The Quest for Free, Part 2

Avocado shown for comparison.

Part two of my sojourn into the world of free software begins with me wondering about moral issues in technology and setting myself some limits. Over the course of this project I’ve come to believe every computer user ought to ask herself certain questions about what she really wants from technology. Not answering that question, and not having that discussion with other people who also use technology has led to unpleasant social problems — made all the worse by their invisibility. Some of these I go into here; some I discuss in Part Three.

I’ve heard already from a reader that he was really interested in the first part of this series but he didn’t understand “computer stuff.” Twenty years ago it would have been easy to maintain a clear intellectual and emotional separation between one’s daily life and “computer stuff.” But no more. In the 21st Century, daily life is computer stuff. Not a citizen of this country goes a day without using and being used by computers. So I will do my best to break down the technical matters into plain language.

Wait — what did I mean, “used by computers”? Read on and find out…

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There’s an old saw in behavioral psychology that environment creates behavior. While I am far from a determinist, the truth of the statement remains. The way one arranges furniture in a house influences how one moves in that house. It also influences the habits one develops. Taking that slight half-step up because the floor isn’t level. Reaching out to lower the toilet seat so that one doesn’t take a midnight plunge in the dark (because people, too, are part of the environment).

The same thing happens with a computing environment. Even on simple level, such as having to punch the Y key just a little bit harder because it sticks, the way a computer is designed controls the user’s behavior. This is no less true of its intellectual design than its physical design.

The problem is that, in the world of proprietary software computing, one cannot change the environment. If I keep bumping my knee against a table leg in my house, I can move the table or chair. With proprietary software I cannot move anything. If I dislike the ridiculous way Photoshop  keeps resetting my keyboard so that my shortcuts do not work, I cannot change anything around because the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and other such absurdities prevent me from it. I cannot reprogram Photoshop, hack it, or even look at its code to see why it’s so rubbish. Instead I have to wait for Adobe to respond to my complaint and others’ — if they even bother, which they do not.

The same goes for Microsoft Word, or Oracle Database, or Final Cut Studio, or Google Chrome, or almost everything on most people’s computers. None of them can be altered by users who would happily improve on their more frustrating qualities. They are monolithic and jealously guarded. In short, users do not control these programs. The program owners control the users, and their uses.

My non-techie friends are often shocked when I tell them they do not own anything on their computers. Yet here we are. Because of the baroque terms of the EULAs (end user licensing agreements) that govern their use of their computers, software makers can pull their software from users any time they wish, for no reason whatsoever, with no reason given. It has already happened with Kindle books, iPhone games and on and on. Imagine General Motors showing up in the night to confiscate your automobile and erasing every trace that you ever owned such a vehicle, no reason given. It all sounds very sci-fi. Yet people accept this readily with their computers, which are, apparently, so awesomely cool and stuff that users should and will put up with any mistreatment.

The problem here isn’t just that users lack control over their devices. The problem is that such devices erode morality. Quoting the Software Freedom Conservancy, “Software freedom is essential for people to be confident their technology works in service to equality, justice, and democracy, and not as a tool for the privileged and the powerful to quash those values.” When people are not in control of their devices, they also grow to accept their devices as things that control them, and furthermore begin to believe that this is “the price we pay for technology” or some other such bromide. This rots the mind, the spirit, and the heart of humanity. It makes people passive, and futile. This in turn rots social discourse.

These things are on my mind as I stare at the blank terminal window.

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Laptop acquisition–done. Basic setup–done. I’ve de-Chromed the computer completely. I’ve replaced the stock BIOS with John Lewis’s modified, free SeaBIOS. I’ve installed GalliumOS minus non-free components. The computer is slightly slower than it was under Chrome — it takes about thirteen seconds to boot — but I accept that. It’s still far faster than my desktop, yet has only 1/8th of the RAM.

This is Ground Zero. Phase Three begins: applications.

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Applications. That’s what people really are interested in when they think about their computers. Sure, people often claim that they’re Windows or Mac people, whatever those are. But operating systems aren’t where people do their work. It’s the application level that matters. True, the operating system is really just a kind of big application, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the applications people use to do their work and spend their leisure. InDesign. Excel. Chrome. Final Cut Studio.

All of these applications are proprietary. And they create a proprietary world around their users. I want a free world.

If I were to rely completely upon this computer for security matters, I might wipe the entire drive and run the OS completely from a USB card or stick. I’m not, however, completely worried about security. It’s a common pairing of ideas in the free software world–freedom and privacy–but I’m less concerned with privacy right now than I am with a particular kind of freedom. Namely, the freedom to do with my computer what I want to do with my computer.

To that end I’ve had to draw a particular line: for me, and for the project, freedom begins after bootstrap. I’m insisting on Free Software. I’m not insisting on Free Firmware. There is an excellent argument to be made why firmware should also be free, and microcode, too, at the processor level. At present, however, those are too complex and esoteric and beyond the scope of this particular computer, and this project.

GalliumOS comes with a bunch of free software. I’ve removed it all to start from scratch. I need an office suite of some sort, an image editor, a video and audio player, an RSS reader/aggregator, and an internet browser. I decided on LibreOffice easily. I’ve been using it for years and they’ve always given me good support. VLC for video and audio was also a no-brainer. There are plenty of RSS readers but the only one that remotely appealed to me was Liferea. Others are either ugly, awkward, or unmaintained for years — or all three. I have a slightly different problem choosing an image editor.

The big stick image editor on the GNU/Linux platform is the GIMP. It’s the free software equivalent of Photoshop. But on a laptop that is meant to be fast, light and portable I have about as much need for the GIMP as a carpenter does for a spike maul. I decided to go with either ImageMagick or GraphicsMagick. Aesthetically I prefer GraphicsMagick, but I have decided to go with ImageMagick because it has an installer.

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Ah yes, the installer problem. On Windows and OS X computers most software comes either as a fully packaged application or with an installer that loads the necessary files and creates the application on the computer.

This is rarely the case with a GNU/Linux machine. There are generally two ways to install free software on one’s GNU/Linux machine. The first and easiest involves using a package manager. This can be quite simple. On my laptop I can open up Synaptic Package Manager, search for the program, click the mouse three times and poof! Installed. It can be more difficult, such as having to pore through various repositories to find the badly-named program package, and figuring out the difference between an .rpm file and a .deb file but it’s still not a real brain-teaser, even for a newbie.

The second way of installing free software on a machine is by far the most tedious: compiling from source. Compiling source code is, I think, probably the single biggest reason why more people do not bother with GNU/Linux machines. To a layperson who does not make a living staring at lines of code, compiling from source is about as comprehensible as the workings of the Antikythera mechanism. In his article “6 Reasons to Install Linux Today“, John Morris notes the following:

Windows and OS X cover up all the ugly operations and gritty details that go into making a computer work. The amount of knowledge required to do tasks is remarkably small. These operating systems just kind of work and do all the hard stuff for you.

Linux doesn’t shelter you from anything. It encourages, if not requires, you to understand how the computer works, how the operating system works, and how to best carry out a task. Mastering Linux teaches you a lot and makes you a better, smarter computer user.

Mr. Morris promotes this as a reason to try GNU/Linux. For most people this would be a reason never to try GNU/Linux. Most users have zero interest in understanding how a computer works, much less how an operating system does. They just want to run their applications and be done with it. But in the GNU/Linux world the base assumption is that one is already a programmer/developer otherwise one wouldn’t be mucking about with GNU/Linux in the first place.

Forcing users to compile programs exemplifies this prejudice in action. Sure, I understand the magic incantation:

./configure
make
make install

but why should I have to? On other operating systems I click a mouse button a couple of times, read some bogus EULA verbiage and voilà!

Compiling my own software means being a developer. With only 16GB of hard drive space, the Acer is not sufficient for being a development computer, and building programs from source code is not gonna happen. So I have chosen to restrict myself to a package manager to install free software. That premise–that I am not a developer–will indeed be how I restrict my computer experiment generally.

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All right, here we go. Using Synaptic Package Manager I’ve added what I think is my minimal working software:

I considered adding Calligra so I can use Braindump, but I don’t need another office-like suite of applications. I also considered adding HexChat since a lot of free software folks use IRC (yes, it still exists), but I have declined for now. If I need support later, that’ll be my choice.

There you have it. Six applications and a few utilities. This is definitely traveling light, which was the entire point. Using Synaptic to install the packages was relatively painless, although for some bizarre reason the version of IceCat in the repository is massively outdated. I’ll probably have to download it directly from the GNU server.

Phase four complete. My free laptop is now ready for daily use.

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Even at this point it is clear to me that the price one pays for freedom is heightened responsibility and increased labor. It’s not that nothing works “out of the box”–some things do. It’s that decisions have to be made about things most electronics consumers never decide for themselves. And those decisions have to be made on a level most consumers never even imagine exists. Most of them buy a Windows box, or a Mac thingy, or a Chromebook, and simultaneously buy a world and a worldview: the corporate promise of a “walled garden,” where no one has to be truly responsible because someone else does everything. Buy a Mac, inherit the Mac worldview: a computer that “just works” with a pretty look to it, and a sharp design, but also virtually indistinguishable from all other Macs. Buy a Dosbox for Windows and get their worldview: everything is custom-made for you, everything is possible, because it is a “serious” machine with infinite dimensions of customization, etc. Neither of those is as comprehensive as its adherents think: Mac OS X is extremely serious, if one can be bothered to open the Terminal; a Windows box will “just work” if one stays neatly within the manufacturers’ expectations of one’s boundaries.

And GNU/Linux tells its own story of the world, too. There are those who are attracted to it because it is open source and “free.” But there are those for whom the “freedom” of it all is not the main attraction at all: they are more properly concerned with the power of Unix, its extensive history, its power to do almost anything a human being would ask. They accept as normal and desirable an even higher level of user tinkering than Windows, because that is why they have the machine in the first place–to tinker. That it’s open source or free is merely a bonus. Windows machine owners think they can design exactly the machine they want for their specific task: exactly the sound card, exactly the speakers, exactly the monitor, exactly the connectivity they want–without having to be programmers. But compared to the flexibility of GNU/Linux, it’s a joke.

I don’t buy into any of those particular stories. I want a machine that is free because I believe in freedom, but I also want it to work right out of the box with an elegant GUI and flexible options for hardware and software both, and I also want the right and the power–even if I rarely exercise it–to tinker with whatever I feel like on the computer.

Right now, to continue my exploration of the world, this laptop will do. Let’s see where it can take me.

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Filed under Technology & Science

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net