence of how things (indeed the entire world) functions.

These are deeper differences than they first appear, so I’m not expecting rapproachment between the two communties anytime soon.

More practically, however, awareness of this deep underlying difference might reduce the number of pointless arguments. So long as the metaphor makes it easier to detect that disagreeing parties are talking at cross-purposes, it will be useful.

three addenda

A clarifying point: I suspect the majority of computer users, even Mac OS X and Linux users, don’t actively prefer any particular platform. Further, I suspect the majority of computer users are, at best, indifferent, to computers. The metaphor is of no especial value with regards the point of view of this majority who don’t have a particular preference about the computer they use.

A disclosure: I am a member of that sub-set of Mac OS X users and developers who actively prefer the platform to others. At the same time, I work for Red Hat, a company replete with members of that sub-set of Linux users and developers who actively prefer that platform to others.

That said, working for Red Hat has made me more inclined to conclude that even Linux users don’t necessarily prefer the platform they are using. I’ve encountered more than a few co-workers, good at their jobs and hard workers all, who use Linux primarily because it is (not surprisingly) mandated by the company.

A pre-emptive note: yes, the title is a tiny variation on the song title by Leonard Cohen. I knew that when I wrote the title. The song itself has only tangential connections to this piece. The title, however, struck me as being apposite enough to reference.