A Response To Umberto Eco's "Mac is Catholic, DOS is Protestant" Essay
In his September 30, 1994 column "La bustina di Minerva"
in the Italian news weekly Espresso,
Umberto Eco observed that the ongoing PC operating system
war parallels the historic religious conflict between protestants
Eco further suggests that in this conflict, the Macintosh plays
the role of Catholicism and DOS the role of Protestantism.
I must admit to being surprised when I first read his essay,
because I had come to the exact opposite conclusion:
in the history of the DOS-Macintosh conflict,
DOS clearly plays the role of Catholicism and
the Macintosh the role of Protestantism.
To see why, consider these parallels:
At the time of the Reformation, Catholicism represented the status quo.
Protestantism was a reaction against this status quo.
In the same manner, the graphical user-interface (GUI) of the 1984 MacOS
was a reaction against the status quo of the 1970s-vintage command-line
interface of DOS.
Indeed, the controversial 1984 TV commercial by which Apple
introduced the Macintosh was the equivalent of Martin Luther
nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door.
In classical Catholicism, a person interacted with God through memorized
mystery rituals that were conducted in Latin,
a language foreign to "common" people.
Protestantism greatly reduced such ritual,
and used people's native languages,
eliminating the mystery from those rituals it kept.
DOS-users interact with their PCs by memorizing mysterious rituals of
commands that are foreign to most people (e.g., move the cursor,
push ALT-Shift-F9, move the cursor again, then push ALT-F11, ...).
By providing the mouse as a prosthetic hand by which the user could
touch and grab items on a virtual desktop, MacOS reduced such
complexities to three behaviors simple enough for a toddler to master:
move the mouse, press its button, and do both at the same time.
In Catholicism, knowledge about God is disseminated through a hierarchy
of priests, bishops, cardinals, and so on.
Most Protestant denominations teach that every believer is a priest,
and so have only a minimal hierarchy.
In the DOS world, knowledge of the intricacies of DOS is disseminated
through a hierarchy of power-users, experts, wizards, and the like,
who dispense the esoteric knowledge of interrupt vectors,
device drivers, FAT tables, expanded memory, extended memory and
everything else required to make DOS work smoothly.
Indeed, consulting one's local PC-wizard with a DOS question closely
parallels the Catholic act of confession, in which you confess your
sin to the priest, who gives you a penance for absolution.
(I'll leave it to the reader to identify the person who issues the
equivalent of Papal bulls in the DOS world.)
The simplicity of the MacOS allows virtually anyone with the inclination
to become an expert, and so the knowledge hierarchy is minimized.
Since Vatican II, Catholicism has been slowly incorporating
some aspects of Protestantism.
Latin has been replaced by native languages,
praise songs are sung in worship services,
personal Bible studies are encouraged, and so on.
There has not been any recent symmetric movement towards Catholicism
from the Protestant side.
With Windows 3.x, Microsoft took baby steps away from DOS and
towards the GUI look-and-feel of MacOS a sort of Vatican II
Catholics must keep waiting for Vatican III,
but Microsoft now claims that Windows95 will make the PC-compatible
behave "just like a Mac."
As with the Protestants, we see no movement by Macintosh users to
replace MacOS with something to make a Macintosh behave "just like DOS."
In summary, the historical perspective suggests that the MacOS
represents the reformation of personal computing;
Apple has never been orthodox.
Epilogue: Where does UNIX fit into all of this?
The key is to recognize that UNIX
- is even more ritualistic and mysterious than DOS, and
- originated at Bell Labs, on the east coast;
and so UNIX is Eastern Orthodox.
This page is part of the collection of Christian Scholarship essays from the Computer Science Department at Calvin College.