Ubuntu, Unity, and Identity: How governance and lack of consensus affects cultural production

I’ve been quite interested in the kerfuffle that Ubuntu has taken since the introduction of Unity.  To put it mildly, it’s been controversial.

Before I start with my observations, I should make a disclosure of why I am so interested in the commotion.  First and foremost, you may have noticed that the fonts we use here at Culture Digitally is from the Ubuntu project.  Second, prior to academia, I worked for 10 years in the technology world.  Most of my time was as a consultant for a company in California where I handled, among other things, the open source cases.  So, my interest in technology and how it affects groups of people is as much an intellectual interest as it is a habit.  Secretly, I am still a geeky Linux nerd, and my distribution of choice was/is Ubuntu.

So, what is Unity? What is Ubuntu?

Let’s tackle the second question first.  Ubuntu is an operating system– similar to Windows or Mac OSX.  Ubuntu belongs to a category of operating systems that are based around a bunch of code and computer paradigm called Linux.  Ubuntu is only one among many.  Yet, it is thought of as one of the most popular (if not the most popular) Linux distributions.  But, for Linux and especially Ubuntu, the focus is not solely on techie computer stuff.  Linux, in general, and Ubuntu, in particular, is tied to a philosophical ideology of free speech and freedom of choice.  The word ubuntu is an African ethical ideal that centers on the common humanity in self and others and the relationships on which that humanity is articulated. So why is all the controversy?

Ubuntu, the operating system, is closely tied to Canonical.  In fact, Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu is the former CEO of Canonical.  Shuttleworth announced Unity and later in a keynote speech at the Ubuntu Developer Summit announced that it would be the default desktop environment.  Controversy seemed to erupt immediately.

Many critics of this decision cited technological issues and usability design problems in how Unity would make the desktop look and feel. (See here, here, here, and here)

I wonder, however, if there is something more than mere technological and design disagreements at the heart of the controversy.  Some have started to point to what I really think is at the core of the hard feelings — ideology. (See here and here)

Perhaps, when Shuttleworth announced the decision to make Unity the default desktop, a rift was created because, in a sense, the announcement seemed to fly in contradiction to the stated ubuntu (the philosophy) ethos.  I have no way of knowing if Shuttleworth made this decision on his own.  I doubt it.  It seems to me that such a decision must be made with the consultation of at least some people.  But, regardless, it felt to some that it was by fiat.  And, perception is a powerful thing.

The operating system Ubuntu, like all Linux distributions, align its identity around this notion of Free Software.  Because of this it is at all at once an ideology, a social norm, and most importantly, a cultural artifact.  Let me say that again– more than merely being a conglomeration of disparate lines of code, the operating system known as Ubuntu is a cultural artifact.  It is an object, a symbol of this culture.  As such, Ubuntu serves as a mark of identity around which its users, developers, promoters, advocates, aficionados, adopters gather.

Like a national flag, it may mean different things to different community members, but there are some general centers of gravity.  At least one center is in the name that the project chose to adopt– Ubuntu.  In fact, the project (the part that is independent of Canonical, the company) is not only named after the philosophy, it is explicitly tied to that philosophy.  Perhaps here is where the crux of the issue lies.  For the philosophy, the community trumps the individual.  Yet, the decision to make Unity the default may seem to many as an individual or a coterie trumps the community.  It seems to me that this disconnect is why the controversy seems so acrimonious.  It is not just an operating system that is at stake– it’s the group’s identity.  Identity politics, of course, are difficult things.

Closely connected to this problem of identity is the problem of governance.  Ubuntu’s stated governance is that it is “not a democracy, it’s a meritocracy.”  Furthermore, as an official part of Ubuntu’s governance, Mark Shuttleworth is the “self appointed benevolent dictator for life.”  These last two statements are where the governance runs afoul of the identity.  If the community trumps, then there can be no dictator, benevolent or not.  A dictator, whether he or she believes so or not, holds his or her interests above the community.  Perhaps, even more so, if the community trumps, then it cannot be a meritocracy.  Meritocracy, be definition, rewards those with ability or effort.  Yet, if the ethos of ubuntu truly is held in this community, then those that cannot or do not participate are still entitled to consideration if they are truly apart of that community.  This is a hard idea to swallow, I know.  But think of it this way– a person is still a member of a country even if he/she is imprisoned for heinous crimes against that country.  If someone contributes nothing to Ubuntu other than using and identifying as a part of that community, then that person believes that his/her interests must be considered when decisions are made.

For Ubuntu, then, consensus is key.  For Ubuntu, its stated identity of ubuntu means that something more than compromise or merit is required; consensus is key.

If Ubuntu is truly ubuntu, all have a right to have their interests, at least, be heard.

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