OS Design as Culture

This summer, I had a conversation with an American Sign Language interpreter about the concept of Deaf Culture. Turns out, many people who are born deaf don't consider themselves "handicapped" or even "hearing impaired". Instead, they consider themselves part of a different culture, as if deafness were an ethnicity. I found this surprising the first time I heard about it, since ethnicity is a biological legacy whereas deafness seems like a biological accident. Of course, I was wrong. As the sign language interpreter pointed out, one of the primary characteristics of a culture is not necessarily ethnicity but rather a shared language.

I thought of this reading Farhad Manjoo's piece in Slate about trying to switch from an iPhone to an Android phone. His primary objection to the Android phone was how the phone manufacturers and the carriers intruded on the experience of the operating system with "skins" and extra apps. He prefers the iPhone's purer experience. Predictably, his comments section is full of invective from both Apple and Android adherents. The people who engage in these battles, on blogs and in the comment threads of tech news sites, are often mocked by the tech writers who stand above the fray. The terms used to describe them (fanboy, neck beard, faithful, sheep) suggest that caring too much about the operating system of your smartphone is at best juvenile and at worst cultish. Matt Honan captured the absurdity of the turf war in Wired this past spring.

Nobody cares what kind of smartphone you believe in. It’s not a religion. It’s not your local sports team even. Stop being a soldier. You are not a soldier. You are just wrong. Shut up.

It's a first world problem, no doubt, and trolls are trolls, but sometimes I fear that we sell people short for caring too much about these things. Many of us are using these devices as our primary tools to capture, digest, share, and communicate information about the world. Is it any wonder that we care deeply about the way these tools work and how they allow us to interact with that information? An operating system is not itself a language, but it is a tool for expression of language, not unlike speaking, writing, listening, or signing. It's certainly not a religion, but there is a sense in which it can form the basis of a culture, or at least a cultural understanding of digital information.

When my father got laid off from his job and decided to switch careers, one of the changes he made was to go from a Windows P.C. to a Mac. I did the same a few years later when I changed jobs. And as cheesy as it sounds, the new computer changed me. It changed how I wrote, how I made radio stories, how I consumed the news, took photographs, and made home movies of my children. And now it affects how I teach my students every single day.

Nobody doubts that computing devices are a part of daily life, but I think we sometimes forget how much more they are than mere "gadgets," "tools," or "toys." Even tech writers and podcasters sometimes act ashamed, calling themselves nerds or geeks, as if they shouldn't care about this stuff as much as they do. But we should care. This is the stuff of modern life. Computing devices are the windows through which we interact with our increasingly digital world. We have to care about them, and think about them, if we're ever going to understand them and the world we're living into.