Notes on Linux: Harry Potter and the System of Privilege

This is hopefully the last in a series of posts about my experiences diving deeper into Linux, the first ones being about Mac being too pretty, Linux being too buggy, and the learning curve being too steep.

As I was going around a few weeks back hyperbolically screaming that open source software was a tool of the patriarchy — I’d just hit the days when I was utterly dependent on co-workers to get my machine working — I heard the following back from an old friend who was, at one point, one of the most fervent open-source evangelists I knew:

Open source is triply a tool of the patriarchy because it multiplies the privilege of having assloads of time to screw around as a teenager.


image courtesy not actually representative of my friend, but you knew the Internet was bound to provide this image, mm?

This guy is not some hippie n00b who spends all his time on lost political causes. He works for one of the top five tech companies, contributes vital code to open projects, helms a massive distributed team of programmers, both thinks about and works on the big picture of networking. He sometimes describes himself as the Harry Potter of programming, as both his mom and dad were talented, highly visible wizards of programming. He was basically born with a silver chip in his mouth, or something.

This was a casual conversation, so both of us were painting in big, crude strokes. But I know what he was saying, and it bears unpacking:

We should, all of us, try to be conscious of the conditions in which we learned things. Many of us who got deep into computers did do it while we were teenagers and college students, and had tremendous amounts of access and time on our hands. Among the resources we had that we may have taken for granted:

  • Access to computers — not just at school or the library, but full-on, even root access on machines we could curl up with for days at a time.
  • Safe spaces to use computers, without abusive people nearby. For that matter, stable homes.
  • Time, that was not imposed upon by caring for relatives, or the need to get a job to support the family.
  • Literate families, who read to us at critical early stages, so we felt comfortable working with letters and words from early on, and eventually keyboards and screens.
  • If we were girls, no brothers. (A study in the early 90s showed that in households with both boy and girl children, a computer or video game console was likely to end up in the boy’s room, with all the usual sibling territoriality that entails. My straw poll in a women’s meetup at the Game Developer’s Conference some years back showed only about a third of the women in the room had brothers. Try polling the women you know who are in technology about whether they had brothers. Let me know what you find out!)
  • Meaningful classes on how computers worked, rather than drill-and-kill Math Blasters games or Microsoft Office drudgery.
  • Parents and teachers who supported us or turned a blind eye to what we were doing, rather than taking the machine away out of suspicion. Relatives who actually knew what they were doing with computers would be an added bonus. (My grandpa worked for IBM, and it was on his Tandy that I wrote my first typed papers for class.)
  • Friends who appreciated what we were doing, be they online or in person.
  • Access to networks — BBSes or the Internet, where there were communities of people who could tell us more about the machines we were using.
  • In general, environments free of technology-hostile attitudes — no “predators will find you online” or “that’s a waste of your time” or “shouldn’t you be out playing sports, you nerd” or “we’re not computer people” or “we’re not school people” or “oh, that’s just too complicated for me” (an attitude you could also mirror) or “I’m bad at math and computers are about math” or “video games are for boys.”

Did you learn to use computers in high school, college, or even when you were younger? How many of those resources did you have?

Put together, these resources make up privilege (along with other things that tend to be invisible to a lot of people, like skin color, accent, etc.). That you had these resources is not a bad thing! “Privilege” is a word you use to thank people, for giving it to you (“I am fortunate to have had the privilege”), as well as something that maybe you have that other people didn’t. Privilege makes life easier for those who have it. The trick is sharing these privileges with others, and not discriminating against or otherwise making life hard for people who never had them.1

Given significantly more time, support, access, instruction, and role-modeling, sure — anyone could learn to use Linux. The significant barrier most Linux OSes are throwing up is that they demand that users draw on these resources on an ongoing basis. They demand work at the command line to really get the system moving smoothly, and that is a problem. It’s a significant load on users’ cognition, time, and patience.

I’m sympathetic, I promise, I really am. I am not going to throw the Linux baby out with the bathwater. (The patriarchy quip came at a moment of really dire frustration.) I’m aware that limited resources are hindering the amount of user experience and design work being done on Linux distros. I would really like to be working on UX for open source software; I believe in its goals, if not always in the execution. I am, in fact, in a place where I might get to do that work, or support it, before too long.

I just want to not feel quite so alone in seeing how critical UX work is to improving adoption. And I refuse to feel bad about myself because I make choices which hardcore open source people may see as unethical, in order to work to the best of my abilities and not be crippled and dependent on others.

And now, I’m going to put this down and go do something else. Lately I’ve been wondering how I got here. I never intended to become an amanuensis for technologists. There were other things I meant to write about, and do.

1People who never had these things as children. Do you believe that the child should suffer because of the sins of the parent? Or should every child have an equal chance? This is an old argument, central to democracy.

Comments 3

  1. Doug Belshaw wrote:

    Gus, this is tangential to your post as a whole but more relevant to your footnote, but I think it’s really important for schools to think about the affordances built into the tools their adoption – particularly for the reasons you highlight about entrenching privilege.

    Posted 19 Nov 2013 at 11:57 am
  2. gus wrote:

    I’m totally with you on affordances, Doug (though that is more related to the previous post, I think?). “Affordance” is the best tool-to-think-with which my grad school years in education taught me. Without knowing what is really afforded by one tool and not by another, you have no means to compare them and decide which one really lets you do the things you need to. Frequently this leads to schools falling prey to the latest fad — iPads, Smartboards, Second Life, Twitter. Or — seriously people, get real now — MOOCs.

    Posted 20 Nov 2013 at 6:15 pm
  3. Brennan Novak wrote:

    You make a really, *really* great point in this article as well as in “SHINY, PRETTY JEWELRY.” As a male who grew up in a middle class US family that could afford a computer in the 90s, I meet many of the criteria you outline. For various reasons I had a surplus of time to learn computer stuffs. back in ’98 I built my own PC and was dual booting Linux & Windows. I then switched to Mac a few years later as I wanted to spend less time fussing and more time creating art & design. I have definitely encountered the attitude you describe in the Linux community (even as a male designer) many times and it is VERY off-putting, almost enough to make me give up on open source altogether as. But really, despite the nice larger paychecks, the misogynistic patriarchy is still rampant in closed source startup culture as well, it just manifests itself in different ways. So… onwards and upwards FOSS :)

    Posted 01 Nov 2014 at 8:31 am

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