Gentoo Ought to be About Choice
“Gentoo is about choice.” We’ve said it so often that it seems like we just don’t bother to say it any more. However, with some of the recent conflicts on the lists (which I’ve contributed to) and indeed across the FOSS community at large, I think this is a message that is worth repeating…
Ok, bare with me because I’m going to talk about systemd. This post isn’t really about systemd, but it would probably not be nearly as important in its absence. So, we need to talk about why I’m bringing this up.
How we got here
Systemd has brought a wave of change in the Linux community, and most of the popular distros have decided to adopt it. This has created a bit of a vacuum for those who strongly prefer to avoid it, and many of these have adopted Gentoo (the only other large-ish option is Slackware), and indeed some have begun to contribute back. The resulting shift in demographics have caused tensions in the community, and I believe this has created a tendency for us to focus too much on what makes us different.
Where we are now
Every distro has a niche of some kind – a mission that gives it a purpose for existence. It is the thing that its community coalesces around. When a distro loses this sense of purpose, it will die or fork, whether by the forces of lost contributors or lost profits. This purpose can certainly evolve over time, but ultimately it is this purpose which holds everything together.
For many years in Gentoo our purpose has been about providing choices, and enabling the user. Sometimes we enable them to shoot their own feet, and we often enable them to break things in ways that our developers would prefer not to troubleshoot. We tend to view the act of suppressing choices as contrary to our values, even if we don’t always have the manpower to support every choice that can possibly exist.
The result of this philosophy is what we all see around us. Gentoo is a distro that can be used to build the most popular desktop linux-based operating system (ChromeOS), and which reportedly is also used as the basis of servers that run NASDAQ. It shouldn’t be surprising that Gentoo works with no fewer than 7 device-manager implementations and 4 service managers.
Still, many in the Linux community struggle to understand us. They mistake our commitment to providing a choice as some kind of endorsement of that choice. Gentoo isn’t about picking winners. We’re not an anti-systemd distro, even if many who dislike systemd may be found among us and it is straightforward to install Gentoo without “systemd” appearing anywhere in the filesystem. We’re not a pro-systemd distro, even if (IMHO) we offer one of the best and undiluted systemd experiences around. We’re a distro where developers and users with a diverse set of interests come together to contribute using a set of tools that makes it practical for each of us to reach in and pull out the system that we want to have.
Where we need to be
Ultimately, I think a healthy Gentoo is one which allows us all to express our preferences and exchange our knowledge, but where in the end we all get behind a shared goal of empowering our users to make the decisions. There will always be conflict when we need to pick a default, but we must view defaults as conveniences and not endorsements. Our defaults must be reasonably well-supported, but not litmus tests against which packages and maintainers are judged. And, in the end, we all benefit when we are exposed to those who disagree and are able to glean from them the insights that we might have otherwise missed on our own.
When we stop making Gentoo about a choice, and start making it about having a choice, we find our way.