Why you should love your computer: Independence and control through free software
Do you feel proud when you turn on your computer? Do you feel satisfied with your favorite software’s user experience? Nowadays technology, specially IT, is getting more and more intertwined with our daily lives. Each year we rely more and more on it and at the same time, layers upon layers of abstraction are being placed to simplify its usage and impede our understanding of its inner workings. Social media, web services, software and devices that we use daily offer us an intuitive and simple experience at the cost of giving up any sort of control or fine-tuning. Take a look at computers for example: Your average desktop or laptop. For many people, their computer is just another tool, a complicated, scary, cumbersome tool. Plagued with viruses, weird pop-ups, and painful slowness. If you dare to turn on your slow, noisy computer, its because you had to print some documents or fill out an online form, so you just open MS Office Word, and/or Google Chrome, and forget everything else, because clicking on any other icon will render your computer useless. Even if it’s fast and sleek, they’re still a mystery. Outside of our comfort zone there lies the stuff of tech specialists, hackers, and hobbyists. Even if you’re a tech enthusiast that keeps up with the latest gadgets and updates, Your user experience is still tied to the decisions of a single organization or corporation that doesn’t tolerate decentralization. There’s not enough control in the products that we own.
Were computers always meant to be used like this? Like a black box that’s hard to open and understand, hard to make it ours? Mainstream operating systems and software give us the promise of an experience that just works, if we go all in into their ecosystems. Their software and utilities are easy to use and intuitive, but hard to understand and control. If you want to customize how your favorite program renders a different type of file, good luck with that. If you want to do something that’s slightly outside the program’s intended purpose, no one can help you. Future updates are controlled by a small, concentrated group. You can never know what goes on under the hood if you can’t open the hood. You can never know how something works if there’s no need to read the manual. These days, privacy concerns are greater than ever, and smartphones are getting harder and harder to tamper with, using software that no one knows how it works, and using assembly techniques that make repair difficult. We learn to accept and embrace the software that comes bundled with our computer and we shudder when we realize we need to fix a problem with it.
So what’s the alternative? How are we supposed to strengthen the relationship between the user and the tool when we are told to accept that computers are hard to understand and control, and that abstraction is necessary? This is where free (free as in freedom), open source software becomes relevant. Open source software gives the user privacy, flexibility, control, and choice. The wide variety of open source software caters to the nerdiest power user, to the casual one that only needs to browse the web and print some documents. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to read the code. You don’t have to learn a programming language to be able to regain independence and control of your computer. Free software like Linux has come a long way and now is more user friendly than ever, but the point is not to make Linux replace your operating system just because it’s open source. Installing a new OS, tinkering with your machine, following tutorials to customize the UI, making a website, not only makes you have a deeper understanding of how your computer and technology works, it helps you change your perception of computing and your relationship with technology in general. Using software that encourages you to modify and customize gives you control and independence that no proprietary software can.
I can’t promise you that you won’t have problems using open source software, because that’s simply not true. Sometimes we can’t leave proprietary software altogether. No software is perfect, just as no tool is perfect. But at least free software gives you the opportunity to have a better tool, if you’re willing to sharpen it, willing to read through the documentation, willing to work and get your hands dirty with configuration files to solve a problem, and of course, willing to fail. The reward goes beyond having your computer work just as you want it. You end up with a tool, a product that is truly yours, something you can feel proud of, tangible and meaningful.
Does that mean that we should struggle every time we use our computer? Absolutely not. But we shouldn’t always strive to make technology easy to use, but easy to understand. Because if you’re able to make sense of things and truly know what’s going on, ease of use will come naturally.
P.S. If you’re thinking about switching to Linux, my personal recommendation is Linux Mint. I recently installed it on a laptop and automatically detected Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and all network printers. No driver download required. It’s ready to use out of the box and highly customizable. And remember, you can keep Linux and your current operating system in the same computer if you want.