Computers and me

This is a long one!

I’ve always liked computers. I liked that they could play games and produce documents. I liked that you could use them to draw and even make music. I liked them even more when the internet landed and you could use them to communicate. But it’s long been apparent to me that without software a computer is just a fancy electricity sucker. And in the past few years I’ve become more and more aware of how the quality of and intention behind the software can affect the usefulness and even usability of the computer. Bad software and poorly motivated software development can seriously affect the social empowerment of the end user.

My first home computer was a Radio Shack TRS-80 that was handed down within the family. It was also my first attempt at programming. The computer had a whopping 4k and stored programs on a tape drive (speedy access!). I gave up early as I wasn’t able to reproduce the dazzling graphics of the Commodore 64 or Atari 2600, but I remember thinking it was fun to have control over what the computer actually did at a more basic level. Come to think of it, I believe the language may have been BASIC!

In early school it was the Apple II and then the original Mac that was seen in so many school computer labs. When I landed in high school the labs were all filled with boring PCs. The graphics were lame and the sound was limited to simple beeps. These were the early business computers and we were being groomed for the world we should expect to work in.

Thankfully, a friend introduced me to the Amiga and I owned 2 different models over ~4 years. I loved the Amiga for its advanced graphics and sound and the obvious excitement its creators had in developing it. Unfortunately, the Amiga would die an untimely death due to poor business management and I was eventually forced to abandon ship.

Of course I ended up in the world of MS with an integrated-monitor PC running Windows 95. The PC world had come a long way over the years and it served me well between blue screens of death… but it simply couldn’t inspire me and was a pretty basic tool. That was the computer that served as my introduction to the internet and I marvelled at all the creativity and a sense of DIY brimming from the web.

I then went travelling and my experience with computers was limited to internet cafés. This amazing new communication technology changed the face of budget travel by giving backpackers a tool to keep in contact and coordinate their travels with others.

But by the time I returned I was sick of technology in general. While work found me using computers in a call centre, I eschewed them at home and took a break for about 2 years.

What brought me back was working with a friend to produce a short video on his desktop. That we could cut and paste and chop the video up like in a word processor got me excited and I decided to set up my own system.

At this point the world of computers seemed entirely black and white… PC? or Mac?

While I heard a lot about artists generally going with the Mac, my choice ended up going to the PC. While my reasons were largely economic, there were other motivators. The software I was interested in
was available for both so it didn’t really matter that I have the same system as others I might work with.
I also liked the DIY sense of the PC… I got to go out and research my parts and choose what to put in a box. A Mac, by contrast, was easy to open, but it was so clean and tightly designed as to be impenetrable. The inside kind of screamed, “We have this area under control, go play elsewhere.” Some people like the feeling of orderedness and finality inherent in the Mac’s design. It turned me off. It didn’t feel inclusive.

But I was about to learn more about inclusiveness through software.

I took a loan and built up a nice system with the capacity to run 2 or even 3 monitors at a later date. I got it home and running and was very excited to have such an up to date and powerful machine. It didn’t take long, however, for the reality to sink in… I couldn’t afford the software that I wanted to use.

Now, I used to be a lot more unscrupulous about software piracy. The fact was that I didn’t really think it was that big a deal. It was easy to make a copy of software and I didn’t believe that it hurt anyone. But my values had changed over time. It wasn’t that I suddenly believed it did some great damage to copy and share software, I still don’t. I just started to feel that I didn’t want to take something that wasn’t freely given.

Put another way, I began to feel that software developers were foolish and ignorant for being so protective and divisive with their licenses, but if they didn’t want to share, then I wouldn’t take it from them. This process coincided with a spiritual development that left me with the sense that taking something that wasn’t given was first and foremost an attack against myself. It’s obvious to anyone who understands the difference between a solid object and a purely informational one that software piracy is not exactly the same thing as material theft. But in a world where copyright confers ownership, legally speaking, they are close cousins.

This left me with a quandary… the software I wanted to use was over $1000 and I couldn’t see how I would even be able to use my computer without first raising the money.

Then I found Free Software.

It was a profound paradigm shift in the way I looked at my computer and the software that animated it. It got me thinking about the way that software was written and why. It got me thinking about interface design and, eventually, about the difference between software that gives you access, and software that gives you control.

I was also inspired to play around with programming. My first foray was a heavily bloated Excel spreadsheet that took from 15-30 seconds to update all of its cells on an early Pentium II. I decided to try and mitigate the problem by playing with the programming interface in my newfound toy OpenOffice, but it was a little too advanced for me at the time. However, it did lead me to Visual Basic, which I still believe is a good language for what it is. For someone who just wanted to make fun, GUI based, (if Windows only) programs, VB was excellent and very easy to learn.

After a couple of small but complicated programs I decided I wanted a bit of formal study to help me better understand the bits below the bytes and the arc of logic that leads from the 0’s and 1’s up to the interfaces we use. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a computer scientist in the pure sense, I just felt that knowing what was under the hood would make me a more powerful user in the long term. It also became obvious to me that with a deep knowledge of computers coupled to Free and Open Source software, a person could help to effect great social change. The idea of binding my computer skills to community social and economic development started to float in my mind. I went to Langara College and have since been taking courses that have given me experience with good program design using C++ and Java extensively, along with the opportunity to branch into Unix scripting with Bash, Perl, and Python.

Free Software also allowed me to play around with any software I could get my hands on. In programming I experimented with MySQL, PHP, HTML and CSS, in general usage I tinkered with the GIMP and Audacity. I ended up using almost exclusively FOSS licensed software with the exception of the Windows platform. Windows was the hardest to let go of as I’d devoted much of my time to understanding how to use it. I would’ve described myself as a power user, not scared to get into the nuts n’ bolts of computer administration. But the idea of using Linux and the sense of ownership it gave was too alluring to avoid.

A proprietary operating system, after all, is the most obvious symbol of software that gives you access without ever giving you control. I could never shake the sense that MicroSoft in some way “owned” my computer and rented it back to me on highly conditional terms. I didn’t like that they wouldn’t allow me to copy such a useful tool to share with others, and my exposure to FOSS software left me dissatisfied with not having the right to view and even modify the code.

That said, it still took me several “tries” to get myself over to Linux. The initial problem was compatibility. My first Linux distro was Fedora Core 1. I liked their statement of community and the freedom it seemed to offer from the corporate version produced by Red Hat. But configuring it to work on my desktop was a hassle and many things just didn’t work properly. I ended up with a dual-boot in which I never booted into Linux. Over a 2 year period, whenever I did a clean install of Windows I would reinstall Fedora with the newest version. While some things seemed to be fixed, others were broken. In addition, it became apparent to me that getting the hardware to work properly was the first challenge, I would then need to figure out some way to share my data between the systems. The complexity of the problem kept me with Windows for awhile yet.

In the meantime I had also purchased a laptop and found that I ended up using it almost exclusively over my desktop. The freedom of wireless internet let me work from any location in the house, in any contorted position I decided was comfortable.

The next distro I tried was Ubuntu, recommended by a friend. Ubuntu proved to be easy to use and on the first install on my laptop it got almost everything running properly. Everything except for my wireless card.

This turned out to be a driver issue. The wireless card in my laptop was run by proprietary drivers which were not available for Linux. As nobody outside of the driver producers was allowed to see the code, the only was anyone was able to get it working in Linux was to reverse-engineer the driver and write extra software to wrap it up and fool it into thinking it was in a Windows environment. This solution was wrought with problems and much of the comments I found suggested it would crash my computer every now and again. It didn’t really matter… I never managed to get it to work.

My Linux efforts were now limited to the time I had between semesters at school. I couldn’t afford to be halfway through a semester trying to get my computer working. So I made a deal with myself. Between semesters I would install the latest version of Ubuntu and check out the state of affairs. If it managed to get my wireless card working I would switch.

At the beginning of summer 2006 I tried again. I also pulled out my old wireless card and replaced it with something I had heard was more Linux friendly. Lo and behold, Ubuntu loaded up and had my wireless card working “out of the box” along with other fun things like my laptop’s special volume and power keys.

Linux had delivered.

I began to transition my data over. At this point I felt it would still be wise to have a dual-boot setup with Windows for when I might need it. Fortunately, my hard drive was large enough to accommodate both with no trouble. Also, the fact that I was already using most of the FOSS software that was available in Ubuntu meant my data transition was nearly seamless.

I used the laptop almost exclusively in Linux for a few months and then began to transition my desktop over and even set up a small server. With a few hiccups I am now running Linux everywhere. My laptop and server are running Linux only, though my desktop maintains a dual-boot for the odd bit of software that still needs a Windows platform.

That summer I also made a road trip with some friends down to Free Geek in Portland, Oregon. Free Geek was bringing my idea of technology for social change to life and I was impressed if a little intimidated. It was the scope of the thing that caught me off guard… 15000 square feet of warehouse space and hardware packed to the rafters. But they were acting as an advocate and supporter of FOSS software and that had me intrigued. When Free Geek Vancouver began to form I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

We’re now in the process of getting Free Geek Vancouver off the ground. It’s an exciting time to be involved with computers and I’m looking forward to seeing what Free Software can do for the world.

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