Comment: Can this operating system be art?

Some grown-ups even think Linux will bring down Microsoft's empire. Many geeks know it will
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The Independent Culture
SALZBURG HAS art like Qom has ayatollahs: there's a Mozart festival, some succulent baroque architecture, and every other mark of traditional civilisation. So it's an odd place to find an art prize solemnly awarded to a gigantic collection of computer code. This art work, Linux, is an operating system which makes it possible for obviously useful programs to communicate with each other and with the underlying hardware. Now, there's no doubt that Linux matters. There are a few sane grown-ups who think that it will bring down the Microsoft empire, and thousands of staring- eyed adolescents who know it will. The question is whether it's art as well.

The problem is not that it is a computer program: there has been lots of computer art before now, some of the best of it rewarded with the Prix Ars Electronica, the prize which this year has gone to Linux. There have been images made on screen that are genuinely moving and beautiful. But they qualify as art because you can look at them, or interact with them, and appreciate what you see and hear. Linux, on the other hand, is about as interesting to look at as a square foot of tarmac. On my computer, when Linux starts up, there is nothing to see but a prompt that says "wombat login:" and I wrote "wombat" myself. Whatever beauty is there is hidden from the superficial eye.

This need not be a crippling disadvantage: perhaps the whole of art consists in deep beauty, though it helps if it is hidden beneath a layer of superficial charm. There certainly can be elegance and perhaps beauty in engineering, even if it is a property which only normally appears in use. Perhaps beauty appears when this functional elegance is mirrored in the outer form: there are some bridges like that, the Eiffel tower, and many streamlined things, from aeroplanes to dolphins. No such elegance is obvious from the wombat prompt: the problems that it solves are quite invisible.

The thing that makes Linux remarkable is not that it is beautiful engineering, but that it's a collective, unorganised growth like folk song or epic poetry. Though the prize will be collected by the man who begat and named it, Linus Torvalds, Linux has more authors than Homer.

Torvalds is a Finn, now working at a secretive startup company in Silicon Valley who was in 1991 a computer science undergraduate in Helsinki. He decided to recreate an operating system popular in universities and called Unix, that was both expensive in itself and needed expensive hardware to be useful. He wanted to make a version that could run on cheap PCs. When he had got the guts of it working, he published what he had written on the net and encouraged other people to improve it. Anyone could play: the rules were simple. What you wrote had to be given away completely: you could not charge for it, and you must allow other people to change it - providing they stuck to the same rules and passed it on in turn. This system, known as "Copyleft", has proved indredibly productive.

Most of the Internet now depends on copylefted software, though it comes without any guarantees at all, or, as something I downloaded yesterday said "Absolutely No Warrany (sic)". Linux now runs on almost any PC hardware. It is more reliable than Windows 98 and much cheaper than Windows NT. In the hands of a professional, it can do almost anything commercial software can, though anyone who thinks it can replace their desktop windows system today will end up with something on their screen which far more closely resembles a work of art than a working computer.

But Linux is changing and improving all the time. You can download fresh versions of important software every day. Within a year or two, there will be companies selling four CDs and a manual for pounds 30 which will contain software that does everything Windows and Microsoft Office can do, and for which Mr Gates presently charges pounds 400. There will no longer be any compelling reason to pay what amounts to a tax for Microsoft on every PC sold.

This could be an economic revolution: an extraordinary thing for something to accomplish that is really the world's largest folk song. It's still hard to see,though, that this makes it great art. If you ask serious geeks, they'll tell you that Linux is not in fact a terribly beautiful piece of code. There are other free software projects that are more reliable and more elegant, but none that are so ambitious or nearly as famous.

It looks as if the jury gave the award to the idea of Linux rather than the actual programs: none of its members were the kind of people who could read source code for pleasure and aesthetic appreciation.

But let's not quibble. A folk song that can bring down an empire is better art than anything Charles Saatchi ever bought.