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Free lunches and the burden of responsibility

I am mostly interested in the title subject in terms of having the knowledge to be able to use digital tools in the way I want to, but I also think about the responsibility behind the Faustian bargain that Neil Postman talked about decades ago now as well as the definition of free software.
In my imagination, the burden of responsibility involved in the process of moving away from free lunch silos (or walled-in, locked-in beer gardens) involves an Odyssean journey of the kind portrayed in The Truman show, or George Lucas’ Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138, if I may hyperbolise.
I still don’t have the skills to move off my Linux distro to a GNU one (e.g., if I switch using non-free hardware, will things work if I just fix the wifi problem, e.g.?) Nevertheless, I would say that my computing experience is far better now than it was in the past.
But there is still a very steep learning curve, which can be VERY time consuming if you don’t have someone to guide you and are not going about learning things methodically, which of course the correct and desired way to go about this.
Let me unpack that for a moment. I made the decision to jump into computing again without remembering anything about Linux from, ahem, a few decades ago when I used it sans GUI, and am consequently making a mess of things.
Just the other day, a software program was not working properly and I thought it would be a good idea to copy/paste at the
sudo su
level… The software now works worse than before. In addition to that, suddenly, my site panel functions weren’t working properly – and I suddenly thought: most of my colleagues don’t deal with this, I wonder if I am crazy for doing all this ‘extra’ work when I need to be writing papers!
I had to come up with workarounds and … while things are working again, I would say they are working only ‘passably’ – and more jankily than how other professors appear who use swanky software that only requires pre-programmed button pressing (if at all! apparently, not everyone has had to make the shift online – but this is another topic).
And while my heart sank as a result of all of this, there is a part of me that really loves the process of crafting through computing, trying to figure out how things work, etc. – though I know some of you may be feeling stern towards me after you saw I tried to play super user. But I bear the burden of responsibility for what I am doing. And I prefer what it means as opposed to the meaning of passively ‘using’ tools instead of creating with them.
Michael Crichton wrote it best in Electronic life:
  1. People are more important than computers.
  2. Much of what we believe about computers is wrong.
  3. It is easy to use a computer.
  4. This is fortunate, because everybody’s going to have to learn.
  5. It is not so easy to use a computer wisely.
  6. This is unfortunate, because everybody’s going to have to learn.
  7. Computers can actually be a lot of fun.
  8. There are people who want to put a stop to that.
How do I imagine help on the journey away from free lunch to responsible computing?
  1. A reminder to people that not all shiny-looking things are in our best interest, that the cost of convenience is “ourselves” (cf. Merwin). Anthropologists know of the multiple times entire peoples have lost their livelihoods and well-being by selling it for shiny things – even fairy lights (cf. Bodley 1994). Incidentally, I am very interested in what it would take to be a Tayadaowuhkuh of general computing.
  2. Those with domain knowledge to recommend good beginners’ books, sites, and basic dos and don’ts (if you have such information and don’t have a site, please contact me if I may share it). I’ll add to that: effective guides on how to back-up one’s computer more efficiently if one insists on learning on the machine one is using for one’s livelihood.
  3. More resources like the following: Switching software, tools list. More resources here – scroll down a bit.
  4. Awareness that information on ‘respons-able’ tools (allowing you to interact with them not just use them) can not necessarily be found by doing an internet search unless one knows what one is looking for. Even when one finds these resources, they are often not very clear until one tries them out. For example, I didn’t know what kind of packages and programs Linux distros would come with (like e-readers) until I tried them. Of course, now I use
    sudo apt-get install
  5. I should also point out that even when one knows what one is looking for, if one hasn’t bookmarked it (like Switching software above), it does not always come up as a result in internet searches. I am not sure how to further develop these last two points as I can imagine there may even be good reasons for this – but it makes coming to computing in this way very difficult if this is not one’s main line of work.
Ultimately and most importantly, I cannot express my thanks enough to all of the programmers who have made the tools that I use available. Even when I get frustrated like this week, I still cannot believe that I am in a space where I can learn, even if I make mistakes. I also wonder about how to give back to the community – and trust that all needed answers might become a little clearer if I keep at it.

References that are not linked to:
Bodley, J. (1994). Cultural anthropology : Tribes, states, and the global system. Mountview: Mayfair Publishing.
Crichton, M. (1983). Electronic life. New York: Knopf.

Update: Not an hour later after posting, I read this excellent, serendipitously related post by Protesilaos Stavrou about the process of switching to free software.


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