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The StartX Files: Chasing Them Naughty Blues

A bad week on the schoolyard.

  • June 18, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

This has not been a good week in the life of me. Some potential book contracts fell through, my friends are all getting laid off, and everyone is beating up on Linux like it's the geek in the schoolyard that's getting itching to get pummeled.

Oh, wait, that was last week's metaphor. Let me rummage though my metaphor file and see if I can come up with something new...

I have often been curious as to why Linux users put up with all of this crap. Over the lifespan of this column, I have described many incidents when people will quite pointedly argue against Linux when they get a hint that I am somehow involved with it. On days like that, the paranoids who think that Microsoft is paying everyone around them to be anti-Linux don't seem that far off. Of course, those same people think I am a Microsoft plant anyway, so there you go.

What really, truly interests me is the reason why we are all doing what we do. I mean, c'mon, let's face it, there's no deep hidden meaning to be found in any computer. It's a tool, which some use quite well. Why should we invest so much emotional capital into what essentially is a collection of metal, plastic, and a little silicon? More to the point, why are we so damn hung up on Linux?

Obvious answers come to mind: "Linux rocks!"; Linux rulez!"; and "Windoze sucks!" are the answers that come out with the spittle of the adolescents among us. In their minds, that's all the reason you need. And you know what? This works for them. Many of us could do well to recall the passions of our youth once in a while, when we were single-minded in our passions.

As we have gotten older, more rationales have to be employed. As waistlines expand and hairlines recede, single-minded passions evolve into something more complex and--if we're lucky--just as strong. Passions become beliefs, which in turn become ways of life. Sometimes these passions are misplaced and lost. I can remember a time when I thought Battlestar Galactica was the coolest show ever made. Now I see the reruns and wonder what the heck I was thinking. It was Dirk Benedict, for God's sake.

So what drives a passion for a computer operating system?

I had this conversation with a friend last Friday, and he pointed out that people involved in Linux, depending on when they were first exposed to it, catch a bug about it. They see something unique, something different that will set them apart from the rest of the world. It will even separate them from the other geeks they run with. This is a phenomenon that exists with other "fringe" operating systems, my friend stated. People went to Macs and OS/2 for the same reason.

Is, then, Linux a form of escapism for the die-hard advocates? A way of elevating their ultra-nerdiness to new and exciting levels?

Others would challenge this point of view, citing the intellectual thrill of working to bring a truly open source operating system to the world. This is a noble cause, one that will bring new freedoms to computer users everywhere. That's why it's such an important mission. Fighting the good fight is their primary reason for defending and advancing Linux.

Can't argue with that. In fact, you really don't want to, because often these people will get in your face until you admit that free or open source software is the Best Thing Ever. That's why I carry breath mints to give them.

This answer does not apply to everyone, however. How does a collection of code capture the attention of so many?

Here is what I think.

I don't think people who are Linux users are escaping away from something--they are running to something. Because Linux is something that represents more than just lines of code for people. Linux represents something that they can help build. From the developers who code the kernel to the beginning user who tentatively types out a bug report, everyone who has used Linux for any amount of time has the ability to help create something that is larger than anything they could have done on their own.

Sometimes, I get frustrated with the nay-sayers who start a sentence with "Linux will never do..." I bang my head against the wall when I see the trolls lurching through the talkbacks. I was certainly frustrated this week.

But then I was reminded in a small, personal way that something I once wrote played a helping hand in furthering Linux.

And that's what we are all seeking! A chance to create something new, something unique, and something bigger than ourselves. We are invested in the Linux cause because in one way or another, we are personally invested in Linux itself.

Does this make us all zealots? Perhaps. I would prefer the term "believers." We are believers in the thing that we have helped create, just by using it!

This is a state of mind that very few people involved with commercial software could ever have. They will likely have no personal involvement with their application or operating system. For them, the software on their computer will always be a tool and nothing more.

For us, whether you call us geeks, believers, zealots, or socially challenged, Linux and all the rest of the open source software is something we made. How could we not be proud of it?

Call this a sappy Hallmark moment if you must, but I sincerely believe that this reason is why Linux is never going to disappear. Maybe it will make it to the desktop, maybe not. Maybe it'll dominate the server market, maybe not. Maybe it'll take over embedded space and maybe it won't.

In the end, does it matter? Linux belongs to all of us and it will do well in whatever arena we send it. All it needs is a little time and a lot of care.

In the meantime?

Linux rulez!

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