ADVOCACY : Steering a Path between Infatuation and Fanaticism
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It doesn't take long before many new Linux converts feel they're ready to venture out into the Temple of the Money Changers, the high cyber seas, or among the great unwashed masses (pick a metaphor) to be a voice crying out in the wilderness. Crying out what? Linux. It's free, as in beer and speech, its faster, its stabler, it's got a whole lot more online tech help, and oh yeah, did I mention free?!
It isn't long before they are met with yawns or downright hostile stares from friends and co-workers who have just cleaned out a bushel of spyware, taken their box to the doctor for a virus which ravished their hard-drive with a ball gag and duct tape, and made them reinstall Windows XP service pack 14. Again. They don't want to hear about this crude hacker's system which requires you to know how much RAM you have and what a partition is. Why in hell not, you wonder.
It seems though, that no matter how much and how earnestly you try to get in their hostile little faces, they not only don't want to hear it, but are faster than a tweaked Gentoo system at pulling endless rationalizations from thin air to keep their computer chained to Microsoft. At the magazine where I work, I was informed by my boss : “I admit it...I'm Bill Gates monkey. I have no problem with that.” Endquote. Or the company partner, who assured me: “Yeah, well, on a Mac, you never have to use command line...” as if he had been liberated from some great evil. When a co-worker wondered what version OS was running on his office Mac, I simply went to the cli and tried uname, and a couple of basic nix calls. (I don't know Macs, so I didn't know which cute icon thingy told you about the system.) True, you don't have to. Thanks to a unix form of Darwinism, you can and you just might want to.
But such arguments fall on deaf ears. There are quite a few answers to the why of that question, and it pays, if you're trying to sell a free open source operating system to a cowed and superstitious world of users, to keep some of the following concepts in mind:
It's not about money.
Microsoft is “safe”
Why bother? Or “Change? I'd sooner undergo an alien rectal probe...”
That's just hacker/geek/ nerd/techie/commie-pinko propaganda
There are others, but these have been the most prevalent that I've encountered. And it's no exaggeration to say that such ideas are akin to superstition and fear. That boss I mentioned? He exhibited a noticeable physical reaction when I tried to hand him one of those cute pre-packaged ubuntu kits. Wouldn't even touch it. So maybe a quick look at some of the more common symptoms of linuxphobia ...
Its not about money...
Hard to believe but true. Especially in the workplace. While you and I may realize that money saved on networking the office might just lead to employee raises, many employers see computer stability and out-of-the-box usability as something worth paying any price for. Literally. Most companies see money spent on their IT as much more profitable than money spent on employees. The very nature of an active and functioning company implies there is money to be spent if money is to be made. Result? the magic boxes on the desktops are always the first to receive the sacrificial offerings of trinkets, money and fatted calves. Quite simply? “It's free” means very little. If it's free it must be cheap, shoddy and without support of any kind. Criticize M$ FUD tactics all you want, they make Mr. Gates a very wealthy and powerful man.
How then, can one combat such illogical and counterproductive spending? By showing how stable, usable, technically supported and productive a Linux system can be. If – and this is a big if – you are given the opportunity to load up Linux on one or several boxes, it is best to choose a distribution with a very visible corporate presence. Nowadays, I generally recommend Suse, thanks to the web presence and reputation of Novell and the extra spit and polish that goes into making Suse famous as a clean and well-lit distro. It looks good, especially with KDE, to Microsoft users. And a Mac-reminiscent interface when you switch to Gnome will make the designers happy. Red Hat, in spite of their high profile, hasn't really changed their look since at least RH9 and tends to look creaky and slapdash next to Suse.
If you're up against radical disbelief, it makes little sense laboring over – for example – ubuntu and kubuntu and how it's free and they're the same distro with two desktops, hence the two cds with similar names.... Yada, yada, yada...too late, they've stopped listening. Mepis comes to mind as well, in that they are aiming for a corporate audience with several releases, but check out their website before trying that one on, and decide whether the milky blue and white and general disorganization of the site will inspire confidence.
All that is if you are allowed to actually install some Linux at the office. Chances are you aren't. Which is where live cds come in. Pass them out to those expressing an interest. That circle eventually grows as other workers realize that those who listen to the geek get something free. What is to be avoided, at all costs, is to make the whole thing look like some kind of proselytizing, holy rolling, takeover or sneaky labor union tactic. Restraint works wonders, which is why it is usually better, if you can do so, to simply do work that you can on a live cd and let others ask. Remember, people have a lot invested in rationalizing the security factor they believe is inherent in Windows. To prevent accidental catastrophe, imply that the free cds are for home use. In the early days when I was test driving Knoppix, I jammed up my system and immediately held Knoppix as the culprit. Turns out it was a hardware problem, but at the time, that didn't matter. I was convinced Linux could be dangerous. And in a sense, it is. You may have to adjust BIOS setting to run the live cd, or worse, have others try to tamper with their boot setup and BIOS.
They may be stuck on M$ at work, but can do what they like at home.
It also helps if you don't roll on the floor with gut splitting laughter whenever their MS god crashes, howling “LUUUUUSER'S! Windows crashed again?! HAHAHAHA! D'oh, like whadidyou expect?! LUSER!"
Only you can judge the extent of the resistance to changing OSes and software. If you've worked in some companies that I've worked in - with IT folks firewalling Yahoo mail in the name of productivity and insisting that every screen sport the company logo wallpaper...you'd know it's not worth the effort. Smaller companies can be equally resistant so tread with care. You're taking a shotgun to a sacred cow. A 'safe' sacred cow.
Microsoft is Safe....
It's very easy, in a Windows world, to assume there are really no other options and that the bugs and hangs and crashes must be attributable to faulty hardware. Judging software in terms of bugginess, bloat, resource hogging and so forth are not among judgement calls made. My first computer? I thought Windows came on all computers, and that there really weren't other options outside becoming a Mac devotee. Microsoft has marketed their product to become synonymous with PCs for most people for whom a computer is a glorified dvd player, an email machine or a word processor.
For much of my life – at least three decades of it – I've managed to steer clear of a home PC and used the ones at work as a data processor, a word processor, a storage place for documents and info and little else. The point is, I didn't study Computer Science, nor did I have a computer to fuss over at home, and so I was able to ignore a world many readers feel quite at home in. Upon realizing that a journalist without a computer was becoming as obsolete as unicorns without horns these days, I finally gave in and got a Windows box set up at home. And was off to the races. A great deal of latent geekiness had been lying in wait for me to get a computer. The part of me which knew this had put off the purchase for as long as possible.
Overnight, I became obsessed, fussing over it, buying books, adding RAM and upgrading graphics cards. Snarfing demos, games, and cracked software, I made up for lost time. The point of this digression is that Windows lasted less than a year and a half. It didn't take long to realize that my hardware was in a unhealthy hostage relationship to Microsoft and that eternal upgrades were the norm if I wanted to keep up with all things software. Ultimately, I became bored. Buying a Windows magazine one day, I started talking with the cashier. This cashier, as it turns out, was a Linux freak. He informed me there were options. He offered to give me free CDs but told me I should have someone help me install the new system. He offered to install them, and told me of a worldwide community of developers and free software.
He sounded a bit like a cult member and my “mastery” over my computer was thrown into question. Never mind that mastery at this point only meant that when XP asked if I was sure, I could confidently click “Yes”. I backed off, but kept his phone number. It all sounded too good to be true.
It was a free Knoppix CD in a computer mag that got me started, at my own speed and in private so if it proved too much no one had to know. The clincher was statements from Microsoft about activation and anti-piracy technology, which only sounded more and more threatening. Soon, they said, only activated, legal copies of XP could receive updates. Since no CD came with the computer, I now know it was cracked, and that I had never activated anything, nor did I have an activation number of any sort. I had had enough at that point to look further into the Linux thing.
Going on two years later, I have hosed systems, nearly exploded monitors, dug around in the guts of the desktop, short circuited my apartment, hosed another dual boot (or ten), tried endless variations of Linux, BSD and even Plan 9 from Bell Labs. I know now that hosing your system and screwing up are part of the process. I've started learning C and Python. Infatuation has passed almost unnoticeably into something akin to a harmless fanaticism, and discover neither works in a world where most people take a PC as much for granted as I took a TV or toaster for granted back in the day.
And when you want to convince such people to change everything and start from zero and get their hands dirty working on a glorified word processor that also plays games and DVDs? Of course you get blank stares. If someone is to convert their computing to a UNIX model they need to care enough in the first place. When you find people suitably tabula rasa – usually either children or older folk - its fairly easy to show them the simplicity and ease of an ubuntu or a MEPIS one disk system, with thousands of free programs a mouse click away.
But far too many pride themselves on having mastered basic computing on Windows. To steal from Eric Raymond, they're trying to dance in a full body cast. The problem is they don't know it. Any attempt to convince friends or co-workers to change has to be accompanied by a great deal of understanding about the assumptions and sensibilities of the person you're pitching Linux to. Determined fanaticism, endless Windows bashing and words like 'hacker' are offputting to people who want to surf the Web, read email and play MP3s. Linux for them must do these things as easily as XP or its no-go. On MEPIS, a self-proclaimed Windows replacement I find this to be true. The install, of what is basically a newb-friendly Debian, is actually easier than Windows. And faster. Nearly everything works right out of the box. Don't let your love of quality and hackerliness push you into throwing possible converts into Slackware, where the default setup only allows root to run CDs, where it boot onto a command line with messages from fortune-mod and where you have a choice of nearly a dozen kernels to choose from during install. The first time I booted into Slack, I knew a fortune cookie when I saw one but was still not prepared for this one, when I hadn't even run fortune...I got a 'humorous' fortune telling me the program had failed to run and, furthermore, the system was now going to dump core and format my hard drive. You don't want that notice to be the first thing a new Linuxer sees after surviving their first install.
Sounds like common sense, and yet, every day one sees web posts recommending Fedora Core for first time Linuxers. Fedora Core is a self-proclaimed cutting edge hackers system and not the kind, gui-based, point and click, newb friendly Red Hat of yore. There are too many options now to throw a bleeding edge Fedora at someone. Linspire, Xandros, Ubuntu, Mepis and live cds have been around long enough to assure a nearly painless transition. One can even see a difference between SuSe 9.2 and Open Suse 10. The earlier, corporate Suse didnt include emacs, and findutils was not installed by default. A first time Linux user probaby cares for neither emacs, nor a locate command. It must be accessible via a gui app that resembles Windows. What I like about Suse 10 is all the stuff bound to simply confuse someone new to Linux. All those dev apps and editors and python tools? Overwhelming for someone trying to write documents, and check email. Be careful what you recommend to those intrigued by the Linux phenomenon.
And while we're at it, can we do something about overuse of the word newbie?! It's bad enough being new. The more advocacy I find myself involved with the more I catch myself saying “someone new to linux” or 'beginner'. Its less of an insider's nonce word than 'newbie.' Might as well call them Teletubbies while we're at it. The 'newbies' in turn begin using it about themselves to cut down on the amount of flaming they get when asking a question or not understanding instructions. It becomes a license for laziness and never having to rtfm. “I know I'm just a newb, but....” is the intro to a thousand questions answered in man pages or online forums. I am certainly not under the illusion that the word will go away. I'm not even sure it should. It is part and parcel of the hacker subculture Unix has created and has its place. But overuse is deadly as Linux begins to move into the vital desktop market and seems to be making one helluva debut against the MS monopoly.
With all the possibilities for error whether it be during an install, configuring a dual boot, running a desktop machine or an office server, trying to get work done and maintaining the machine, it is the users of Linux themselves who are most important towards helping others take the first steps. If we can't make it a bit easier than it is at present, we work against our own interests. You and I know that Windows is definitely not safer than other OSes. But tell that to someone about to hose their XP dual boot with Fedora Core and all their data who gets told “RTFM newb!” The reality is that using XP is less intimidating. To most computer users, though, that translates as safer.
Here's where advocacy gets trickier. Keep in mind it is in our best interests for Linux to spread. Not universally perhaps but enough to open up the world of computing and cyber space toward a more widespread ethic of less restriction, less secrecy and less out and out huckersterism and ripoff. It is in our best interest that more people lend talent and skills and support to making software more of an inalienable right and less of a playground for a wealthy elite. Microsoft Vista is about to roll out and it is not an accident or a shortsighted MS blunder that it will up the hardware ante and make computing yet more expensive and more dependent on endlessly upgrading boxes to run the ever new and improved bloatware.
I can laugh at it because I have a self-contained pocket operating system in the form of Slax installed on a USB drive and enough old CDs of Red Hat 7, Slackware 7.1 and an ancient FreeBSD to set myself up on any hardware manufactured within the last decade. Not to mention a stack of Floppix and similar floppy based systems. I won't be upgrading to handle Vista anytime soon. With any luck, I may never have to use it as the default system at work or home. Most of the world is still outside though, and peering in at this strange bunch of geeks, hackers, activists and programmers and wondering what's going on.
The reflex response to: 'Linux? Why bother?' is that the person saying it is a mindless drone and wouldn't know a cpu from a gui and that they're better left to their own ignorance. If their willful ignorance is militantly so, it is perhaps the saner response to leave them in their own mess.
But many ask “Why bother” with a sincere interest and perhaps in hopes that you can convince them on something that just sounds too good to be true. A good Linux advocate, like a good salesman, doesn't rattle off facts and figures and try to impress the 'buyer' with technospeak and features no one uses. They listen more than they talk, and when possible they show the product at work rather than tell about it. The best advocacy guide might just be How to Win Friends and Influence People, and not the latest Debian manifesto.
It is important to understand that people like Richard Stallman, literally on the barricades of the open source movement, are extremely offputting to people for whom computers are tools that help get work done. They don't necessarily give a damn about free as in freedom when it comes to organizing the office mail. Discriminate between possible Linux users with strong political convictions and those who need software and those who would like to find a compromise between lofty ideals and getting the work done. Hence the 'listen more than you speak' dictum. We would all be in a very sorry state today if not for people like Stallman, it's true, but just as Linux comes in many flavours so do its users. Many very committed individuals in the FOSS world find FSF tactics heavy handed and alienating to potential corporate Linux users. Just as the numbers of different distros provide a wide range of choice, so too should the advocates for it represent a wide range of the social spectrum.
Go to an IRC chat and watch as hardline anarchists with hacklabs hobnob with corporate IT suits trying to setup an Adamantix hardened Debian system and old time hackers on a thirty six hour deep hack marathon to debug the latest kernel and you'll get a sense of how broad the playing field is, and how much room there is for variations of all sorts.
It is not accidental that most of my friends and acquaintances know very little of my Linux activities. One, they're not that interested, and two, it might compromise any efforts to bring unix tools into a job where there is already a proprietary solution. If I spend too much time praising Linux and saying how much better the world would be if everyone just used open source, my occasional pieces in magazines on the Novell corporation or the growing Linux phenomenon would be seen as campaigning and obsession and not as simple pieces of journalism. A colleague, who - like myself - spends a lot of time in Iraq these days, cannot talk of anything else but Iraq and is seen as a bore with a one track mind. That simply never makes a good impression. If I need to discuss my UNIX fetish, there are people and places for it. Use them. Don't assail innocent civilians in your ongoing unix wars and manifestos and Microsoft flaming. You just might find if you come across as balanced and sane about this great GNU way of life that people come to you with questions because you're not forever ramming it down their throats.
Hacker Geek Commie Pinko Propaganda...
Very similar to the points raised in the previous section is the whole hacker mystique aspect of Linux. You and I know that "hacker" is a compliment and "hackerly" an adjective for a job well done. But until the general public can differentiate between a hacker and a cracker, it is not the best possible PR to use the term hack in mixed company.
I slipped one day when someone asked what I'd been up to and I said, “Just hacking about....” since I'd spent too many hours tweaking my system in between long winded IRC debates and general silliness. The questioner's eyes opened wider and they leaned closer and whispered: “Break into anything good?” Here, oddly enough a recommendation from Richard Stallman (if my memory serves) is relevant. It is important for people to confront the image of evil hackers in the press and media with a sane and balanced response. The opposite of flaming. As the popularity of Linux grows, it is important to help public opinion of the situation grow in proportion to the changes. Hacker was a benign term back in the days of MIT Labs and coding marathons, when the frontiers of cyberspace were first being tentatively explored. It has become synonymous with the Dark Side of the Force. I'm arguing it may once again be seen as benign if not downright positive. Stallman's suggestion was a thoughtful and sane and correctly spelled letter to the editor pointing out the misuse of the word hacker and a kind explanation of what a hacker really is.
Equally important is understanding and working with a certain amount of finesse and maturity when dealing with different viewpoints than our own, both inside the tribe and out. We've all probably stuck our foot in our own mouth when we thoughtlessly castigate a 'newb' or someone with a genuine question regarding Windows. I'm sure we're all sometimes guilty of what can only be called trollish behavior. Nobody's perfect. The important thing – if advocacy is what you're about – is to own up to it. Be willing to apologise, be able to learn. There is always something upsetting and distancing about the cultish and fanatical. You've felt it yourself when an overzealous missionary type knocked on your door and wouldn't take no for an answer. Problem is, zealotry is often a by-product of one of the most powerful forces the world has known: Love.
Love of God, country, ethic, philosophy...fill in a noun that's close to your heart...is like fire. It provides light but can also burn. It is perhaps no accident that, in the Church of the SubGenius, the most coveted mystical quality is Slack...an invisible, Tao-like quality that is the prerequisite to true enlightenment and happiness. Translate that as flexibility and levelheadedness and an ability to keep your head when all around you are core-dumping theirs and you may just make a difference in the days ahead when the clash between proprietary, monopolizing greed comes head to head with freedom, transparency and technological egalitarianism.