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Overcoming THE FEAR

Date/Time Permalink: 10/31/07 01:10:40 pm
Category: General

This being Halloween, it seems appropriate to talk about fear. Why don't more desktop users adapt to free computing? THE FEAR.

The command line. Scary stuff, for some. Speaking as someone with a family member who suffers from chronic anxiety disorder, I know exactly how crippling fear can be to the intellect. It is the performance anxiety of the brain. Here sit we geeks, calmly explaining the options to ls for the 60th time, and we can't see through the screen to the face of the person we're talking to. If we could, we might sometimes be able to tell that that person is terrified of messing up. How many people out there are misdiagnosed with ADD? When all the while the reason they can't learn is because their thoughts are drowned out by their amygdalas screaming "Panic! I have to get away from this NOW!"

Businesses. The debates that go round and round on Slashdot about open-source adoption in the business sector usually settle on the point: Businesses stick to commercial software because it gives them someone to sue. In other words, fear. If something goes wrong... what if? What if this? What if that?

In a recent Slashdot discussion, I chanced upon a comment that knocked me right back to today. This comment discusses the essence of the point that humans are still stuck with a slowly-evolving brain and a quickly-evolving environment; the human brain just isn't keeping pace with adapting to technology.

Creating Passionate Users has a post on "helping users feel the fear and do it anyway". And yes, they've nailed something: Picture an average home user with no geeks around, clutching a Linux live CD for the first time but thinking: "What if it asks me questions I don't know the answer to? What if it I can't get it to run? What if it hoses up my machine and I can't get Windows back?" To some people, the computer isn't a friend at all. It's a malevolent, vicious beast which they have lost all hope of taming. They are worried that their computer will punish them for being bad.

Of course, the reason it is so mean is because it's been running commercial software which has the temperament of Freddy Kruger. I never forget that this is 90% of the reason we have what we call lusers. On a FOSS system, the computer rewards you for learning new things. On a proprietary system, it spanks you and sends you to bed without any supper if you even so much as try to peek into a library file. It will crash and you will re-boot; it will answer the question "what happens if?" with refusing to run any more until you reinstall it.

The punishment is wasting minutes of your life staring at a dead screen waiting for it to start working again. This discipline is dispensed over and over again, with no progress possible. Like a beaten dog, you are taught to stay in your cage.

As opposed to free and open source systems, where your time will be spent learning something new. Which is difficult, but once you learn it, it's yours and you own it for life, never to have to face that dead screen again. I have yet to solve a Windows problem and at the same time take away experience that guarantees me that I will be able to solve any problems in the future. Who knows? It's out of my hands! On FOSS, a solution found is worth blogging, worth memorizing, worth engraving in stone tablets, because, like math, once the solution is found, the problem will never change. I have shell scripts in my directory that are ten years old, and I still use them by reflex. Many of them contain sequences of commands which I was able to generalize and save, and now they run like any other program. I can go back and read them to refresh my memory.

What the fraidy-cats need is a "sandbox": a spare box that they can play with at will, without worrying that doing something wrong is going to ruin their lives.

It was the wide variety of cheap hardware available at the time that led me to my first plunge into installing Linux. To this day, I still use test boxes to practice doing something really crazy. And I advocate recycling old computers in just this way. Cheap x86 computers are readily available all the time. Neal Stephenson relates a similar experience:

"...I was, within a week or two of returning home, able to get my hand on a then-decent computer (a 33-MHz 486 box) for free, because I knew a guy who worked in an office where they were simply being thrown away. Once I got it home, I yanked the hood off, stuck my hands in, and began switching cards around. If something didn't work, I went to a used-computer outlet and pawed through a bin full of components and bought a new card for a few bucks."

Now, there's a sandbox! What could possibly go wrong? With a spare computer, you can thrash risk-free. It doesn't matter if you get it running because you got wise or got lucky. If you break it, toss it and find another. Keep capturing and releasing until you find a beast you can tame! And there's no reason not to; computers are now clogging our landfills, recycling e-waste is becoming a problem. Getting a spare computer to just use as a learning toy is actually a practical way to help yourself and help the environment at the same time.

I have a great idea for an Internet cafe: Run diskless workstations running something hardy and resilient like Puppy Linux or OliveBSD. Advertise your cafe as a place where customers are invited to thrash on your computers. Go ahead - delete files! Download anything! In fact, you get a free espresso shot if you can show the proprietor a kernel panic screen. Write scripts, test stuff, experiment. Learn the command line by just opening it up and typing ";oijh#!p9hdpewiduh p./;-)iudn" and laughing at what it says back. The only rule is that you can't damage the hardware itself; though even if you fry the monitor by putting something imaginative in xorg.conf (a diminishing probability these days), what's a monitor anyway? We have a pile of them in the back.

The Thrash Cafe. For once, you get to show the box who's boss. Heck, if Peter, Samir and Michael from "Office Space" had a Thrash Cafe next door to vent in on their lunch break, they might not have built up all that hostility towards the printer FAX.

BSOD sig

◊ Update: Thank you, commenter Tina! Yes, it was the FAX machine, not the printer. My little mind was confused by both of them having pretty lights and using paper.

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