The recent Linus Tech Tips series on ‘gaming’ in Linux seems to have sparked a lot of controversy and discussion1. It was genuinely heartbreaking to watch PopOS fail so miserably. I primarily felt bad for the PopOS team themselves, who probably work tirelessly contributing to an open source ecosystem, only to be ‘shown up’ in front of millions of viewers, for a mistake that, come on, wasn’t really their fault.
One of the major reactions to the video seems to be more calls for ‘user friendliness’ in linux distributions. There are many problems with this. Even taken in its most literal, well-meaning sense, it is problematic. Here, though, I just wanted to raise a ‘conspiracy theory’ about the more insidious elements behind the call.
Okay, okay, this isn’t really going to be a ‘conspiracy theory’. But, it’s something similar to a famous idea by Noam Chomsky that is often carted out in debates about free/corporate media. Noam Chomsky, a staunch critic of corporate media, and the role it plays in serving corporate interests within a democracy, was asked by a representative of said corporate media if he really believes that there are some shadowy figures pulling the strings of mainstream media figures, sending them briefs of what to say (and what not to say), and so on. Chomsky replied, of course not, it doesn’t work like that. It’s much simpler; mainstream journalists are in the positions they’re in because they don’t ask the right questions. That’s how you get paid the big money. It’s simple market incentives doing their job. No one needs to whisper into anybodies ear or hold conspiratorial meetings about agendas, and so on. It’s all just built into the system from the get go.
So, how does this relate to Linus Tech Tips? Let me first say that I am actually a fan of the channel. It’s well produced and entertaining (it can also be educational). It encourages millions of viewers to delve deeper into the hardware of the technologies they engage with every day. That can only be a good thing.
That’s also why I was shocked at Linus’ total lack of understanding about linux as an ecosystem. It’s not as if package managers are that foreign of a concept (we have app stores for God’s sake). And surely, from time to time, he’s had to engage with Powershell or the Windows Command Line. I’m sure he grasps the idea that there are difference ways of interacting with the OS.
But, for whatever reason, he didn’t understand any of that. Now, some part of me would like to say that he intentionally feigned ignorance. That he is some kind of master of social media and knows how to get things buzzing. But, it’s more likely the case that what we have here is something similar to what Chomsky talks about. Linus is in the position he’s in (a wealthy one), not in spite of his ignorance about linux, but because of it. How would ignorance of Linux on the part of a major tech YouTuber benefit the ‘system’ though? Well, here we would have to turn to people like Cory Doctorow, the warnings behind things like ‘walled-off gardens’ and the dangers of keeping users as far away from the details of the systems they engage with every day.
Now we have some calls from disappointed linux ‘fans’ to make better app stores on linux, to ‘childproof’ it around the edges and so on. I’m all for user-friendliness, but if we follow it to its logical conclusion, then it means closing off all access to key parts of the system.
The issue in the LTT video was a bug. Open source projects aren’t as well-funded as corporate ones. There will be bugs. That’s okay. No matter how polished an interface is, there will be things that sometimes don’t work. The alternative is commercialising linux, paying more people to ensure there are no more sharp edges. That’s the price. That’s also something that, not so coincidentally, would serve the interests of corporations like Microsoft and Apple.
As long as linux is free and open source, no matter how polished it gets there will always be things that fail. We shouldn’t try to shield users from this. It isn’t the right mindset. Instead, if people understand that the price of their freedom means doing some work and engaging with the technology at a deeper level, I’m sure they won’t care that much about the rough edges.
Linux is wonderful because it breaks. I don’t know about others, but it’s one of the most effective educational techniques for me. Sure, sometimes you can just try take the quick way out (as Linus did) and just copy-paste commands from Stack Exchange into a terminal. But, pretty soon you learn that in order to fix things and learn more about your system, you need to start to really understand and engage with it. Sure, it’s a slow, sometimes painful, process, that certainly impacts productivity (when taken in a market sense), but the result is a word that is thrown around a lot in the linux community and that I hesitate to use - freedom.
Freedom, in the case of technology, is rarely easy, and is best understood through its inverse -a sleek, seamless GUI.
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.