Why I converted to Linux, why you should, and why you shouldn’t

A couple months ago, my wife and I went through a major overhaul on our kitchen (you might find a couple photos on the #trygkerzrenovation tag). While I was excited for the end result–a kitchen that can more comfortably fit more than one butt–I was not quite as excited for the work.

And it wasn’t really the work. It was the fear of screwing up that got me. The fear of knowing that we could cause irreparable harm to our home and have to end up paying double to have someone fix it for us. That and, without the confidence to know that we could make major renovations ourselves, the worry of not being able to make progress.

I’m happy to report that a little bit of shirt-sleeve rolling, elbow grease, and dozens of trips to Menard’s, we got the kitchen in (mostly). And in the process, something weird happened: I began to have confidence in my ability to build and fix things.

I’m not used to confidence. It’s nice.

But that confidence didn’t exactly translate into more house projects (as of yet). I wanted to get my hands dirty, but not “home improvement” dirty. For some reason, I got it in my head that I wanted to do the following:

1. Build my own computer.

2. Install a Linux distribution and learn it.

3. Learn the programming language Python.

4. Build and manage my own home computers and devices while also learning how to build projects using the Raspberry Pi and Arduino.

How did I arrive at that laundry list? No clue, really, other than perhaps all the time I’ve spent lusting over MAKE Magazine projects, like LED shirts or toasters with Twitter accounts.

If I could hazard a better guess, I’d say it has a lot to do with the thrill of DIY mixed with the possibilities of being able to work exclusively with F/LOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software). I’m growing wary of slick corporate environments and–more to the point–their chokehold on our devices, platforms, and online exchanges of information. For this viewpoint, I have to thank glitch artist Steven Hammer (I wrote about him on ARTSpulse; you should read it). As more and more corporate gloss is layered on our experience with technology (and our privacy and security become further endangered because of it), it seemed to me that cracking into it and learning more about what makes all of this run.

To take it even one step further, I began to look at how the tools of technology are being handed to our kids without much in the way of knowing how they work. I love that my kid can use an iPad. But, my kid can’t learn anything about how that iPad works from the iPad. However, she could learn something about that iPad by learning the Linux CLI, configuring her own networks, learning some code or, at the very least, learning how to use a mouse. From there, her own confidence might lead her to think of new possibilities with technology in her life and career to come.

So, it’s a DIY thing, a hobby thing, a fun thing, a free speech issue, an accessibility issue, and lots of other things. Mostly, I guess, it’s a curiosity thing. Fortunately, there’s a lot of places in the hardware/software world in which to invest that curiosity.

Should you convert to Linux? Would I recommend to you that you learn something about computers and software? Should you run out and buy a bunch of thick books about Python, like I did? Well, not necessarily. While I could certainly chat on and on with you about the benefits of the command line or the satisfaction of knowing how an operating system works, I don’t think that approach is for everyone, mainly because people become highly invested in a particular user interface with their machines. I’ll be honest: a lot of this stuff is highly technical, and many of the tasks to be done with any computer running Windows or OS X can be done quickly and easily because a lot of time and money has been focused on making them so. My wife, for instance, is a Mac power user (she’s a photographer). She loves that everything works right out of the box, every time. Mac stuff costs more, sure, but she needs a combination of reliability and usability that can really only come from their approach to hardware and software.

No, Linux isn’t necessarily for everyone, but it’s beauty is that it can work for just about anyone, plus you get to examine some of the inner workings of your machine while you’re at it. If you want to plunge headfirst into programming and tapping away on the command line, I say do it. If you want a no-frills and extremely reliable operating system, I say do it. If you want to learn a bit about whats going on under the hood of your computer or want to do some hobby electronics, I say do it.

But if you’re wedded to a set of programs and a certain way of doing things, then don’t switch just for the sake of switching. The first thing to remember is that technological tools are just that: tools. When you’re first priority is getting that report written or that slideshow created or that web page populated, then the politics of open source or the dalliances of programming really needn’t concern you.

Someday, though, if you ever get curious, there’s a whole world of fun out there just waiting for you. Believe me. It’s a real confidence booster.

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