Steven Ovadia


Putting the Personal Back in Personal Computing

Technology is personal. We don’t think of it that way, because it’s comprised of impersonal things, like hardware and programming code, but if you think about it, our relationship to our technology is downright intimate. People type their secrets into computers and sleep next to phones and tablets. But too often, we don’t treat technology as something personal. Too often, it’s treated as something inevitable over which we have no control.

People tend to stick to default interfaces and to work around the limitations of their devices. I’m always shocked when I look down at someone’s phones and the default apps are in the dock, even though they’re often the least-used apps on a phone.

One thing that open source teaches us is that software is a negotiation, with all of the good and the bad that implies. Sometimes we have to bend and twist software to get things to work. For instance, as a Linux user, I’ve often struggled downloading digital music from Amazon. Right now, as I write this, I’m able to download my purchases like a normal human being, but prior to this recent detente, downloading my Amazon purchases meant configuring my browser to identify as being Firefox on Windows, downloading proprietary .amz files, and using a command line utility to open those files (while it sounds awful, once I figured out the process, it didn’t take much longer than downloading a zipped file of MP3s). Open source taught me resilience and flexibility in terms of using different tools to accomplish my goals, rather than just accepting Amazon’s limitation. I wanted to use Amazon and I wanted to use Linux and I didn’t think the two ideas should be mutually exclusive.

Technology should be about fit. We should choose the tools that work for us and our needs. That means that if you’re a graphic designer who’s heavily invested in Adobe products, Linux might not be the best move for you. Unless you’re also personally committed to free and open source software. In which case, Linux is a good choice. But the important thing is that you’re making a choice about what you’re using and thinking about what’s important to you personally, rather than just accepting the default tools or technology.

This doesn’t mean always choosing free and open source. I recently saw a great reddit thread where someone was asking the Linux subreddit to convince the poster to stay on Linux despite the challenges of using proprietary streaming services. People in the thread were responding that there was no reason to use Linux if that was all it was going to be used for. In essence, Linux was the wrong tool and using it would be unnecessarily frustrating given the user’s goals.

Conversely, my girlfriend recently switched to Linux because she felt like Windows was too prescriptive in terms of the software she could add and remove. She wanted to have options in terms of what software was on her computer. Windows couldn’t do that for her but Linux could.

In both of the above examples, the user is connecting personal preference to technology choice. And that’s the way technology should work, but too often doesn’t.

I wrote my book, Learn Linux in a Month of Lunches for many reasons. Ideally, I wanted to help new users transition to desktop Linux. But in a broader way, I wanted readers to think about the technology they use (open source or proprietary) and if that technology is working for them.

One thing you can do when helping people with technology is to broach the topic of tools and if the technology tools being used fit the user. If the user feels disconnected from what he’s using, he’s probably not going to be successful using them. And even if he can successfully use the wrong tool, he’s probably not too happy about it.

You can spend months choosing an outfit you might wear just a few times, and minutes choosing an interface you’ll use for hours a day for years. A lot of that is because technology isn’t considered changeable or personal. Free and open source software users know technology is both. One thing we can do to help others is to show them their options and help users to personally connect with the technology they choose.

Photo by Corie Howell

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