Newbies and Magic

Posted by grouch on May 17, 2006 7:18 AM EDT
LXer; By Terry Vessels
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LXer Feature: 17-May-06

New users of GNU/Linux must be handled with patience. Most come from years of a consistent user experience that trains them to consider computers to be magic boxes. They typically have strange beliefs, such as restarting the computer as a magic pill to cure the imbalance of software humours, which must be gently removed and replaced with logic.

[Contributing Editor, Terry Vessels, guides the experienced hacker through the sometimes patience-testing task of assisting GNU/Linux newbies. - dcparris]

The most commonly seen computer operating system consistently presents the users with problems while withholding information about the source of those problems. It also lacks a good set of tools with which to solve the problems. Problems mysteriously appear, with little or no indication of a cause. Undocumented herds of problems mysteriously disappear when the magic restart is applied. (Alas, almost always, the magic fades and the problems return after a short time). Cause and effect are divorced on that system.

Wizards are called from the box to configure things which have hints of magic properties. Whiz kids wave the mouse or delve within the cryptic depths of the "registry" and exorcize corrupting spirits. Users are bombarded with advertisements for generalized cures for generalized ailments of computers -- if your computer is acting strangely, just pay the price and click "OK" to make it so. The awesome powers are jealously guarded behind the solemn and foreboding license. This is information clearly too powerful to be seen by mere mortals.

Many of these users have experienced that ultimate magic ritual, the reinstallation, sometimes called a restore. When the computer is sufficiently possessed that it no longer responds to reboots or whiz kids or wizards or purchased pills, the user is advised to wipe the altar clean and begin again. Taking the oath of the EULA again is often required before the user is permitted to regain that (short-lived) purity of function that came with the computer. Incomprehensible "keys" must be incanted to get the software to rise from the shiny talismans and take up residence on the computer once more. The user who performs the rituals correctly is rewarded with familiar buttons and icons and pictures and sounds.

This systematic training is typically the largest stumbling block faced during the newbie's transition from the world of Microsoft to GNU+Linux. Free software pulls back the curtain to let you see what the wizards do -- action 'x' results in effect 'y' which may be changed with modification 'z'.

There is no pretense of a magic cure-all that deals with all effects. Your refrigerator doesn't suddenly decide to spew its contents onto your floor and neither should software. If a program misbehaves, there is a reason and, usually, a reasonable response that targets that particular misbehavior. The new user must learn, for instance, that rebooting the computer does not magically repair the user's typographical errors in a configuration file. (Yes, it appeared just as silly to the newbie I watched perform this strange act, after it happened. The previous training to believe in magic is what caused it).

It takes time to break old habits. If you understand why the new GNU+Linux user does illogical things with the computer, you can help ease their frustration and help them laugh at the old ritual cures. Try to stay calm if they resort to a reboot to try to start a dial-up connection to the Internet. The newbie is not an idiot for asking why double-clicking on an advertisement doesn't install the program. The newbie is likewise not an idiot for asking about the need for the latest anti-virus software.

The computer is a literal idiot, but the newbie has been trained to believe he or she is too dumb to use it properly and must therefore rely upon magic, and those who can call upon the magic, to operate the computer. If you can wear away that old training, you will be rewarded. There will come a truly magical time when the new GNU+Linux user realizes how much control of the computer was concealed and withheld that is now within his or her grasp. It's worth all the repetition and effort when the newbie reaches the point of realizing, "Hey, I can do this!"

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