Part one of four. I am trying to be less tl;dr. enjoy.
I’ve spent the past month trying to get used to Linux, having started a job at an organization whose goal is improving and spreading open source tools to be used against censorship and surveillance. It’s the first time I’ve ever been fully immersed in the operating system, though I’ve been close friends with many open source enthusiasts for years.
I have not had an easy time of it. It’s not the OS I’m used to; I grew up primarily using Apple computers, thanks to the company’s sly efforts to get their machines in as many schools as possible in the 80s and 90s. My reflexes, the way my fingers instinctively reach for the command keys, are Apple’s.
Linux is difficult to use beyond the challenge to my reflexes, however. And as I’ve tried talking out my difficulties with open source advocates, I’ve met with a couple of attitudes which are hurting my progress, and which can’t be helping the open source movement. Here’s the first of a few posts, and the first misconception.
So, you want something “shinier” or “prettier”? I have recently heard “shiny” and “pretty” as descriptors for Macs from two co-workers, who appeared to be trying to figure out why I’m not comfortable on Linux and would rather be using a Mac. Eben Moglen, the lawyer who wrote the GNU Public License, has said similar things in a recent series of talks, in addition to calling Mac products “jewelry” (which is an insight with a lot of truth in it). In a talk at HOPE, he had previously spun out a lengthy metaphor in which Macs were beautiful in the way that vampires are, sexy and powerful and eager to suck the life out of you. (Whether he would have described them as porcelain-pale or sparkling is beside the point; he’s a law professor, not a sixteen-year-old convention-goer.)
There is always a note of disdain when they say “shiny” or “pretty.” What they mean is “superficial” — aesthetics without power, without meaning, without ethical weight. Every time they say “shiny” there is a challenge in it. “You can’t hang with us? You’re not down for the cause? Well then, I guess we know who you are.”
And as Ani diFranco said, I am not a pretty girl — that is not what I do — but I guarantee you that there are women out there, women in the tech industry even, who would hear Macs derisively called “pretty” and hear “That operating system is for girls, and ours is not.” (As plenty of helpful people pointed out when I mentioned this on Twitter, there are many men who are disappointed when aesthetics are taken out of technology, too. My dad, for one, calls bullshit; he spends all his time in his garage, but his bookshelves and coffee table are loaded with books on the Art Deco era, architecture, and industrial design.)
As a particular kind of feminist, I’m not excited about women being drawn to “prettiness” and “shininess” — but I also know enough about how social change happens, and about how people learn, to know I can’t tell them who they ought to be. Schools of education teach us that students are more motivated if they can see learning as offering a path to something they value, as part of an identity that is familiar and that they want to take on.
Plenty of girls are still growing up in environments where their appearance, their “femininity,” and their sense of aesthetics are more valued than anything else. Come to Washington Heights sometime, where it seems every girl child must be marked with pink to be validated, where every concert poster is plastered not just with women in bikinis but Photoshop bling and airbrushed-to-plastic faces, and where fashion boutiques with their over-endowed mannequins are a riot of studded and slitted and gauzy dresses (not to mention men’s shirts!) throwing themselves headlong into an embrace of aesthetic play. If “prettiness” is a shibboleth that decides who can come in and who can’t, the open source community is closing its doors to a vast swath of women who do consider aesthetics valuable. Small wonder the amount of female participation in open source is even lower than the rest of the tech industry. We shouldn’t limit future participation in open source to girls named Ada who grew up playing with Arduinos and Raspberry Pis.
The “pretty” accusation is a fatal misunderstanding of what I, or most people, want out of a Mac, anyway. It may even be a defensive dodge, to distract from the real issue, which is how difficult Linux still is to use.