I was brushing my teeth this morning when my mind drifted to Cory Doctorow’s How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Panopticon. I knew I had heard a similar title somewhere in my web travels, and early morning wisdom satisfied my nagging, wholly unintentional inquisition: ’twas J. S. Majer’s piece on Gamegrene.com entitled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Monomyth.
As my mind is apt to do, I started thinking of dry humor parodies of the title - beginning with rhymes and humming a beat to its flow. However, that same early morning wisdom contributed to late-for-work clumsiness, manifesting itself as a big glob of toothpaste on my pants. I am, by far, the messiest tooth brusher in the world.
Minutes later, slightly wet and minty fresh, a single word droned in my head, decepticon, Decepticon, DECEPTICON! My over-worked subconscious had pulled through again. I had a little giggle over the name, and started shaving.
Nevertheless, I got to thinking.
Decepticons, of course, are the bad guys in the Transformers cartoon from years and years back. They were the ultimate evildoers: sneaky, daring, and bent on the destruction of everything good in our lives. Far be it from me to act like an old man, but fond memories of the cartoon came flooding back, as well as things I had read recently. Sultry giggling turned into nervous chuckling.
I was on to something. Transformers, the computer industry… they paralleled! Not only did they parallel, they also brought forth a rather inspiring light, one that put me at ease.
Let me explain. Don’t click that Back button just yet.
In most cartoons, there are only two opposing forces: good and evil. With Transformers, you had your good guys, the Autobots, and you had your “love to hate them” bad guys, the previously mentioned Decepticons. While there were occasionally gray areas, it was pretty black and white - the Autobots brought flowers, and the Decepticons gave you a hand buzzer.
Recently, something new has entered the Transformers mythos (ia! ia!), so says the April 2002 issue of ToyFare, describing a new line of toys coming soon called “Armada”. Along with the familiar faces of the Autobots and the Decepticons, they’ll be Mini-Cons, tiny little bots that pack lots of power. The Mini-Cons represent the worker race of Cybertron, the home planet where the Transformers originate - they keep things running whilst the big boys play war games.
This is a perfect representation of the major operating systems.
You’ve got your Macintosh, the feel-good creative touchy-feely Autobot love fest. Users of the Mac OS fight tooth and nail to make you realize what you’re missing. I, being one of them, truly wish everyone else would get a clue. We rarely get angry, and we rarely complain. Things just work and we like it that way.
Then you have the Windows OS in its many guises - this is the grumbley-grumble sin of choice for business users. Windows is prevalent everywhere, being the system of least resistance for multi-billion dollar companies, one that its users generally hate. Naturally, Windows represent the Decepticons - it’s fun, easy and “in” to pick on ol’ Bill, a man who’s been woefully understood by press, “pundits”, and the average computer user.
And the Mini-Cons? That’s easy - the various *nixes. It gets the job done and runs most of our beloved Internet. It’s a crucial piece of the surrounding environment that is familiar to all O’ReillyNet readers. The lack of a standard, usable desktop has relegated *nix to the “worker” users - pockets of people who sneer at the major players (Autobots and Decepticons, Macs and Windows), knowing that they’ve got something far better than the others will ever know.
But wait - the metaphor gets even better.
In the Transformers: Armada storyline, Mini-Cons are very special: “when attached to another Transformer, that Transformer becomes more powerful - the more Mini-Cons … joined together, the more exponentially powerful they become.” Because of this, the Autobots and Decepticons both want to get a piece of the Mini-Con pie, all because it’ll make them stronger.
Let’s do a search and replace: “in essence, Macs and Windows want to get a piece of the *nix pie, all because it’ll make them stronger.” Another piece falls into place. It doesn’t end there.
The “good” archetype is one of savoring existence - being aware of the environment around you, tree-hugging, recycling, supporting industry standards, and building software for the lowest common denominator. The “evil” archetype takes what isn’t theirs - they create an incompatible Kerberos protocol, they remove and restrict user choice, and their arrogance and unyielding nature seeks to enslave information.
The article in ToyFare tells an epic story of how the Decepticons want to use the Mini-Cons for evil, and how the Autobots naturally want to protect the innocent from the danger that awaits them. It’s the standard good vs. evil.
Enter Mac OS X.
Much like the Mini-Cons will combine with Autobots to become “exponentially [more] powerful”, so too did the Macintosh operating system. OS X combines the powerful kernel and command line skill of BSD, with an aquafied GUI that makes you want to run to a Gummi store. Easy. Pretty. Powerful. And Good.
Due to good’s role in maintaining the norm, the current Mac user base needs to know absolutely nothing about this Mini-Con addition - they can go on their merry way clicking jelly buttons, watching genie effects, and having a grand ole time. Undreamt of power awaits them when they need it. Robots in disguise? Not at all - OSes in disguise.
Microsoft, on the other hand, didn’t work with Linux. They created .NET, a way for them to subvert the weakness and legal melodrama of their own OS, all the while pushing it as a transport layer running on any system. Appease the Mini-Cons but put drugs in their coffee. Inevitably, the inherent instability of evil proved itself all too clearly when the MSN Messenger servers went down. People yelled, people screamed, people questioned. Yet, like an addiction, they still wanted more.
Do I worry about .NET? Do I cringe at the thought of not being able to write a letter with my networked word processor because I didn’t pay a monthly fee? Alfred E. Neuman respects mah authoritah: I do not worry.
If there’s one thing that cartoons have always told us, it’s that good always rises up and beats back the forces of evil. That the imminent strength of Shameful Joy is always more powerful than Sour Grapes, but not always strong enough to end the scourge forever. The harder and stronger the Decepticons push their wares, the more the Autobots provide a salve of innovation, power, and stability.
The Decepticon’s greatest weakness isn’t that they will eventually be defeated, but rather that they bring out the best in the Autobots. Without the threat of evil, there’d be stagnation. Do I dare wish away the Decepticons? Nay - the old adage of “keeping your enemies closer” is not about mysterious Confucianism, it’s about self-preservation and growth.
In the immortal words of Optimus Prime, “let’s roll!”
Am I crazy? Do you see the parallel?