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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