I recently assaulted my personal computer with an upgrade of the operating system and endangered my household’s digital data. It was late at night and I clicked a button which offered an upgrade to the new version of the operating system. I know just enough about operating systems and hardware to be mildly dangerous. In this case, I clicked that button without backing up any data on the hard drive, and I was concerned about losing it all. Another night, I stayed up nearly until dawn trying to learn about my problem and address it. I lost sleep, but got much closer to solving my problem. Days later, I had it solved. After rectifying the errors that resulted from the faulty upgrade, I know a little more about how the operating system works. It’s enough knowledge to really start to cause some trouble for myself.
A friend introduced me to open source operating systems several years ago and gave me a boot disk for the Ubuntu Linux distribution. I have never looked back. I have never personally owned a Mac until getting an iPhone, and I have never personally owned a Microsoft machine. I had used a lot of Microsoft operating systems over the years at my parents’ house and at schools, but I saw an opportunity for something different when I decided to buy a machine. When my friend showed me Ubuntu and said it was an open source operating system which didn’t cost any money, my ears perked. This open source distribution of Linux is billed as being made for people to use with some ease, but still allowing advanced users to get in and tinker with the source code and such. “Linux for human beings,” they said.
Years later, I read about Fred Moore and thought that Linux distributions were the kind of thing to which he would have found himself contributing. Computing is powerful and relies on materials which are mined from places where human suffering and environmental destruction is immense, but the power it holds cannot be easily dismissed. Many humans use computing for frivolous purposes, but it once did and still does hold potential that is untapped. Presently, many speculators think that there are ways to use computing power for quick profit for some, rather than abundance for all. They convince the public that the desired products and services are useful and entertaining, but it is only within the bounds of proprietary controls. If we let a small group write all the source code, it is guaranteed that a vision of quick profit for some, mediocre returns for many, and suffering for those in places that mine raw material and assemble hardware will stay as the status quo. But if we learn the tools of coding and computing, these trends may not shape the future.
I’ve learned enough to seriously tamper with my personal computer, and I don’t know if I would be able to bring it back from my errors (think: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). But I intend to keep learning and using my knowledge to change how I use computers. As long as we relax in drowsy slumber, the powerful will keep running it where they want and/or running it into the ground. But we aren’t powerless. We can keep learning.