Notes on Linux: Shiny, Pretty Jewelry

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.

one of those tiny little pink ipods you can wear

Pretty sure Moglen meant this one. I mean the desktop operating system.

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.

Next: Notes on Linux: It Doesn’t Work

Comments 6

  1. Doug Belshaw wrote:

    Interesting stuff, Gus, and thanks for sharing. So I think that the nub of this is *design*. Good design makes all the difference – and this spans UX, UI and HCI as well.

    Like you, I feel a little guilty for using a Mac rather than Linux. But I want to get stuff done and OS X seems designed for humans…

    Posted 19 Nov 2013 at 11:47 am
  2. Karl Fogel wrote:

    I liked this post a lot too, but I think what Gus is talking about here might not be related to the actual problems she had when she tried using Linux. She’s just starting out by explaining a defensive mechanism some in the Linux community use (and explaining how other people react to that defensive mechanism).

    My guess is that the problems she had aren’t going to be about design (the user interface to most GNU/Linux distributions is pretty usable by most people — I mean, it’s a keyboard and mouse and you can click on things and drag stuff around and type things and it all works pretty much as expected) but rather the fact that the stuff *often just doesn’t work as it’s supposed to*.

    I’ve been running Linux for 20 years, and specifically the Debian distribution for at least a decade of that. Today I ran into . What that bug means is: my main PDF viewer just suddenly stopped working. It just crashes. I click on a PDF someone sent me in an email and BOOM, sorry, can’t view it. I then spent a long time coming up with a sustainable workaround (see until the Debian bug is fixed, which based on the conversation in the bug is clearly going to take a while.

    The solution I found took some time even for me to come up with, and that’s with two decades of experience administering a Linux system and being a programmer. How in the heck is a person without that kind of background supposed to use this system on a day-to-day basis? This is not a design issue; it is a testing and intended-audience issue. (I realize that Gus was using Ubuntu, not Debian, but I know from talking to her that the problems she ran into were essentially of the same sort I describe above: *not* design issues, but rather straightforward bugs.)

    Posted 19 Nov 2013 at 5:38 pm
  3. Roger wrote:

    This piece seems more about psychoanalyzing the specific nerd-culture form of toxic masculinity than anything else to me, unlike the more specific technical and cultural targets of the other essays connected to it (though I applaud the whole series).

    Anytime I hear someone using “pretty” in this weird derogatory fashion it just seems like a cry for help — who can tell what pain is underlying their identification with ugliness, of all things? Why would you not like beauty? And why would you associate much-needed usability with superficial glitz?

    Posted 24 Nov 2013 at 7:17 pm
  4. Bill Stewart wrote:

    Maybe male privilege and old-time insiderism is clouding my perception of actual sexism here, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. Apple stuff *is* shiny, and most Unix users I know attribute that to Steve Jobs’s aggressive embrace of design and user interface perfection. I certainly know plenty of male Unix types who refer to Apple products the way Gollum refers to his precioussss, and are willing to pay the extra price for products with The Shiny.

    Apple tries to hide the guts of the system from users, while Linux tries to expose every bit of them, but it also tries to have the right guts inside, and everything Apple is supposed to Just Work, and usually it does. By contrast, Microsoft stuff *isn’t* shiny, also tries to hide the guts from you, Doesn’t Just Work (though it’s been getting better over the decades), and doesn’t have the right guts inside.

    (The exception is device drivers – Apple takes care of the problem by making you use mostly Apple peripherals, Microsoft still has sufficient market dominance that it can insist that third-party devices have drivers that mostly work, and Linux tries to beg vendors to provide enough documentation to keep most of the standard stuff working, even if not all of it comes with Free Software.)

    It’s also a contrast between people who buy computers because they want devices that will do things in their lives, vs. people who view computers as tools to build things with (usually more computer tools.) When I want to build things, I usually want a Unix platform of some kind, which can be Mac or Linux. When I want to do something with music, there’s usually an Apple product that’s just what I need (though I’ll probably be using some inadequate imitation running on Windows instead.)

    Posted 04 Mar 2014 at 8:54 pm
  5. Johnson wrote:

    I describe Apple products as “shiny” because they are. Pretty is not a word I’d use to describe them, to me that would imply they are purely ornamental, when I think they’re more minimalist in design than that. I can’t recall ever having called a woman’s Apple product “shiny”. When I use the word with men I am reasonably sure it’s slightly pejorative although not I wouldn’t have thought sexist. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t sexism in this scenario. Apple’s OSX is built on top of Linux. If you want a well-polished (shiny) operating system, you need to pay someone to make it that way.

    Posted 04 Mar 2014 at 9:38 pm
  6. Johnson wrote:

    Case in point… “”I thought we might use it as a shiny placemat.” — a man talking about his dead mother’s ipad…hardly sexist now, is it?

    Posted 05 Mar 2014 at 7:12 pm

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