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The three operating system models of government

3 min read

The European parliament, sitting empty

Evan Prodromou asks if we agree with Aristotle that there are three kinds of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. (As Evan points out, he actually defined six, with Polity — government by political organizations — ranked first. Which is what we have. Lucky us.)

I’m a qualified yes on this — I think it’s more nuanced, with flavors and combinations of each — but I’d like to offer a different framework for three kinds of government.

I speak, of course, of iOS, Windows, and Linux.

Hear me out.

iOS: Everything is centrally planned and fits together really well — as long as what you want to do is within the expectations and rules of the central planners. Every business, every payment must be approved by the central planners. Although they claim to be pro-human — they’re building a “bicycle for the mind” for people who “think different” — ultimately these policies benefit the planners and the people in their inner circle. People who disagree with the central planners are often shouted down by the faithful.

Windows: Here, anyone can build a business, but there is still some central planning. There have been ebbs and flows of more and less central control: there have been app stores here and locked-down user interfaces there, but ultimately the public has had some sway over the design. The operating system has been historically a little less safe than iOS because of its anything-goes point of view, and the interface is less beautifully polished than iOS. But anyone really can ship software for it without having to go through anyone else. Lately there has been more underhanded economic activity from the central planners, like advertising in the Start menu and agents that unnecessarily track your data for their benefit.

Linux: There’s no real central planning, there’s no tracking what people do, there’s no money inherent in the system. Everything is borne from grassroots co-operation and interconnected communities that negotiate with each other. The interface is far less polished and you often have to compile your own infrastructure if someone in a co-operative hasn’t taken the time to smooth out an experience for someone exactly like you. There isn’t even a consensus on what to call it — is it Linux? GNU/Linux? GNU? — let alone the legal licensing and how communities should operate. Still, users have full ownership of their computers and software. Where this model has been most useful in practice is behind the scenes in services used by users of the other operating system models; essentially elements of this ideology have been cherry-picked by these other models.

Each of these, of course, emerged from the centrally planned monarchies of UNIX and OS/360. Some operating systems — notably Linux — were the result of revolutions that moved their users away from similar models; others are simply an evolution.

So, there it is. I’ll be taking no questions. I await my honorary doctorate in political computer science with thanks.

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