Friday, January 16, 2009

When Nerds Attack!

WKOW didn't know what it was in for when it posted this story on its website.   A young woman(I'm not going to use her name.) bought a laptop from Dell to take online classes from MATC.  Somehow, she managed to unwittingly purchase a laptop preloaded with Ubuntu Linux instead of Windows.  She was assured of compatability by Dell but, when the computer arrived, she was unable to install the software provided by her internet service provider and could not figure out how she was supposed to submit classwork in Microsoft Word format without Microsoft Word. Thoroughly frustrated, she contacted WKOW who eventually got her straightened out.

End of story?  NO!

The young lady, and WKOW, had inadvertently managed to embody everything the Linux/IT community hates about people who don't understand technology. Then WKOW advertised it on the Internet

The Dell rep that told her the computer was compatible with her needs was telling the truth (whether the rep realized it or not).  The software your ISP sends you is generally useless. Ubuntu works with just about any router out of the box.  The suite can save files in almost any format you want.  Our intrepid student had thrown up her hands and dropped out of school over issues a determined person with a little knowledge could've resolved in a few minutes.

Happily, WKOW managed to set her on that path but, in the process demonstrated that they also didn't have a clue what they were talking about.  They called Ubuntu ". . .an operating system for your computer similar to Windows that contains Linux."

That's the equivalent of calling a Honda Civic a conveyance similar to a Chevy Suburban that contains car.  And thank heaven they got Verizon to send a technician to her house to make sure some of that adware gets installed.

The flame war commenced.  WKOW got ten times its normal web traffic and a heaping portion of scorn from angry Linux users, some of whom actually started harassing the poor girl herself on her Facebook page.

As a semi-proficient Linux user myself (I run two flavors of Ubuntu in addition to three versions of Windows) I understand the frustration with people who want to treat computers like appliances and the media outlets who coddle them.  

Ubuntu is an amazing achievement.  It's not just some quirky tech fad, it's a social experiment. It's a fully functional, highly sophisticated operating system developed and supported by an open community of developers committed to keeping computing free.  There's no large corporation and no leverage to force hardware manufacturers to make sure their products are compatible. Yet Ubuntu is a remarkably feature-rich and user friendly operating system.

To people who've watched the Free Software Foundation fight endless court battles with corporate hegemons to keep open source alive, it's a little insulting to have someone refer to Linux like it's some sort of chemical additive.

A little realism would help, though.   As crushing as it is to watch someone casually shrug off something you're passionate about, it's bound to happen.  Not everyone wants the kind of control and flexibility from their computers that Linux users demand. Lots of people . . .  most people are always just going to want to turn the thing on and have it do as much for them as possible without their having to think about it.

Microsoft and Apple (especially Apple) have created a heavily packaged, tightly controlled world for those people and their discomfort upon straying from it is understandable.  Yes, it would be nice if they took a little more interest in just what that thing they use to check their email really is or at least took the time to rationally troubleshoot simple problems but, if they did that, who would nerds make fun of?

This doesn't totally absolve Channel 27.  It would've been nice if, instead of making a few phone calls on the girl's behalf, then airing a navel-gazing puff piece patting themselves on the back, they'd bothered to look into what Ubuntu actually is.  

In any case, they're probably less likely to do this having now generalized to the Ubuntu community the bile spewed by a few disgruntled trolls.  If nerds had been meant to be understood, they'd have better social skills.


Anonymous said...

Ahem. Chemical additives aren't all bad you know. Iodized salt, for example, keeps the entire population safe from goiter simply be adding the chemical iodine. Be careful or you'll have a bunch of angry public health nerds on your hands ;)

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