2017-04-11

Freedom, Responsibility, And Lessons From Technology

The Linux world, as people who have been involved with it for years already know, has some amazing advantages. Older systems run very well. Newer systems run even better. Updates are more frequent. Almost all software is free. The user interface (at least with Ubuntu) is really nice. There is nothing you can't do with Linux than you can do with other operating systems, and there are things you can do with Linux that you cannot do with other operating systems. It's better on virtually every level.

So, why don't more people use Linux?

The main reason is that Linux operating systems, by their DIY and open-source nature, require users to be a little more technical savvy. You have to be able to troubleshoot your own problems. You have to be able to pull open a command line interface and interact directly with the kernel. This is enough to scare most people away.

When my father bought our family's first personal computer, way back in the late 80s or early 90s, graphical interfaces and "shells" were not widely used, at least not in the DOS world. Consequently, my first introduction to computers was not through Windows, but through MS-DOS. I had to learn the basic commands for changing directories, running executable files, copying, deleting, writing simple .bat files, and so on. There was a lot to learn, and I was only a grade-schooler, but it wasn't more than a little kid could keep track of on a cheat sheet. It was harder than it is today, but it wasn't daunting. If I had any questions, there were DOS manuals that could help. Self-education closed the gap.

As the years progressed, Windows also progressed. Eventually, the only interface I ever ended up seeing was Windows 95 and beyond. My modest knowledge of MS-DOS commands faded from memory because, let's face it, I didn't need them anymore. Anything I needed to do on a computer I could do from the much easier and more user-friendly Windows interface. I gained some ease-of-use, some security, but I lost the ability to provide for myself.

Running Ubuntu on my home computer has given me back a lot of the freedom I once had. I no longer have to keep running proprietary software (and background processes) from Windows or HP if I don't use those services. I no longer have to have any software at all that I don't actually want or use. If there's anything that I do want - anything at all - it's really just an apt-get command away from me. If I can find a way to make it work, it will work.

The cost of this freedom is having to take ownership of my computing experience. Some people don't want to do that, and I empathize with them, but at the same time they'd feel a lot more comfortable with their home computers if they didn't shy away from that knowledge.

Analogously, I know people who live in big cities and cannot drive. If they need to get somewhere, they are dependent on other people to take them: friends, family members, taxi drivers, Uber drivers, or public transportation. Thus, they must rely on the availability of the providers of driving services. If they can't make arrangements to get somewhere, then they can't get somewhere.

These folks often tell me that they don't need to drive. But it's not just about what's necessary, it's about the freedom to just pick up and go anywhere you want to, whenever you want to, however you want to do it. They don't always appreciate the freedom they're missing because they're afraid of the responsibility involved.

And another analogy: Many young people are reluctant to move out of their parents' home for similar reasons. Suddenly, they'd be responsible for their own bills, food, self-care, etc. It's a lot of responsibilities to take on when they don't "need to." But if they did it, they'd gain a lot of freedom.

You can just imagine what other aspect of our lives this notion touches. There is always a trade-off between the freedom we want and the responsibility involved in obtaining that freedom. The old trope is that freedom in the political world comes with the responsibility of civic duty, but that's not really accurate. Freedom in the political world comes with the responsibility of having to solve problems (like muh roads) without the apparatus of government. That might take some self-motivation. It might require that you do a little self-directed research and make some phone calls to coordinate with your fellow citizens.

Some people are scared of this kind of responsibility. They're certain it will ruin the world. But, if you want to have the kind of freedom that libertarians crave, that's the kind of responsibility that is required.