February 17, 2019

.comment: On the Outlaw Trail with Linux - page 4

The Mainstream Is Good, Right?

  • February 14, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

That's why it's worrisome that so many people talk about moving Linux into "the mainstream." Look at the mainstream: It's no place to be. It's where people who put convenience ahead of quality, reason, and freedom live.

What community most concerns itself with issues of privacy and security? The fringe community of which Linux is a part. Yes, the nonprivate, unsecure, entirely convenient systems are in the mainstream, because they're easier. It's easier to be fed by IV than it is to get, cook, and chew your food, too, though so far at least that hasn't entered the mainstream.

The point is, the things that would take Linux to the mainstream are also the things that would strip it of its Linux-ness. Our suspicion is a good and healthy, and our vigilance is wise. Selling it to the masses, though, would require such changes as would relax that mistrust. What we really want is for the mainstream to suffer an attack of good sense and move to us, and that ain'tagonna happen.

There have been some efforts, good ones, to make Linux easier to understand and use. The desktop has gotten better and better, and will continue to do so, mostly without changing the nature of the operating system at all. This is entirely praiseworthy. Still, it can go too far: automounting CDs, for instance, or the provision of content from the Web automatically. Those tradeoffs may be popular, but the price is potentially pretty high. And they come in an effort to move Linux into the mainstream. Recently my colleague Lou Grinzo asked a number of knowledgeable people what they would change about Linux, and a surprising number (though any number greater than zero would have surprised me) wanted to eliminate the root-user divide. It, they said, confuses Windows users who might otherwise consider Linux. Well, thanks, but I'm willing to endure an infinite number of confused Windows users before I give up the protections that the root-user system provides.

I spoke above of the causes and effects of the Linux-free-software-open-source movement. The cause is, really, simple enough: a fringe of thinking people decided that there was a better way and set about proving it. The effects are predictable, too. People who were privately concerned about trivial issues such as freedom, security, and privacy were able to give public voice to what had until then been only private thoughts. A substantial, eloquent, and competent community coalesced. Now there are those who seek, for various reasons, to drag Linux into "the mainstream," which would necessitate changing the attributes that made it better to begin with, in the way that people from New York leave that state for Florida and, having arrived, try to turn Florida into a place as much like New York as possible. Linux purists (like native Floridians) recoil at the thought. The problem is not with Linux, it's with the mainstream.

Henry David Thoreau noted that when society is unjust, just men belong in jail. To which there is surely a corollary: When the mainstream is governed by something other than reason, reasonable people are "extremists." Outlaws.

And for them -- us -- the Outlaw Trail is the only place to be.

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