Let Them Eat Cake

Nov 11, 2010

It is inevitable. A columnist will post a thoughtful article on a polarizing topic, and the comments section will explode. Whether the column was sensationalizing one side or the other, or if the columnist took a more moderate stance, it doesn't matter. Often, the commenters have obviously not even read past the headline. They see the word that sets them off, that raises their blood temperature to a boil, and they have to attack. Or they see their side being razed, beaten down once again by the mindless cretins who are always on the attack. They charge into battle, swinging blindly and hitting whatever stands in their path. In the end, the same thing always happens. The argument goes meta, and becomes about arguing itself. Then, someone brings up Hitler.

No, wait, not Hitler. I meant Linux. Somebody brings up Linux.

[Image credit: House of Sims]

Yes, in the technology world, Linux is Hitler. I don't mean Linux tried to conquer Europe and Asia and was responsible for the mass murder of millions of Jews, Catholics, Gypsies and disabled people. Not the real Hitler. I mean the other Hitler. The one that lives on in the heads of people who are out of touch with history; who think that all bad things are equal to each other, so they sling names like Hitler and Fascist and Nazi and Stalin, without realizing that the crazed ideals these dictators and regimes held are actually wildly opposing views. As the cliché goes, Hitler is the ultimate argument stopper. Once someone invokes the name and calls the other side Nazis, the argument has reached a ridiculous point, and its time to turn out the lights and go home.

That's the Hitler I mean when I say Linux is Hitler.

In some ways, Linux is like Marcel Proust's "La Recherche Du Temps Perdu." Most English majors will claim that they have read Proust, but in fact few of them have even seen the six volume 'novel', considered the greatest literary achievement in the circles of English professors who grow beards and read poetry in severe voices and hold conversations in perfect iambic pentameter. In the same way, most people who enter an argument talking about their Linux box at home have no idea what they are talking about. They just know that Linux is something that the ultimate tech geeks get behind. They know it will win an argument.

It doesn't matter the argument. If two people are arguing opposing sides in a technology conversation, a Linux user is waiting in the wings to step in. Mac versus Windows? Too obvious. That argument is made for Linux. iPhone versus Android? Easy, Android, because it was originally based on a system that was based on a system like Linux. Blu-Ray versus HD-DVD? Who cares, when I can download bittorrent files of Matroska videos and watch them in high definition on my Linux box.

Ultimately, the Linux side will enter the fray, and the argument ends. Everyone else gives up and walks away. It's like two kids arguing over whether Derek Jeter deserved a golden glove award, and suddenly a third kid comes along and shames the first two because Futbol is the world's most popular sport, while baseball is a boring pastime enjoyed only by a pompous country that dares call its uninspiring championship "The World Series."

Who wants to argue with that? Even if the futbol kid is right, he's missing the point. Now, I'm not generalizing all Linux users, and I'm not saying that Linux users make an incorrect argument. But sometimes, it's better to play the game that's happening on the field in front of you, rather than trying to convince the players that their game is stupid, and your game is the best.

The same goes for people who build their own computer. Building your own computer is Hitler. It's a show-stopping argument. Why would I buy a MacBook Air? I can't take it apart? Why would I buy an iPad? I can't root it and load my own custom ROMs.

I had a friend in High School who would listen to us talk about going off to college, and she would look down her nose at us and sneer.

"I would never go to college," she said. "You're paying for someone else to tell you how to think. I want to go and do my own research."

She wasn't unintelligent, quite the opposite. She was too smart for her own good. She wanted to be an astrophysicist, and I have no doubt she had the brains and the talent to get there. But she tried to build her own path, and ultimately she failed. Now she's an administrative assistant. There's nothing wrong with being an admin assist, but she did not succeed in her plan.

Building your own stuff sounds great, and there are certainly benefits to doing it, but it's not for everyone. And that's okay. Sure, if you learn how to build and maintain a good Linux machine, you'll have developed some useful skills in engineering, programming, logic and even economics. There is no doubt that building a computer can be a satisfying and a rewarding process. But it's not for everyone, nor should it be.

That's the foundation of our society. In fact, that's the very definition of what society should be. I can live alone and farm the land, raise livestock, build my house, make my own clothes, etc. Or I can specialize in one of those things. I'll raise the livestock, and I'll find someone else to do the farming. I'll find a building specialist for the house. I'll find a tailor for the clothing.

Does the farmer then make fun of me for not knowing how to farm? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. He farms, he herds sheep, and keeps the cows healthy, and slaughters the chickens. Would it be rewarding if I learned how to farm? Probably, but I shouldn't have to learn. I'm no better or worse if I learn or don't, as long as I'm a contributing member of society and I can earn a living wage to get by. As our society grows more complicated, the jobs we take on grow more diverse, and we use a commodity to stand in for the time and effort each laborious task entails.

iFixit posted a "Self-Repair Manifesto." It's a great read, and I fully support the repair mentality. I think we should be repairing more gadgets and throwing away less. I think we should be upgrading more, and not tossing the old stuff when something new comes out. But I think someone else should handle the repair duties. The last gadget I tried to repair was my iPod classic. I tried to fix a broken screen. Now I have a pile of spare parts.

Am I an idiot for not being able to handle that simple repair? I know what I did wrong. I pulled on a cord that I believed was meant to come free, and ended up ripping necessary pieces off the logic board. If I tried the repair again, I certainly wouldn't make the same mistake. But that's not the point. I want someone else to do it, so I can have time to do the things I do best. That doesn’t make me lazy, far from it. That makes me a good cook, and a good writer, and an experienced analyst of cell phones and consumer electronics.

I place no value in my own ability to repair, just as plenty of folks place no value in the ability to write clearly and succinctly, or to weave an entertaining narrative. That's what makes our society so amazing. We don't have to do everything, we get to pick the things that we do well and try to offer those talents to the world. Whether it's setting up a complicated operating system, building a computer from scratch or baking a molten chocolate cake with a perfectly oozing center, we don't have to deprecate someone else's talents just because they can't do the things we do.

Instead we should all share, the technical geniuses, the great cooks, the entertainers, the doctors and auto mechanics and administrative assistants and builders. We should get together, watch a high-def movie on my white box laptop I built from scratch, eat some of my delicious cake, and talk about how worthless it is to be a lawyer.

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