The GnomeShell and Unity Bike Shed
If there’s one thing I use a lot, it’s Google’s “define:” keyword. I’ve got a pretty good handle on this here English language, but often I’m looking up words I see somewhere and don’t quite understand. In fact I’ve had whole online conversations with smart people where I’ve spent a great deal of that time just looking up definitions of the things they’re telling me. I’d never tell them that though. I’ve got far too much pride. Clearly.
Bikeshedding is one of those words I just looked up. I’ve read it several times and have probably even used it. But for some reason, this morning I just had to look it up. Most people would have first heard of the term in a FreeBSD mailing list post from back in 1999. The post however centres around a circa 1957 argument from C. Northcote Parkinson dubbed the Law of Triviality. It’s his depiction of this concept that caught my attention (emphasis my own):
Parkinson dramatizes his Law of Triviality with a committee’s deliberations on a nuclear power plant, contrasting it to deliberation on a bicycle shed. A nuclear reactor is used because it is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so they assume that those working on it understand it. Even those with strong opinions often withhold them for fear of being shown to be insufficiently informed. On the other hand, everyone understands a bicycle shed (or thinks he or she does), so building one can result in endless discussions because everyone involved wants to add his or her touch and show that they have contributed. While discussing the bikeshed, debate emerges over whether the best choice of roofing is aluminium, asbestos, or galvanized iron, rather than whether the shed is a good idea or not.
That last phrase is how I feel about both GnomeShell and Unity. We get so caught up in the gee-whiz and kewl-ness of it all that we forget to step back and ask:
- Why are we doing these things?
- What is the end goal?
- Is this really the best use of our time and attention?
I’d feel a lot better about the current state of Gnome and Ubuntu if I had seen clear answers to those, or had seen some evidence of those questions even being asked. I haven’t. Yet.