Easy Linux Leads to Dumb Users

Phairoh made an interesting post on his blog entitled ‘Ubuntu BSOD.’ In it he recounts the dreadful experience of having his X-server die and luckily it being fixed with an update. The very fact that he equated not being able to start X (a fixable problem wherein most of the system is still usable) with the dreaded M$ blue screen of death (from which there is no return) is revealing. It brought to a head in my mind an uneasiness I’ve been having with the new generation of linux users who never had to cut their teeth on the console in order to just get a working linux system up and running. Their expectations are much different it seems than those of us who learned linux prior to the year 2000.

Easy linux leads to dumb users. Here’s the dirty little secret: there is no ‘linux BSOD’ – only ignorant point and droolers who become flummoxed when confronted with a command line – who want linux to be just like windows without the malware and cost.

I’m sure to catch hell for this and will be called elitist but this is much of the problem I see with the trend toward “point and click linux.” Namely, that users never develop those skills that will get them out of a jam because they no longer have to understand linux under the hood. If something is going to crash on linux or BSD it is going to be X. If a user can’t perform system maintenance and repair without X then that user doesn’t “know linux” much more than the guy who has never used it all. Graphical tools should be a convenience, not a crutch. I encourage new linux users as soon as possible to become familiar with the command line system administration tools and only switch to regular use of the GUI versions once they are comfortable performing the same tasks in the console. X will crap out from time to time. It’s inevitable. When it does, however, most of your system is still running. X is just a pretty wrapper for it. I fear that my comrades who push adoption of “easy linux” are ultimately setting up these new users for failure and disappointment by sugarcoating the fact that linux is still a unix-like system that can’t be run for very long by a user bereft of command-line skills.

The remedy for a new user is of course to seek out opportunities to use the console as much as possible. For example, instead of using gedit to edit config files use vim or emacs. If you experience a filesystem problem where /usr is unmountable then you will only have the editors in /bin at your disposal. Make sure you know how to use at least one of them. Use apt-get or aptitude to manage packages rather than synaptic. Edit your gpg keyring at the command-line. Learn how to read and send mail through the console. Practice looking up online documentation for your distro using console browsers such w3m, lynx or links. When X messes the bed and you need to look something up online, firefox isn’t going to be there for you. A console browser is going to be all you’ve got. Read books about linux, Running Linux from O’Reilly is a classic and should be mandatory reading for new users. Dual-boot your ‘production’ installation with a ‘testing’ installation where you feel free to break things and fix them. Try a more “archaic” nuts and bolts distro like slackware or gentoo. Don’t be afraid to try one of the BSD’s for awhile.

If you never break anything you’ll never learn how to fix anything either. Actually, I take that back. One of the best learning exercises I remember performing in my early linux days was participating in the mailing list and usenet groups for my distro of choice at the time: Mandrake Linux (now Mandriva). Even though I was a newbie, I worked through the problems the other users were experiencing and posting to the list, often by trying to re-create the problem on my own system. I was able to help a lot of people that way but the knowledge I gained in the process made me the true beneficiary.

I’m not singling Phairoh out, his post was typical of what I read from many new users. OMG, X won’t start. WTF am I going to do?! Learn. That’s what you are going to do. Learn or go back to windows where users are expected to be lazy, uninquisitive dolts without the requisite gumption to learn a new skill or read a manual. Don’t expect the community to spoon feed you exactly what you should be learning either. Take the initiative. Being a self-starter, until recently, was the hallmark of the linux/BSD user. We need to start fostering that virtue again.

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3 Responses to “Easy Linux Leads to Dumb Users”

  1. phairoh Says:

    While I do somewhat take offense to being called a “Dumb User”, it is absolutely true. I want very much to be an excellent Linux user, and I have tried quite a bit to learn as much as possible. The problem seems to be that there are quite a few expert users and lots of information for them, quite a few novice users and lots of information about moving to Linux, but few intermediate users (where I place myself) and very little information directed at them about enhancing their current knowledge.

    I will definitely check out “Running Linux” from O’Reilly. Hopefully it will help me learn those intermediate skills that I lack and bring me up from there.

  2. iandefor Says:

    My hat is off to you, sir!

    You have outlined quite excellently what I perceive to be one of the worst problems Linux, as a family of operating systems, suffers today.

  3. BlackFlag Says:

    Perhaps “dumb” was both unfair and inaccurate. We all start out as dumb users and there is nothing wrong with that. Lazy users is really what I’m ranting about. When I and others of the same era started using linux we expected there to be challenges. We expected to fall down, make mistakes, hose our systems and/or X installations from time to time and have to figure out on our own for the most part, how to fix them. The community also held us to that standard, telling us to RTFM when appropriate (and yes, such a response is often appropriate and helpful in the long-term) or giving us gentle nudges in the right direction rather than spoon-feeding us the answers.

    What I’m seeing more and more of today are newbies who just expect everything to work out of the box with little or no effort on their own part. When things do not come easily, rather than accepting the challenge and opportunity to learn, they whine about linux “not being ready for the desktop” and the community being unhelpful or “elitist.” Linux is ready for the desktop and has been since before I started using it in 1999. These users, however, are not ready for linux and may never be. They didn’t want linux to begin with – they just wanted a free replacement for windows with less malware. For them I believe linux is a bad choice. A more appropriate, albeit still fledgling, choice for these users would be ReactOS.

    I sincerely hope I have not discouraged you phairoh. Just the opposite. In all fairness at least you describe a desire to learn that seperates you significantly from most of your cohort. At the same time however, if a console login and non-functional X-server causes you trepidation then you are not an intermediate user, you are still a newbie. What will deliver you from newbie-land is not a better distro, a more helpful community, a better written book or a blog rant from a crotchety old-school unix bigot. More than anything else including your inherent intelligence it will be your gumption, your willingness to make mistakes and learn from them and seek out challenges by doing things the hard way that will make you an expert. Best of luck to you.

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