NS Internet column
Written 20 October 1999 for the New Statesman
This should have been the week to write about chicken sexing, but a conversation on Slashdot has derailed this. In any case, I have no practical advice on chicken sexing, so if you have a problem there you had best consult your chicken vendor. The discussion on Slashdot started because someone asked what was the simplest system for, his grandfather, an 89-year-old computer novice to use. And of course, about half the people replied by pure nerd instinct: "The answer's Linux. Now, what was the problem again?" Actually, that is a slight overestimate, for some of the Linux boosters did not even notice that there was a special problem with an ancient person compared the usual run of the unsaved and replied simply "The answer's Linux"
I don't want to give the impression that Slashdot is populated entirely by teenage bigots.
Many people pointed out very reasonably that either a Mac or a Windows PC would do exactly what the questioner wanted, especially as he had already bought a PC with Windows on it. From my own limited experience of teaching computers to old people, I would have thought that a Mac was even better, because the mouse has only one button. But common sense is not always more interesting than bigotry, and what I found fascinating and revealing were the arguments put forward in favour of using Linux for a job to which it could not be less suited. The first, familiar, one, was that it never crashes. The debate was little influenced by the idea that anyone might voluntarily turn off a computer before either it or the user had crashed irreparably. It was obvious that Grandfather needed most was a machine which would keep running even if he died at the keyboard, as well he might if the frustration got the better of him.
It was a beautiful illustration of why so many computer discussions are "religious". The zealots really are discussing the thing that gives meaning and shape to their lives: it just happens to be a set of computer programs but this doesn't matter: like any religious observance, it is valued for its own sake, and not for its effects on the outside world. Linux for Grandfathers is an awful lot like the Maharishi's Meditation for World Peace.
The second huge advantage that the zealots saw was that Linux can be "remotely administered": because it is meant to have multiple simultaneous users it is possible, when something goes wrong, to dial into the machine that has broken and fix it from a distance. It's possible to do this with windows, too, but less reliably. Now this is a real convenience for the fixer in some circumstances, but it is hardly ever what the poor user actually wants. They do want face to face contact, company, reassurance; possibly even the chance of a conversation about something that is not a computer. Failing that, a telephone conversation with a human being is better than having my computer ring your computer and sort things out.
Yet "remote administration" as an attitude to life is one of the things that makes computers so attractive at times of depression or despair. Any operating system or any useful program is necessarily tremendously complicated. But some wear their complication closer to the skin that others. Linux or Unix especially demands to be administered. In a way it reverses the idea of a personal computer, since you are either a user or an administrator. It's great fun being an administrator. But it is deeply anti-social: though people talk about the sharing ethic of the Internet, and of Unix especially, the pleasure of being an administrator is that of being a megalomaniac bureaucrat, a Stalin of the hard disk at whose whim entire civilisations are deported to the archives. It does less harm than road rage.
Once you realise that the pleasure of administering a system is something which is attractive for its own sake, everything else falls into place. A reviewer describes a new version of Linux as a "Windows killer" and then mentioning casually that you need to spend about eight hours on the telephone to download various necessary upgrades, which still won't install without specialised knowledge. This is not lunacy: it is because it is so much more fun than simply plugging a computer in and, God save the mark, actually doing something useful with it. To buy a mere information appliance is as humiliating as it is to be Margaret Thatcher and then find your country doesn't want to be saved.
Next week, I hope to return to the philosophical implications of chicken sexing.