The computer desktop, like a home, is a memory theater, a place by which we organize the order and aesthetics of our consciousness, whose limitations we forget as they come to limit us. Show a place like that to others, and one risks showing them a humiliation that one cannot see for oneself—in a house, an endemic smell; on a desktop, a mess, glitch, or unseemly filename. Who doesn’t glance at the open screens of others on an airplane, in a library? Who doesn’t feel an itch of guilt for doing so, like peering into a lit-up window at dinnertime on a nighttime walk?
r/unixporn is a section of the website Reddit that publishes, more or less exclusively, screenshots of users’ computer desktops. These computers must be running Unix-based operating systems, such as Linux (the basis of Android) and BSD (which partly lurks under the hood of macOS). But unlike their corporate cousins, Unix systems are Free and Open Source—with their underlying code available for exploration and modification, and generally available at no cost to use. These systems are usually not what come on computers when you buy them in a store, but if you install one yourself, your options for tinkering are vast. These are the sort of systems that lend themselves to hacking.
Each desktop is therefore the chosen partner constructed by its user, and in that choice/creation we see the maker reflected: the color blindness, the inscrutable code, the remarkable adherence among some to internalized hacker stereotypes. There are meaningless characters streaming down like raindrops, a tribute to the Matrix movies; there are boy-nerd pin-ups with anime cleavage. As with the Adam-centered story of the making of Eve: bone of their bones, flesh of their flesh.
Hackers’ screens are a matter of particular fascination, as the genre of absurdist hacker-typing in movies suggests. What magical, dangerous things are they doing? Part of the mystique, too, is that while the rest of the universe has moved on to icons and touchscreens, much of a hacker’s work remains in the text of the old-fashioned terminal. Most r/unixporn screens have terminals open. Often they represent things normally done graphically—social media, music streaming, even Web browsing—in text-only. These are visual representation of an irascibly textual culture.
Keep in mind that r/unixporn is an open house. The dweller welcomes you in. The screenshots are cleaned up and dressed up, usually with a terminal window dutifully displaying neofetch, a utility that shows system information. Comments stream in with awe and admiration, questions about the setup, debate about the wisdom of the choices therein.
Of course we want to craft the spaces we inhabit most. Just as spending too much time in automobiles gave rise to the art of car modding, spending too much time on computers has given rise to this. The r/unixporn universe borrows terms of art and ritual from its automotive predecessors. “Ricing” is the locals’ word for desktop customizing; the usual way to introduce oneself to the community is a post titled something like “My First Rice.” This nods to the partly derisive, partly admiring slang associated with modding Japanese cars. Occasionally discussion threads flare up about whether or not the word is racist.
The condition of possibility for r/unixporn is the “Unix philosophy,” a system design based on mix-and-match modularity. Unix-like operating systems are therefore as much palette as product, having spawned a vast profusion of “distributions,” each with its own mixture of features and designs; DistroWatch.com currently tracks 276 of them. A sister Subreddit, r/DistroHopping, specializes in conversations about various distros—what to choose when and why. Many distros come ugly or boring by default, as the volunteers who maintain stable utilities are not typically the same people who would be fantastic designers.
Users choose among various desktop environments (graphical interface, configuration options), window managers (how windows appear on the screen), panels (where a clock and app icons appear), and icon sets and fonts. Take your pick, if you can understand the documentation enough to install it.
Once you’ve chosen a distro, and then customized it more or less beyond recognition, r/unixporn is where you’d show off what you’ve done—and wait for adulation. The result is a design commons, a co-created repository of possibilities. Users share their secrets and post their dotfiles—the configuration data necessary to reproduce a finely tuned setup. As a commons, the Subreddit is also a monument to another vision of what using software could be like for the non-hacker masses.
An unstated premise at r/unixporn is the knowledge that most people in the computer-borne world inhabit desktops that corporate committees design for them. A macOS or Windows user might keep their desktop drab or messy, but it is impossible to make hideous. The kind of glory or horror possible here is not what most people are up for. And in this minority condition lies a vision of what computing might have been, had the system layers not become the domain of profiteering monopolies, holding the masses hostage in their well-packaged mediocrity. Some users, on the other hand, choose facsimiles of corporate desktops on their *nix systems, while showing a terminal with evidence of what is really under the hood. The point isn’t some kind of anti-corporate spite, usually. r/unixporn prefers craft over politics. Yet in that craft there is a politics, an assertion of the beauty and play there might be in a world made less of commodities and more of commons, with less lock-in and more interoperability, less monoculture and more frisky subculture.