9.28.2005

A story about meta-stories

I spend part of my life in the IT (information technology) world. In this world there are a couple of competing metanarratives. Let's call them Windows, Mac and open-source.

The Windows story is that Microsoft has left everybody in the dust and everything integrates and works the same, so you have less to learn and are more productive. The proprietary nature of the system makes it trustworthy. "It just works," they say. Most people I know are pragmatic about this, or grudgingly accepting of this, rather than passionate about it.

The Mac story is that this the platform about creativity and individuality and doesn't suffer from the crashes and bugs and viruses and spyware of Windows. "It just works," they say. The Mac evangelists I know are passionate about the story, first and foremost, and then pretty pragmatic about getting their work done.

The open-source story is that many independent authors are better than one company's programmers, and that open review of software makes software stronger rather than exposing its weaknesses. And cheap software is worth the learning curve needed to get and keep it running. "It just works," they say. These folks are passionate about the process more than any specific product.

As a post-modern computer user, I see a "man behind the curtain" in each story.

The Windows story discounts the impact of bloated and expensive software, if you stay with the "standards," and the fact that the pervasiveness of the platform amplifies the need to stay secure (which is hard work) and the prevalence of viruses and spyware that take hours to prevent or eliminate and cut into productivity. It assumes an IT staff to take care of these issues so people can use the tools (at least some of my skills are in demand).

The Mac story ignores the fact that not everyone can pay premium prices for computers nor has the inclination to learn another way of doing things. It also discounts that fact that Windows is catching up in some core areas -- graphics, video and audio -- and that Mac apps still crash and have security vulnerabilities.

The open-source story assumes "geekness" and ignores the fact that most people don't want to need to know how a program works in order to use it and don't want to do complex things like recompile code. It also ignores the cost of retraining people to use "free" software.

So where does that leave me? I administer Windows networks at work and at home. I switched my primary laptop to a PowerBook. I enjoy and struggle with both platforms, and see strengths and weaknesses with each. I admire the open-source idea, but I just don't have the time to learn it, though I depend on its close cousin, free web services (like gmail and blogger). And I think that the open source concept has a lot of validity in other areas of life -- like communicating in and resourcing the church.

And I have authority problems. I read one blogger about Windows networking for small business who has some great insights into work flow and security and common sense computing. But every once in a while I read a just-too-positive comment about a new Microsoft 1.0 release and I think, "Can I trust this? Or is it just blind adherence to the Windows story?"

In the end, I trust my work, my time and my data in part to all of these competing stories. I listen to the stories and see what resonates with my experience. Amid many choices, I examine evidence to a point and then have faith that the choice I make works for what I am doing. All because I believe the story behind all of these stories -- that working, collaborating and playing with these tools is more efficient than doing it all by hand or face to face.

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