Free software makes computers knowable

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 22, 2017 GMT
Bruce Byfield

The other day, a high school class mate of mine posted a comic piece about the problems with new software systems. The unspoken assumptions were that computers always caused problems, but that nothing much could be done about the situation. I smiled, but I realized that I no longer shared this attitude -- and that free software was the reason why.

Helplessness in front of the computer is probably part of the general anti-intellectualism in North American culture. More specifically, though, I blame the computer industry. For decades now, proprietary operating systems have been constructed so as to encourage what I call the grimoire approach to problems -- that is, collecting magic formulas for your specific needs, and following them exactly, without ever understanding the structure behind them. In theory, you could get down to the technical level, but generally it was so disorganized and so cryptic that exploration was discouraged.

As if this subtle conditioning is not enough, hardware ships with sealed backs, so no exploration is possible. Today, if a phone allows you to change the battery or a laptop allows you to add RAM, the fact is announced as though the manufacturer has made a generous concession.

Partly, such assumptions are the price users have been made to pay for simplicity. It is not an inevitable price, but designing an interface is easier if processes are dumbed down. Conveniently, however, it also supports an entire economic system from Apple and Microsoft on down to the local home business that charges seventy dollars an hour for making backups and removing malware twice a year.

Yet whatever the cause, the results are the same: users know even less about their computers than they do about their cars. The never-spoken message is that computers are tricky things. Take one move on your own, and the computer may explode in your face like a suddenly active volcano. The message, of course is: leave the tinkering to paid experts. Have an inverted pride in your helplessness, and assume that somewhere that nobody ever sees, there is a twelve year old with all the knowledge you lack.

No wonder so many users accept that they only have a license to use their software. It never felt like theirs in the first place.

Changes in Attitude
Once, I shared something of that feeling. Even though I ventured early into other operating systems, I never strayed far from the procedures I knew would work. I actually kept a literal grimoire --okay, a leather-bound notebook -- full of scribbled notes in case a problem reoccurred.

When I switched to free software, I wasn't immediately aware of the difference in attitude. I was too busy learning to be comfortable with a new operating system.

All the same, I understood that more was expected of me. From the first, I found myself doing things I had never done before, such as creating a file system or changing a setting in the BIOS so I could run a live CD. I learned, too, that while many online were willing to help, they would apt to be impatient unless I made clear that I had eliminated obvious solutions and searched for help before asking for it.

All unknowing, I had wandered into the world of do-it-yourself. Originating in small groups of hobbyists who had few resources except themselves, free software naturally required more independence of its users. Far from discouraging users from tinkering, free software actually encouraged it with text configuration files and scripting so simple that it could be learned without taking classes. Because there were so many choices, it encouraged me to explore so I could make informed decisions. Just as importantly, because free software was a minority preference, the necessary compatibility with proprietary operating system sometimes required considerable ingenuity.

As a result of these expectations, I gradually lost my learned helplessness. I can't say exactly when I shed the last of my conditioning, but after a couple of years, I realized that a major shift in my thinking had occurred. I still didn't -- and still don't know everything about free software, but I no longer panic when a problem strikes.

Instead, I assume that, although the problem is annoying, the solution can be discovered. I know how to reduce the risk before I start by making a current backup, or by experimenting in a virtual machine to prevent trashing my own system. I know how to research my problem, and to identify possibly related problems, and how to modify a script discovered online for my own purposes, or even how to write my own.

I am still far from a hardcore geek, but I have learned something like the attitude of one. Rather than fearing vague but dire consequences if I tinker, I have learned to approach a problem systematically and safely. Moreover, with every problem solved, the more I understand that computers and my operating systems are knowable -- and without nearly as much effort and expertise as I once expected.

Most of all, I have learned that, contrary to what I once believed, I do not need to be an expert to maintain my computers. All I need is the willingness to become one.

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