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The Unix Cult

Peter Collinson (local name)
AS/103/108/121/110 (Galactic designation)

Galactic Cult Investigation Team,
Canterbury, Kent
(Small Island off Continent 3, Sol 3)


Notes from some recent archeological findings on the birth of the UNIX cult on Sol 3 are presented. Recently discovered electronic records have shed considerable light on the beginnings of the cult. A sketchy history of the cult is attempted.


The UNIX cult is widespread across the Galaxy now and the surprise discovery of some ancient files in the archives of Intergalactic Brain Machines on Sol 3 triggered the dispatch of an inter-disciplinary investigation team. The files are extremely extensive, occupying all of a small island off the coast of Continent 3. It transpires that the island was taken over by Intergal in the aftermath of the Corporate Wars which plagued Sol 3 some centuries after the birth of the cult.

The team were asked to find out the original meaning of some of the incantations used in UNIX religious practice and also to shed some light on what it all meant at the start.

We should take this opportunity to use the ancient prayer:

UNIX is a trademark of AT&T in the USA and other countries.

Earlier versions of this prayer do seem to exist, it is unclear why the form of words altered. `AT&T' was the Corporation where the Creators of the cult worshiped. The Corporation totally disappeared in the wars and many of its original records were either destroyed or altered by the victor in an attempt to `re-write' history. The placement of the country USA on the four continents has been lost.

The Gurus

There seems to be still no trace of the original Creators of the UNIX cult, so we start our examination of the records with a group calling themselves the Gurus . The etymology of this word is not quite clear but it does have associations with religious teaching and the High Priests of UNIX are given that title today.

Extract from electronic phone tap of someone nicknamed `dsw', believed to be Daniel Stuart Wilson:

``Of course, we were all isolated in the Version 6 days. When we changed things in the kernel we were on our own. There was no-one to phone to scream for help, in many cases there was no-one on the same site who you could discuss the problems with. We just had to get down and read that C. Sorting things out yourself was painful but you benefited in the long run. You became a better software engineer. After a bit you became a Guru and could lead others. This is largely bluffing - given a new situation and a knowledge of UNIX you could extrapolate the problems easily and seem to be very clever. It didn't actually matter what you had or had not done, it mattered that you appeared to have done a lot and could talk confidently about RK05's, PDP-11/45's, typing chdir rather than cd and a myriad other things which showed that you were a Guru.''

This extract shows clearly that the cult grew in small pockets across the globe. In each centre, a few individuals were given the task of installing the paraphernalia of the UNIX cult and of converting others to its use. In the beginning, it seems that these individuals had little or no contact with each other; curiously, this appears to have strengthened their ability rather than weakening it. Other extracts from the archive indicate that the early practices of the cult were small and simple making it easier for one person to grasp their full meaning. As the cult grew, the practices became more complicated and the understanding harder.

The term software engineer refers to a person whose task it was to feed instructions or programs into the primitive versions of the Overlords which were extant at the time. Judging from the emphasis made in the records about the need to generate `correct' programs, this was obviously an artistic task requiring considerable expertise. The reference to `C' implies that there was some official form of speech or perhaps a special religious language which was used to convey instructions.

It is not clear whether the RK05 and the PDP-11/45 were the names of the Overlords or some ancillary equipment associated with them. However, the word cd (Pronounced `see-dee') meaning `to move from place to place' is still used in some arborial societies on the planet US/115/110/105/120.

The User Group

In current UNIX religious practice, the term User Group is used to refer to the congregations at the Hologram Services. It seems that after a while the early practitioners of the cult began to have meetings (where people actually appeared together in the same room). Why these were called `User Group' meetings is unclear, since the early meetings were attended by Gurus and not by Users. At the time, a User seems to have been a derogatory term for the un-initiates. However, the head Guru at a site was given the title `Super-User'; perhaps this was to hide the evangelical nature of the Guru's task.

The reason for the early meetings was mostly to allow Gurus to inform each other how best to perform religious conversion and how to get the most converts the fastest by improving the Service to Users.

As the word spread, the meetings grew in size, expense and quality of surroundings. They proved to be an exceptionally good way of upgrading low level Novices into higher level Gurus. This is a reflection on the early religious books which were aimed at Gurus and were often way above the head of the Novices. Novices were encouraged to attend the meetings to gain by word of mouth what they could not gain from the literature. At these later meetings, the nuts and bolts of UNIX practice were still discussed because many of the Novices were either acting in a support role to Gurus or planning to become evangelists themselves. After a while, the Gurus got bored with discussing inodes (The meaning of this is totally lost). and other topics began to creep in.

The meetings gradually altered in character, with the Gurus attending because they wished to see the other Gurus; and more and more Novices attending in the vain hope that they would learn something. The cult had spread so far by now that it was profitable for Corporations to become involved in the selling of UNIX paraphernalia and religious goods. Initially, these Products were advertised widely at the meetings. However, the Corporations often sent attendees with prepared scripts who were sometimes not even Users and who had little or no knowledge of intricacies of UNIX practice. The Gurus and Novices were dismayed.

On their side, Corporations began to see that the word which they were spreading was falling on somewhat stony ground. This gave rise to the Great Split with a rival organisation being set up primarily aimed at selling and the original User Group concerning itself more with the cerebral activities of the cult. In the end, this was a good thing because the Gurus were able to start deriving benefit from the meetings again since there were now spare slots for educational talks. In fact, the rival organisation was wiped out in the Corporate wars because it had allied itself strongly with AT&T.

The User Group, then, provided some important functions. It supplied a forum for discussion of the practices of the cult. It provided a meeting place for the widespread Gurus who initially met to discuss their work but as time passed they went just to meet each other. It spread the word to Novices; and as the cult grew, it provided a place where new ideas on the direction which things should take could be discussed.

Another more hygienic method of worldwide communication grew out of the cult with the formation of the Network. This is discussed in the next section.

The Communicators

When the cult had grown to worldwide proportions, we begin to see the emergence of a global communication system - the `Network' or `Net'. The activities on the Network can be deduced from the electronic archives but the material is so vast that scanning it for relevant information is proving difficult.

The majority of traffic on the network seems to have been communication between Overlords describing various error conditions. Here is a sample:

Various repeated unintelligible lines
From: MAILER-DAEMON (Mail Delivery Subsystem)
To: <uucp@a4los.uucp>
Subject: Returned mail: Service unavailable
   ----- Transcript of session follows -----
>>> DATA
<<< 554 sendall: too many hops (30 max)
554 <megd> ... Service unavailable: Bad file number
   ----- Unsent message follows -----
More of the same

There are very many other examples of the same type of message. However, these messages do place things in context - we now know that the communication system was called Mail and from this we infer that the mechanism was intended to permit communication between people. In amongst all the Overlord messages we do find some files which appear to emanate from one person and be addressed to another. A high proportion of the sampled files were intended to probe the capabilities of the Network, often provoking an Overlord error message. We know this because the destination address is the same as the source; in some cases the subject is `Just testing' or something akin to that. This technique was perhaps used to investigate the ability of the Network to transfer files. We are left with a much smaller number of what might be termed `useful' messages. In many cases, these consist of personal trivia showing that the Network was supplying the useful social function of allowing people to make and maintain contact.

Other messages consist of hieroglyphics containing many braces `{' and brackets `('. This type of message shows some form of regularity in structure but syntax analysis is hampered by the presence of so many exceptions. It is possible that these messages contain portions of religious ceremonial or it has been suggested that this is the ritual language `C' and the exceptions are what were called `bugs'. This last suggestion (by a post graduate student on the team) has been greeted with a certain amount of derision.

Mail messages have a recognisable format and can be distinguished from another type of message which occurs in much greater volume. It appears that these messages are part of a system called `The News' broadcast to many sites. The News permitted individuals to send a single message to many people across the world. A sample of the contents imply that the News took over as the main method of spreading the UNIX word when the User Group meetings ceased to be totally useful in this role.

Judging from the beginning of many News files, the News was split into many separate subject headings. Over large periods of time, we see the subjects come and go with abrupt changes in title occurring from time to time. The subjects do not seem to be confined to discussion of topics with direct relevance to the cult. There are many headings which just carry `talk' on various subjects. An analysis of the topics is being prepared as a background document since they fall outside the remit of the investigation.

It might be thought that the News would provide an excellent vehicle for the Super Gurus who must have existed by this time - but far from it - very few messages contain what might be termed confident information. Most seem to carry opinion which is contradicted in later messages. The evidence here is that most authors were Novices. The Gurus had either lost interest in spreading the word, or were simply too busy to wade through what must have been daily oceans of verbiage. It is also possible that Gurus just used the Mail to communicate, perhaps not wishing to impose their definitive opinions on the discussion with the thought that discussion is a healthy academic tool.

The Network spread slowly over most of Sol 3 with some areas being exempt because either they resisted conversion to the UNIX cult or were deliberately omitted for ideological reasons. A single News message from `kremvax', an otherwise silent site, seems to have been met with a storm of protest. This shows that the Network crossed political boundaries and proves the contention that Sol 3 was split into separate economic entities predating the rise of the Corporations.

The Vendors

The Corporations who were involved in the propagation of UNIX paraphernalia and religious goods were known as Vendors. The Vendors had a different view of the world from the Gurus, and this difference lead to many schisms in the cult. The Vendors and Gurus tried to maintain a separate identity at all times. For example, when the Vendors attended the User Group meetings they provocatively wore different religious vestment from the Gurus. They did this to make it easy for other Vendors to identify them and to allow their easy differentiation from the Gurus and Novices.

At the centre of the clash of opinion was a fundamental difference in the perception of `the User'. The Vendors were always complaining that UNIX religious practices were not `User friendly'. By this, they meant that the act of worship was hard to learn, and the rituals were cryptic. They wished their Users to only deal in simple concepts and never to learn more than the basics of the rituals. The Gurus objected to this view because they believed that the learning of cryptic rituals allowed the worship to proceed faster and that limited exposure to only the simple concepts restricted the Users in a way which was not desirable. The Vendors believed that the Users were fundamentally stupid and without any hope of redemption; and the Gurus believed that the Users were fundamentally stupid but might be saved given the correct tuition.

The early Vendors were peopled by Gurus who had often to undergo the necessary clothing transformation to demonstrate that they had switched camps. These Vendors were responsible for the spreading of the cult to a much wider and naive User population. Some of the Vendors tried to set up their own breakaway cults to avoid the central control imposed by AT&T, the Corporation where the Creators worshiped. These attempts failed. Other Vendors created Sects which specialised in worshiping the many minor Overlords which had appeared about this time. These Sects were partially successful and converted Users to their way of thinking. The Sects created by this method had special names related syntactically to the word UNIX. Only XENIX has survived as an example of this.

Then seeing all this activity, AT&T decided to become a Vendor.

The Gurus were horrified when the Marketing Staff, regarded today as the front line fighting force of all Corporations, were put in charge of the development and promulgation of the cult. The Creators were no longer allowed to directly influence the development, instead they were to pass their ideas to the Marketeers who would decide what was acceptable or not. The Marketeers spent a lot of time producing a new religious tome to help to guide the developers. The book was known as the Svid and laid out the central tenets of the practice. The Marketeers were determined that the Svid should be elevated to the level of all the other religious books. To this end they tried to make the Svid as cryptic as all the others, and succeeded.

After some initial shock, the Vendors accepted the central control which AT&T imposed because they saw that it made their Products accessible to more Users. `Consider it Standard' became the watchword in a Crusade designed to eliminate the undesirable Sects which wished to differ from the Svid.

The Users of the Vendors Products were certainly pleased with AT&T's decision to become a Vendor. It meant that they were no longer tied to the Products of one particular Vendor but could pick and choose without altering their worship. The Gurus were less pleased until they realised that AT&T were unable to change the cult to eliminate them. Every Overlord where the UNIX cult was practiced still required a Guru to perform essential tasks.

The Sects

The UNIX cult was always noted for its propensity to split into separate Sects. In the early days, the Creators had a release policy which made sure that all cult members possessed all the relevant facts in order to fully comprehend the implications of the worship. It was said that Users aspiring to be Gurus needed all the facts because the religious books were written for Gurus, and Users could make no sense of them. Unfortunately, access to the information was much abused because the Gurus immediately used the knowledge to alter things and many minor and major Sects of the Cult sprang into life. The ability of each site to generate its own Sect was somewhat curtailed by the cunning ploy of re-issuing the rituals and practices in a slightly altered form from time to time. The Gurus were soon tired of altering the same things every time a new set of rituals came though the door and they began to leave things alone. Also, by this time, the Vendors had made an appearance and because they believed in the Svid Crusade, they stuck with the orthodox mainstream AT&T view of the cult.

Even so, at the end of the period being researched there seems to have been two Sects with differing practices and rituals. The main rival to the orthodox view was a Guru lead Sect called the `Berkeley System Devotees'. This had sprung into existence in the early days of the cult, taking advantage of the knowledge imparted to them by the Creators. However, the early Berkeley Gurus cleverly distributed their rituals and practices in the much the same way as the Creators and this ensured a wider following. The prominence was noted by a higher power and they were chosen to master the revisions of the Cult which were needed to permit worship on some new Overlords.

These new Overlords had managed to conquer the restrictive memory sizes which plagued many of their forbears. It was said by many that the new Overlords had not got this right but at least they did it. As a result the new Overlords had the potential to allow bigger and more expansive practices. The Berkeley Gurus grasped this opportunity with the objective of creating `The Perfect Ritual'. The rival Sects referred to this as `creeping featurism'; the precise meaning of this obscure phrase is under investigation.

The Perfect Ritual was defined as one where all the letters of the alphabet were used as a `parameter' specifying a distinct action or phase in the worship. The Berkeley Gurus never managed to create the Perfect Ritual, but they came close.

The Berkeley Gurus distributed their rituals and these became popular because the Marketeers inside AT&T were so busy creating the Svid that they failed to notice that Berkeley practices were slowly being adopted on all the new bigger Overlords. The Berkeley rituals were also liked by Gurus because they were nearer the `Old Religion' laid down by the Creators. In a fit of pique, the AT&T Marketeers decided that they would no longer support the new Overlords and branded the Berkeley Gurus as heretics.

As heretics, the Berkeley Gurus decided to go one step further in altering their Sect. They proposed and executed a fundamental change of direction which was to become a `De-facto Standard'. The new Sect was revolutionary because it allowed Overlords to talk to each other, but to do this a whole new litany had to be created. New words entered the vocabulary and new concepts were introduced. For many, worship in the new Sect was slow and unwieldy in comparison to what had gone before. But the new practices meant the easy ability to interconnect Overlords and this was demanded by the Overlords themselves.

Unfortunately for the participants in the Svid Crusade, many Users actually insisted on being able to use some of the Berkeley rituals. The pressure from the Users was such that we begin to see Vendors announcing their Products as being `with Berkeley enhancements'. Finally, the AT&T Marketeers were forced to incorporate some features of the rituals which did not conflict with the teachings in the Svid. At this time, we also begin to see specially created Overlords which could be used to worship in the practices of either Sect simultaneously, this was known as the `Universe Concept'.

The Berkeley Gurus were so broken by the gestation of the new Sect that many left, some to worship the sun and some to seek salvation in the noble task of Pixel Creation. It was thought that the new Sect would be the last to sally forth from hallowed halls of Berkeley because the staff were demoralised and without joy. The Svid Crusaders were pleased, ``All we have to do is wait and do nothing'', they said. Since they weren't noted for doing much anyway, this wasn't difficult.

However, much to the dismay of the Crusaders, many Novices amongst Berkeley group were promoted to Gurus, and these new Gurus worked to consolidate and strengthen the new rituals. The label of `slow and unwieldy' was not to be applied again. Time and motion studies were performed on the rituals for the first time in the recorded history of the UNIX cult and a little more than lip service was paid to the notion of efficiency of worship.

The Standardisers

One way of defeating the degeneration of the pure UNIX cult into Sects was by the creation of a `Standard'. As we have seen, the Svid is one example of this. However, the Svid differed from other Standards because only the AT&T marketeers were in a position to generate a Standard without reference to anyone else. They seemed especially keen that no taint of the Berkeley heresy should appear in their work and so did not consult the Users.

In order that the Svid could qualify as a Standard, the AT&T Marketeers had to promise that it would not alter. They agreed to this because they were determined to ensure that the Svid gained religious significance. This was a good thing for other Vendors who were treating the Svid as a Standard but it is possible that the slavish adherence was detrimental to the fortunes of AT&T in the long run because they were unable to update the rituals and practices to keep up with the demand for change created by the Users.

All the other standards were either created by groups of Vendors working together and ignoring the Users; or by groups of Users working together and ignoring the Vendors. Gurus were rarely involved; they were either too busy and important to sit on committees or just plainly could not see the need for conformity.

The Standards rarely reflected the UNIX practices and rituals which were in use at the time of their creation. All of them seemed to have a speculative element, as if the Standardisers themselves tried to develop or perhaps rationalise the rituals in some way. As a result, the Standards were never standard.

However, the various Standards did give the Users an idea of what was expected of them if they desired to move from one Sect to another. Users who did this often, the so-called Portables, learned to use the minimum of ritual and to localise the Sect dependent areas of their worship.

The Portables might have been helped by a Standard for the religious language, C. They were surprised to learn that Standard C was, in fact, a different language from the original and almost no-one had an Overlord which could understand it. The changes were no doubt desirable but came from treating C as a `high-level language' rather than using it in the way which the Creators intended, a method of communicating intimately with the Overlords.


The archives are still being searched for other interesting material but enough has been found to demonstrate the fervent activity which followed the creation of the UNIX cult. We have found no trace of the Creators and barely a hint of the disciples who followed them inside AT&T . We hope that more research may provide some answers and respectfully ask for more funding.

On to Sun Expert Articles

Peter Collinson Last change: 13th October 2002


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