Originally Published: Friday, 23 June 2000 Author: Rob Bos
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Alternative Lifestyles and Linux

Linux is not an "alternative" in that sense of the word. In many areas, it is the accepted standard, the highest common denominator, the platform that is the necessity, and not alternative by any means. In those areas, it is non-free software that is the "alternative" lifestyle.

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In this day and age, the label "alternative" is an effective way to marginalise things. It's a subtle way of spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Bisexuality is an "alternative" lifestyle, vegetarianism is an "alternative" diet, certain types of music are "alternative" to others -- in the case of music, it's even become an officially accepted category.

The chief purpose that labelling something as "alternative" serves is to marginalise it while seeming not to; it says to potential adherents to that philosophy that "yes, you could do it this way, just like all the other lunatics that adhere to other non-mainstream alternatives" -- thereby associating this new "alternative" thing with so many other "alternative" things and thereby denouncing it.

Linux is not an "alternative" in that sense of the word. In many areas, it is the accepted standard, the highest common denominator, the platform that is the necessity, and not alternative by any means. In those areas, it is non-free software that is the "alternative" lifestyle. It is non-free software that is not in the mainstream and irrational to use. In the Web server world, for instance, proprietary software does not and likely will never dominate; Linux, the BSDs, and various other software are the bread and butter of this field. Upstarts like Windows 2000 and IIS are the alternatives here; young, untrustworthy, and often proven to be unreliable.

While Linux is an alternative, and an extremely good one for most applications, it is not an "alternative" in the sense that many people use to belittle it and confine it in their thoughts from the mainstream. This social phenomenon, the meme "alternative" that serves as a sort of FUD for new things in general, not just Linux, is both a blessing and a curse. First, the meme tends to attract those for whom this is a good thing: the free thinkers, the seekers, the adventurous. But it is also a curse, because it alienates its users from the general population as much as possible by association with other "alternative" things.

(The statement that Linux tends to attract "free thinkers" and so on may seem to incorporate an element of elitist narcissism. Most "alternative" communities are convinced that their way of life is superior to many others, and by extension, that they are fundamentally better people.)

Linux is an "alternative" on the desktop computer for the individual user. It will continue developing until it becomes a value proposition irresistible to even the most stodgy conservative.

Even this, however, works to free software's advantage. By attracting the people who enjoy hacking, and by attracting the people with quick, versatile minds, the population of users tends to stay diverse, and distributed among the people who can most greatly appreciate the power and complexity of the Unix environment. It will, furthermore, slow down the potential growth of Linux to subtly exclude the people who really cannot make effective use of it: the home computer users, the computer-agnostic, and so on. This will, over time, be to the advantage of Linux and the detriment of other operating systems; it will be free to be developed and thrive among and by its users without having to drag the ten-tonne weight of an uneducated and apathetic user base behind it. With many conventional operating systems, this requirement is a huge drain on resources; Linux has no such problem since its user base can by and large fend for themselves.

Being labelled as an "alternative" will in the long run be to Linux' advantage. It could not be otherwise. This meme will give Linux the time it needs to polish itself, to hash out standards, to integrate and evolve into something great.

World domination, sure. But not this week. Maybe in thirty or forty years. No one's in a hurry. We have all the time in the world. The only certain thing is that whatever we end up with will be very, very interesting.

Rob Bos (rbos@linux.com), is busy looking for work, and has no compunctions about advertising this fact in a subscript to an article. He is utterly shameless; and lives in Vancouver, BC, and will be available September.





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