Beauty vs Freedom

November 12, 2009

“I am shallow when it comes to aesthetics… poetry before prose, Greeks before Romans, dignity before elegance, elegance before culture, culture before erudition, erudition before knowledge, knowledge before intellect, intellect before truth”

Nicholas Nassim Taleb

Where do Linux users themselves sit on this spectrum? The question really has to be where do which Linux users sit? If truth is the Linux kernel in operation, perhaps the command line is intellect, and command-line-fu is knowledge.

Elegant bash scripts are perhaps erudition, rising to culture and, obviously elegance. But does Linux have poetry, or even the prose? As a Linux user, I have truth, and I may claim some knowledge and even a smidgen of erudition (now and again). But I crave the poetry of OSX. To be honest, I could leave Windows out of this particular argument, but I won’t.

The above quote is from The Black Swan, by Nicholas Naseem Taleb. It’s almost completely unrelated (in practice) to what I’m about to write, but it did give me an idea; an idea which seems particularly pertinent to talk about now in light of (sort of) recent comments by Mark Shuttleworth, who wants Ubuntu to take OSX as example (graphically), and a discussion on Episode “X” of the Tuxradar podcast. It’s the issue of aesthetics in Linux.

Where the quote comes into it is where the various more popular operating systems fall on that spectrum (I’m leaving out you BSDers, much as I love you, and OpenSolarisers (OpenSolaries?) but if you’re using KDE or Gnome, then this almost certainly lumps you in with the penguins (and don’t you just love that?)).

We have, at one end of the scale, Apple OSX: a beautiful, shiny, flowing, shifting, zooming thing with brushed aluminium window borders and dainty fonts. It’s also the most locked-down interface, with which you can alter very little. All the applications (that I’ve seen) are recognisable, fit in with the theme as a whole – icons and all – but if for some reason you didn’t like what you see, then tough. This beauty extends to the hardware, and always has. Everything fits.

Then I think we have Windows, and I’m thinking more specifically Vista and Windows 7 here, although it could be argued (by warped intelligences) that Windows XP was the start of an upward trend in ‘having a go’ at a prettier interface. There are a small number of built-in themes – three in XP, roughly a dozen in Vista, and perhaps the same in 7. Obviously there are a couple of customisations you can do too. Then, if you pay, you can download user-created themes, which I have found to be 98% tosh. Half-implemented themes, with XP icons where the creator hasn’t added their own, as well as ugly, garish, Ferrari-festooned teenage graffiti.

Basically, unless you stick with the built-in themes, you have to cough up, and you’re fairly unlikely to achieve any sense of unified appearance, either between icons and window decoration, or even between applications. Then of course there are the applications themselves. Look at the Nokia PC Suite for XP, or System Mechanic. These look more Vista-ish, so are not the worst offenders, but demonstrate the fact that the system is less locked-down than the Mac aethetically speaking, and appearance suffers because of it. It also demonstrates an intermediate level of freedom in terms of implementing new themes, and relying on the fact that all your software will appear co-ordinated on-screen (this is trays importantay, non? It is to me).

Finally we come to Linux. Complete freedom. A different number of pre-installed themes depending on your distro of choice, and infinite more at gnome-look and kde-look. Complete freedom on a scale from the starkness of the virtual terminal Ctrl+F1, to KDE4 (because KDE4 is by far the prettiest thing on Linux at the moment), with Gnome’s aethetically pleasing simplicity in between. But also complete freedom to mash up every crappy icon and semi-icon theme with your dark red angsty or soft-porn-ridden wallpaper and window controls, making co-ordination a long-researched and tedious operation. Again, the built-in themes are usually by far the most coherent (through GDM and all), but often are less than attractive, if not ugly.

Many hackers admire the simplicity of the command-line, and many more (myself included) love a good, simple Blackbox theme. But every now and again I find myself the victim of OSX-jealousy, and even (gasp) Vista-jealousy in the looks department when I’m sitting in front of my Linux box, especially when I’ve tried to tweak the theme or icons. I have to come back to the built-in themes, then stare at its poo-coloured wallpaper with the coffee stain (actually, I love that wallpaper, but a) brown goes with few other themes, and b) the sentence sounds better with those words left in).

For all our freedoms, and our love of creating the ‘fun’ stuff over the important and dull stuff (drivers!), beautiful, coherent interface themes are few and far between. But what is the role of the beautiful desktop in the Linux sphere? Is beauty skin-deep, or is it essential to a deeper enjoyment of simply using your computer? I am shallow when it comes to aesthetics. Are you?