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The Tragedy of Linux: You Can Hack an OS, But You Can't Hack People

Date/Time Permalink: 05/09/08 09:32:03 am
Category: General

This will be a seven-part series.

Introduction:

It's about time I tackled this ugly task. I've been promising a follow-up to Ubuntu is not Linux. Because the broad point that I'm trying to make needs to be hammered down, I will explain it again and again and again, more and more clearly each time.

Why is this idea so apparently hard for others to grasp and so nose-on-my-face evident to me? Perhaps I'm more socialized than my geek peers. I took a psychology course once. I've always been fascinated by sociology and culture studies. And I worked a couple years in my youth as a taxi driver. You find out all kinds of things about people that you wouldn't otherwise. Perhaps it is this forbidden fruit of knowledge of human nature that puts such a gulf between me and the geek world. I balance my computer knowledge with my people knowledge, while other geeks stay more exclusively computer-knowledge.

Of all the responses I got, probably the one that came the closest to showing understanding is - are you ready for this? - this post at ITWire! Titled "Linux winds of change: friction between Ubuntu and old guard", the author, Stan Beer, at least earns a B in grasping this slippery concept. He correctly understands these points:

  • The Linux evangelists who would like to see Linux distros like Ubuntu and Suse replace Windows as the desktop system of choice. However, I would actually call them "Linux carpetbaggers" more than evangelists, because the motivation for many of them is that Guess Who's going to get rich if Linux replaces Windows outright and they get the credit? But I digress.
  • Linux is not and never will be an operating system designed to suit disillusioned Windows users. Ah, therein lies the drama!
  • The Ubuntu user interface is not exactly the same as Windows but it's close enough.
  • Ubuntu is a cultural cringe to refugees from Windows.
  • Ubuntu has a user base that is gradually becoming flooded with former Windows users who have made the switch.
  • The Windows culture is quite different from the Linux culture.

But then Stan Beer, after making it to within five yards of the end zone, suddenly veers right and crashes through the stands. Penguin Pete, it turns out, is this old-guard elitist, hording his precious Linux in his cave and smacking away the hand of anyone who reached for it. My mind is completely blown how somebody could follow that many of my points, agreeing with many facts, and then end up stating that my motivation is snobbery.

But heck, at least he got that far. Most of the rest of the responses couldn't even find the stadium.

So, before I plunge ahead, the purpose of this introduction is to lay out a few other ways in which my approach to the problem of Linux adoption may be very different from what most of you are used to. For one thing, like many geeks I admire some traits of Eastern philosophy. I say that I like Zen, but only because I'm not mature enough for Taoism yet. Now, I'm not shaving my head and meditating, but I appreciate Eastern beliefs and have adapted many of them into my philosophy.

In the West, we say "pick your battles". Or we say, "Give me the serenity to accept the things I can't change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." In the East, that idea is expressed in Taoism as working in harmony with nature instead of trying to force your way against it. Summed up in the phrase "Wu Wei".

Wu wei is a very important concept. It's worth several books. It is also very alien to Western thinking. We don't accept the things we cannot change; we're too worried about appearing cowardly. We instead declare wars on things we cannot change and then we fight them forever. Even Bill Gates himself does this: look at all the vast energy Microsoft has expended in trying to stamp out software freedom. Yet here it is, stronger than ever!

It would appear to the casual observer that, in spending so much time arguing the idea of the non-Linux Linux, that I myself am fighting nature. Quite to the contrary! About 95% of the rest of the IT world is trying to fight nature, and they're not winning. And they're not learning from their failure, either. They just get angrier and angrier and come back with bigger and bigger attacks.

On and on the OS wars go, when if only we stopped thinking about operating systems for a moment and started thinking about people, we would see that human nature is driving the desktop market. Not code, not hardware, not marketing, not programming languages and development platforms, but plain old human nature.

Human nature is just as powerful a force as gravity and electricity in this context. We are stuck with it. Depending on the belief system you subscribe to, either we were perfect creations of a deity, who have since fallen from grace and now are barely fit to exist, or we are animals slowly evolving into tragically stunted, flawed gods. But regardless, human nature is there, it's real, and to not take it into account while trying to decide how humans should compute is as big a mistake as trying to build a roller coaster while ignoring physics.

So that's the approach that I'm offering. Be prepared, in the rest of this series, to spend a lot of time studying the naked ape and almost no time thinking about computers. We are going to teleport ourselves far away from computers and offices and the software store, and from a vantage point of light years away, we will look down on the planet, and the busy busy bipeds who live there, and the struggles they wage, and ask ourselves what they want and how they can get that.

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