The nostalgia of Windows is everyday Linux.

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jun 22, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

A few days ago, I read a mailing list discussion about the advantages of running a computer in the 1980s. A few, like the lack of Digital Rights Management (DRM), were points well-taken. Others may have been tongue-in-cheek, but might also express personal preferences. However, most of the rest were advantages that I still enjoy (or could enjoy) as a Linux user thirty years later, partly because that is how Linux is designed, and partly because of my personal choices.

Don't believe me? Then consider some of the advantages I saw mentioned:

  • Instant shutdown: Windows may take 5-10 minutes to shutdown, but my Debian installation shuts down in under ten seconds unless I've scheduled a script to run then.
  • Faster boot: With my new SSD drive, boot time is about eight seconds. The main problem is that the boot outstrips the ability of the monitor to display it.
  • Running multiple operating systems: With a boot manager, this is no problem -- but it's been eight years since I kept a Windows partition. These days, I am more likely to run a virtual machine than a select an operating system when I turn the computer on.  
  • Mechanical keyboards: Almost all the keyboards for sale in stores are cheap membrane computers. However, thanks to purists and gamers, mechanical keyboards are two days away from my front door if I order them on line.
  • No distractions from multi-tasking: I reduce the distractions by using KDE Activities. Each Activity has only the tools needed for the task. For example, my Activity for writing includes icons for LibreOffice and the Bluefish text editor, plus URLs for tools like a a Thesaurus and a link to the spreadsheet where I list completed articles -- and nothing else.
  • High contrast green and amber monitors: Not my thing; my first monitor was amber and black. But you can set it up in a theme if you really want it.
  • You owned all your media: As a free software advocate, I avoid iTunes, and anything that uses DRM. The price I pay is a limited selection, of course.
  • A dedicated Internet connection is not required: Nobody today connects through a phone line if they can help it, but the same cable connection that brings me TV (or would, if I bothered to subscribe) also connects me to the Internet.
  • Platform choice: Granted, Amiga, Osborne, and Commodore 64 are no longer available, but setting up dual-booting Windows or as many operating systems as my hard drives have room for is a task that is more time-consuming than difficult.
  • No cracking of computers: My Linux computers could still be hacked, but the odds are better than on Windows -- providing, of course, I take the trouble to learn a few basic precautions and don't imagine that anti-malware utilities are the sole security measure that I need.

See what I mean? For Linux users, time has either stood still, or modernized without substantially changing.

Expectations and Nostalgia
I make these observations, not just to be contrary or to point out a vaguely interesting coincidence, but because I think they emphasize some of the differences between Linux and Windows users.

To start with, for Windows users, these advantages are things of the past -- the stuff, in fact, of nostalgia. Nobody complains more about Windows than Windows users, yet, perversely, they have endured the loss of many of these advantages one by one without seriously looking for alternatives. Familiarity, apparently, is more important to them than taking control of their own computing. They have learned to be passive, convinced that there is nothing they can do except grumble.

Meanwhile, Linux and other free operating systems gives them a well-developed alternative that goes a long way towards preserving the advantages they are nostalgic about. Yet the inertia and the myths about the alternatives are so strong that few even both to explore them. Not very deeply embedded in their unconscious is the belief that Windows is inevitable.

You can explain the advantages of free operating systems in detail, but the effort is not recommended if you want a social life. Although your listeners may not call you a liar, the more you explain, the more they will become convinced that you are boasting, exaggerating the advantages of your operating system out of some misguided chauvinism. Without thinking very much, they are convinced that everything you say is false or misguided.

In fact, with few exceptions, the passiveness of Windows users is their most outstanding characteristic. They would not need to change operating systems, for instance, to use a mechanical keyboard -- which, after all, is pitched as a product for gamers, the majority of whom use Windows. If they wanted to, they could add-ons to regain some of their lost advantages. Yet only a minority ever bother to do so.
Having run Linux for seventeen years now,I have trouble understanding this kind of passivity. Abstractly, I once know that I was every bit as passive. In practice, though, Linux with its text-based configuration files, configuration options, and massive amounts of online documentation have taught me to take control of my own computing.

As a result, I don't have to look back at the lost advantages of the early days of personal computing. To a great extent, they are advantages that I still enjoy today. If anything, I take them as a given.

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