Will Anything Make Linux Obsolete?

Remember blogging? Hell, remember magazine publishing? Shouldn't be hard. You're reading some now.

Both are still around, but they're obsolete—at least relatively. Two cases in point: my blog and Linux Journal.

Back when blogging was a thing, in the early 2000s, about 20,000 people subscribed to RSS feeds of my original blog (1999–2007, still mothballed here). At its peak, I posted many times per day and had a strong sense of connection with my readership.

Same went, by the way, for my postings in Linux Journal, on our website and on one of our own blogs, called IT Garage—lots of readers, lots of engagement.

Most early bloggers were journalists by profession or avocation—good writers, basically. Some blogs turned into online pubs. BoingBoing, TechCrunch and TPM all started as blogs.

But blogging began to wane after Twitter and Facebook showed up in 2006. After that journalism also waned, as "content generation" became the way to fill online publications. Participating in "social media" also became a requisite function for journalists still hoping to stay active online (if not also employed).

These days, I blog only a few times per month, for readers that range in number from dozens to hundreds. Usually I duplicate those posts in Medium, where they get about the same numbers. Meanwhile, I have 23.7k followers on Twitter (as @dsearls). Although that's a goodly number, you could say the same for the average parking space. (Which, if it could speak, might say "Hey, I had 25k impressions on passing drivers today and engaged 15.") From what I can tell from counting clicks of shortlinks I produce with Bit.ly, most of my tweets are clicked on by a few dozen people, tops. I'd gladly trade all my followers (and my Klout score of 81) for the actual readers I had in my old blog. But alas, this is now.

Thanks to loyal subscribers, Linux Journal is still going strong, proving it's still possible to operate a journal that isn't just another sluice for "content".

But we have to face the facts here: content production has clearly obsolesced journalism—just like TV obsolesced radio, cars obsolesced horses and printing obsolesced scribes. All of the obsolesced things do persist, but in a diminished state relative to what obsolesced them.

To understand why and how, it helps to raid the works of Marshall McLuhan, the media scholar best known for saying "the media is the message" (or "the massage"—he said both) and coining the term "global village" decades before the internet materialized one.

The analytic system McLuhan and his colleagues created for understanding how one medium obsolesces another is the tetrad (Greek for group of four). Every medium, he said, does four things. These are discovered in answers to four questions:

  • What does the medium enhance?
  • What does the medium make obsolete?
  • What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  • What does the medium reverse, or flip into, when pushed to extremes?

Graphically, it is represented as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Media Tetrad

So, for example, radio—

  • enhanced music, news and talk.
  • obsolesced live performance—you didn't have to be there. (Note: I use obsolesce and obsolesced to be consistent both with the McLuhans' usage and norms more established than those of the computing world, where using obsolete and obsoleted as present and past verb forms of obsolesce is more common.)
  • retrieved recordings.
  • reversed or flipped into isolation (of individuals and families from social interaction).

There can be many other answers, all arguable. Note: the above are my answers, not McLuhan's. That's why the tetrad poses questions. McLuhan wanted us to understand that each of the four "laws of media" (McLuhan's term) apply to every medium, from stone tools to machine learning. Every new thing does all four, one way or another—or in many ways.

So let's apply the tetrad to social media. It—

  • enhanced conversation (many more people participating, over all distances).
  • obsolesced journalism (now anybody could spread the word about anything).
  • retrieved gossip.
  • reversed or flipped into tribalism (people talking inside algorithmically isolated echo chambers, both feeding and feeding on each others' beliefs and prejudices).

Again, there can be other answers, but those are ones I'm prepared to argue for. (And to consider yielding on, if anyone wants to engage in some fun co-thinking about the topic.)

So now, let's put Linux through the tetrad. I'll say it—

  • enhanced compatibility and usefulness.
  • obsolesced proprietary UNIX.
  • retrieved tools, code and methods developed for UNIX.
  • reversed or flipped into empire: world domination was achieved.

Again, it's arguable. But let's not stop there.

Eric McLuhan (Marshall's son and co-author of several McLuhan books) writes, "If you know in advance that any innovation will have at least four (and possibly many more) kinds of side effects, then you can reasonably predict that fact and you know where to begin looking for specifics." So let's look through the tetrad toward what might obsolesce Linux. Whatever it is, it will—

  • enhance ___________.
  • obsolesce Linux.
  • retrieve ___________.
  • reverse or flip into ___________.

To approach these questions, it helps to understand formal causality. In Media and Formal Cause, Eric McLuhan writes:

Formal causality kicks in whenever "coming events cast their shadows before them." Formal cause is still, in our time, hugely mysterious. The literate mind finds it is too paradoxical and irrational. It deals with environmental processes and it works outside of time. The effects—those long shadows—arrive first; the causes take a while longer.

Formal cause was one of four outlined by Aristotle in his treatises on physics and metaphysics. Those were (and I simplify here):

  • Material—what something is made of.
  • Efficient—how one thing acts on another, causing change.
  • Formal—what makes the thing form a coherent whole.
  • Final—the purpose to which a thing is put.

In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan writes, "Any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment", adding:

Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes....The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.

In other words, railways were the formal cause that scaled up new kinds of cities, work and leisure. Railways, as a formal cause, were also what McLuhan called an "anti-environment". What made it anti- was that people tended not to look at it.

"People don't want to know the cause of anything", Marshall said (and Eric quotes, in Media and Formal Cause). "They do not want to know why radio caused Hitler and Gandhi alike. They do not want to know that print caused anything whatever. As users of these media, they wish merely to get inside, hoping perhaps to add another layer to their environment...."

In Media and Formal Cause, Eric also sources Jane Jacobs, the reigning authority on cities:

Current theory in many fields—economics, history, anthropology—assumes that cities are built upon a rural economic base. If my observations and reasoning are correct, the reverse is true: that rural economies, including agricultural work, are directly built upon city economies and city work....Rural production is literally the creation of city consumption. That is to say, city economics invent the things that are to become city imports from the rural world.

In this same way we can see Linux as a formal cause of cloud services, content delivery networks, Android devices and much more. All those are so interesting as environments that they misdirect observers from Linux as a formal cause of them.

I believe this is one reason why Linux kernel development is dedicated toward all possible uses, rather than the special purposes of any one application. The Linux anti-environment is a medium that formally causes the vast theater of attractions in all the environments that run atop it, just as railways cause coal mines and power plants, and cities cause farms.

So, now that world domination has been achieved, can we look forward and see what may or may not portend obsolescence for Linux?

Maybe we can see one possibility in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Netcraft's February 2017 Web Server Survey

Figure 2 is from Netcraft's February 2017 Web Server Survey, which shows Apache's precipitous drop since last peaking in 2012, yielding first to Microsoft's proprietary offerings and then to nginx and Other.

Credit where due: like Apache, nginx is open source (with a BSD license), and it was purposefully created as an open-source alternative to Apache. So maybe one should add Apache and nginx together. We do that with Linux and BSD sometimes.

But my point here isn't about open source. It's about centralization of environments in both the technical and McLuhanesque senses of the word. nginx and Microsoft are most successful in the big server and cloud worlds. It is now standard for developers to back-end all kinds of stuff in the clouds of Amazon, Rackspace and other central giants of what we might call utility computing. What are they causing in a formal way? Well, let's run AWS through the tetrad. It has—

AWS is a triumph of centralization. So are Twitter, Facebook and other social-media giants that obsolesced journalism and blogging. And, even though I wrote in my last article that we're due for a pendulum swing in a distributed direction, I do have to give silos their due—especially when so many of them run on Linux.

Given that nine out of the ten most reliable hosting sites in Netcraft's most recent list (February 2017) run on Linux (the tenth runs on BSD), I've got to wonder if Linux is capable of obsolescence. If it is, and you can tell us what will obsolete it—or retrieve it the same way Linux retrieved what was already developed for UNIX—maybe we can start a magazine for it.

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Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal