Religion, State, and Operating Systems

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A religion, a state and an operating system walk into a bar...

A few weeks back, Charlie Stross wrote a great piece explaining the relationship between operating systems and religion. Just like religion, operating systems sprang from one "true" source, which then split, diversified, sometimes peacefully, sometimes more violently - fortunately, in the world of operating systems, violence means the silent treatment or perhaps a little economic warfare, and nothing like the Eighty Years War, the Hundred Years War, or the Spanish Armada - but continues to split as each church views its specific focus on the truth as the One True Way, and all others as heresy. 

I vividly remember some of these battles from my work in the mid-90s, when the fights over Windows NT vs Unix were vicious and nearly violent.

The state - eventually the more stable nation-state - behaves in a similar pattern, beginning with smaller individual entities that eventually merge to become larger, then have schisms and splits as the often minor differences between groups appear to be intractable. As with religion and operating systems, the splits are sometimes peaceful but, given the finite territory and resources that must be divvied up when a political entity divorces, usually far more violently.

But, ironically, all three have far more in common than would seem at first blush. Then again, it makes sense, because all three are created by, managed by, and changed by the same creature: the human being.

Religion, state and operating systems do not exist in a vacuum. All three serve a purpose for their adherents. But one purpose can never satisfy all adherents in the same way. Some people prefer greater individual freedom, while others  prefer more of a collective; some people need the comfort of reliable ritual and holy relics, while others prefer unencumbered spirituality; some people prefer a POSIX interface, while others want a Win32 API.

Whatever your preference, if enough people start at one point, and the numbers grow, eventually some people who were satisfied before - or perhaps grew up inside the movement but later developed their own individuality - will have needs that cannot be met by the religion, state or operating system.

Benoit Mandelbrot is famous for his work on fractals. He showed how in nature, patterns at the micro level repeat themselves, creating larger and larger structures that at the macro and super macro levels look almost exactly like the pattern first seen at the microscopic level.

Humans are creatures of patterns, repeating themselves over and over on ever-larger scale. As with our personal lives, so with our work - for technologists, operating systems and frameworks and middleware - and with our religions - fortunately over much longer timeframes - and even with our states.