Martin Luther, meet Linus Torvalds

Linux and free software challenge the Microsoft papacy.

Published November 12, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

In 1517, Martin Luther ignited the Protestant Reformation with his assertion that no worldly power had the right to interpose itself between the individual and God. Nearly 500 years later, Linus Torvalds is insisting nobody should get between us and our CPUs, either. The Digital Reformation is here.

In Luther's Day, the Roman Catholic Church had a near-monopoly on the cultural, intellectual and spiritual life of Europe. But the principal source text informing that life -- the Bible -- was off limits to ordinary people. Sixteenth-century Bibles were written in Latin, a language known only to the priesthood and a few other elites. Translations into more commonly spoken languages were rare.

Needless to say, this situation suited the church just fine; Rome had been quite successful in parlaying its proprietary access to the Word of God into formidable economic power. The church was on a roll. Even the hereafter was becoming a Vatican profit center; purgatorial sentences could be commuted by clerical intercession with the purchase of a papal indulgence.

Nobody likes to be exploited.

Whenever an abusive power elite monopolizes one of life's essentials and offers it at ever-greater expense, people eventually get around to weighing that price against the cost of producing it themselves. And whether that essential is salvation or operating system source code, when the scales tip, people will find a way.

Martin Luther began his career as a simple Catholic priest living far from Rome. He would eventually challenge the entire range of church doctrine and papal authority, but his reformation began by questioning the idea that timely salvation could be brokered by the church in the form of indulgences. Such egalitarian, anti-authoritarian habits of thought eventually led him to more general assertions, like the right of individual conscience over papal authority, the freedom of Christians everywhere from all "priest-craft" and direct access to the word of God via translation of the Bible into the language of common people.

Most importantly, Luther sought to shift the power of spiritual authority back to where he felt it belonged: in the hands of the flock. Dissolving the clergy-congregation distinction, he declared the minister to be "one who, out of the body of the universal priesthood of man, has been set aside to perform a particular office." The cleric's proprietary access to the core sacraments was revoked in Luther's prescription that "the wine as well as the bread should be given to the laity."

Linus Torvalds is an information-age reformer cut from the same cloth. Like Luther, his journey began while studying for ordination into the modern priesthood of computer scientists at the University of Helsinki -- far from the seats of power in Redmond and Silicon Valley. Also like Luther, he had a divine, slightly nutty idea to remove the intervening bureaucracies and put ordinary folks in a direct relationship to a higher power -- in this case, their computers. Dissolving the programmer-user distinction, he encouraged ordinary people to participate in the development of their computing environment. And just as Luther sought to make the entire sacramental shebang -- the wine, the bread and the translated Word -- available to the hoi polloi, Linus seeks to revoke the developer's proprietary access to the OS, insisting that the full operating system source code be delivered -- without cost -- to every ordinary Joe at the desktop.

Just as in 1521, this radical idea turned the world on its head. Linux -- Torvalds' free UNIX-like operating system for Intel-based computers, among others -- may well prove to be the most threatening thing the digital Powers That Be have ever seen. It's nifty, it's compact, by all accounts it networks better and crashes less than Microsoft NT and it's free. Source code and development environment are included; if you have the inclination or the need, feel free to fix, hack or extend it any way you like. Why? Because Torvalds wants to shift the power back in your direction. Because Torvalds' God, like Luther's, wants you to know Him on a first-name basis.

The Microsoft papacy is not amused.

Bill Gates has reaped one of the biggest fortunes in history by maintaining a proprietary lock on the most important source text -- the operating system -- in the lives of nearly every computer user on the planet. Like any sovereign of papal dimensions, he likes things the way they are. He has a vested interest in keeping the rules of the game intact -- rules written by him that ensure that he will continue to write the rules. The only thing that could possibly threaten his reign is for someone to come along and question the assumptions and change the rules -- in short, to bring about a reformation.Pope Gates I clearly dominates the "I make the OS and you give me the money" game. Up until now, it's been the only game in town. But what possible response could he offer to Torvalds' "I'll give you a great OS, plus sources -- have a nice day" game? No more commercial motivation, no more iron-fisted control over the source text, no more programmer-user bifurcation. New game, your Holiness.Luther's Reformation earned him more than the approval and gratitude of Christians throughout Europe; it also brought the support of a number of Saxony's power elite who were weary of papal taxes and pompous church bureaucrats. Like their Saxon counterparts of old, 20th century digital princes -- technology directors of Fortune 500 companies -- are also more than a little tired of paying tribute to Redmond and being kept in the dark by Microsoft technocrats. They will go to great lengths to explore credible alternatives. Like Luther before him, Torvalds is the darling of anybody who hates the pope -- and lots of people seem to hate the pope these days. Linux is already running on millions of machines, and support is building by the day.The historical record shows a surge of real fanaticism as Luther's reformation advanced. So much, in fact, that Luther's later years were spent as much in tempering the enthusiasm of his more radical disciples as in defending his ideas against detractors in Rome. Torvalds' disciples also show the earmarks of the true believer: Giddy with empowerment, but with the memory of oppression yet fresh in their minds, they gleam with ideological fervor. This style of unbridled zeal led some of Luther's true believers to propose more radical extensions of his reforms, like the "slaughter of the ungodly." We can only hope that Linux sectarians will propose more moderate courses of action.I had a chance to mingle with the faithful at a recent meeting of the Silicon Valley Linux User's Group, or "SVLUG." The group meets the first Wednesday evening of each month, and Cisco Systems had volunteered to host this particular convergence. This seemed simple enough -- until I arrived and realized that Cisco's headquarters is the size of a medium-sized town. But despite Cisco's mazelike layout, SVLUG wasn't hard for me to find; I wandered through the parking lots for about two minutes before I spotted a guy wearing a T-shirt that read CRAZED LINUX ZEALOT. So much for moderation, I thought, and followed him to one of Cisco's jumbo-sized conference rooms.What I found there was distantly familiar to me: three or four hundred young, bright, mostly under-socialized males with the same focused, almost manic intensity that was going around in the late '70s and early '80s when their techie predecessors were cobbling together the first home-grown PCs. I hadn't seen this kind of organized monomania in 20 years; it was, in a way, like a return to childhood. Infectious, fun, it reminded me of why I first fell in love with computing. My inner cynic was, at least for a few minutes, at a loss for words. The atmosphere was infused with the same underground, subversive edge: lots of in-jokes, secret semaphores and revolution rhetoric. Anti-Microsoft rhetoric, too. Not only was it up-front and out in the open, it seemed like the load-bearing member in the structure of underlying assumptions. I wondered if Linux gatherings the world over were marked by the same enthusiasm and energy as this one. I supposed that as distance from the Silicon Valley increased, it would be harder to match the zeal and organization that this, the biggest regional concentration of digit-heads on the planet, could yield.Yet that appears not to be so. The Denmark Linux User's Group, for example, is substantially bigger than SVLUG. Like Luther's, Torvalds' Reformation seems to be growing most quickly in the provinces -- perhaps because that's where people have the most to gain from a redistribution of power.Of course, Luther's pope -- or his descendant, anyway -- is still around. But he sure doesn't call the shots as he once did. And if the present cycle of reformation works out the same way, Linus' pope is in for some serious downward revision of his powers, too.

By Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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