Geek Battles: A Call for Perspective

“Linux sucks as a desktop.”

“Windows is insecure.”

“OS X is for rich, trendy art majors.”

Depending on who’s in earshot, spouting off any of these statements in the company of geeks is likely to get you anything from a dirty look to a severe tongue-lashing. Geeks tend to take their choice of operating system and applications very seriously, and this has both its benefits and disadvantages. On the good side, it’s a great feeling for developers when they see such quasi-religious followings behind their products, and it can help get the word out about potentially helpful tools. But on the negative side, many people tend to take this loyalty to an extreme – losing sight of more important truths in the process.

The Classics

Many battles between similar information technology tools have raged on for years and even decades. Some of these include Vi vs. Emacs, C vs. Java, command line vs. GUI, Pine vs. Mutt, and Linux vs. BSD. In the more mainstream tech arenas, the ranks are formed along the lines of Windows vs. Mac or Linux, IE vs. other browsers, Mcaffe vs. Symantec, AdAware vs. Spybot, and Zone Alarm vs. competing personal firewalls. This, of course, is just scratching the surface.

These debates are quick to invoke anger, aggression, and condescension from those participating. They often start off in a somewhat civilized manner, but most end up analogous to the French guy shouting at the knights over the castle wall.

The Linux Case

Even within sub-groups you have severe infighting. One particular battle that I have watched for a few years now is that over which Linux distribution one uses. Recognize that most people using Linux in the first place have in common the fact that they’ve turned their back to Microsoft and Windows. you’d think this would give them some sense of community, but in forum after forum the users of different distributions insist on treating each other as enemies. This is particularly true from the top down. In other words, those who use some of the more advanced distributions, such as Gentoo, Debian, or Slackware, tend to give those using more user-friendly versions like RedHat or Mandrake a very hard time. This of course, makes them eager to upgrade to a more “Leet” distro so that they can in turn make fun of the people that use what they just came from. It’s quite hilarious.

It’s even possible to unofficially document these trends on a large scale. Around 4 years ago (when I started paying attention) anyone using Linux at all was fairly respectable. There were the highly-skilled people then too of course, and most of them were using Slackware or Debian, but just making the jump to Linux from Windows was worthy of some measure of respect. As Linux became more popular, however, people started coming on board with Redhat and Mandrake at a rather brisk pace. This killed the novelty of using Linux as a whole, since more people were now able to do it. As a result, the only way to preserve one’s superiority was to make the distinction as to what kind of Linux they were using.

Humans are funny

This continued on until the coming of Gentoo. Gentoo Linux shook up everything and quickly became the “in” distribution. Both wannabes and power-users alike flocked to the source-based paradigm offered by the newcomer, and it was (and continues to be) a resounding success. Ironically (or obviously) enough, that same success then led to a backlash from the “hardcore” crowd — a phase that we are largely still in, by the way. Many Linux gurus steadfastly refuse to use Gentoo simply because it’s so popular. They instead elect to “get back to the roots” by sticking with Debian or Slackware. Again, this is often (but not always) an attempt to separate themselves into the ever-coveted “more geekierest than thou” group.

Recently, this desire for identification as part of the elite has led to an exodus to BSD. it’s the funniest thing — it’s as if the only thing cooler than saying you use Slackware instead of Mandrake is to say you use FreeBSD instead of Slackware. (See “it’s more Unix-like”). Ultimately, someone will dig up some of the first Unix builds, modify them so they are barely able to be used, and they’ll become the new craze.The general rule for these types is that if something they like becomes either too popular or too easy to use, it must be abandoned in favor of something relatively obscure and/or cumbersome. (see punk bands)

Hardcore Insecurity

Even more frustrating than watching geeks fight among themselves over the tools they’re using is watching old-school, highly-skilled (either real ones or the wannabes) tech users struggle with an older application because they steadfastly refuse to use a more modern (often superior) tool. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are times that the older tools are just as good or better than newer tools that do the same thing. There are also many people who simply started with one of the older tools and have been putting off trying the new one. For these folks, it’s not that they are against using the new tool — it’s just that they haven’t got around to it yet.

These people, however, aren’t the types I am talking about. I am referring to the guy who thinks using bash instead of sh is a sign of weakness and inferiority. It’s the guy who’d rather use stty every single time he logs in so he can use the backspace key. And it’s not even as if the person uses any of the advantages of that particular shell over the newer one (if that were the case it would be understandable). They could be doing nothing more than a bunch of directory changes, repetitive commands, etc. — all of which would benefit from using bash or tcsh. But no — they refuse to change to one of those because what they think their peer group would think of them. When a person is willing to do way more work solely to avoid being thought of as “newbie-like”, they have some issues.

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What these people have in common with those above is that above all else he wants to get the rush of being old-school, and therefore superior to the next guy. Nothing makes people like this happier than being able to say,

“Oh, you use Bash?” I like the plain ol’ sh better. (cracking knuckles)” “Oh, you like Thunderbird? I use Pine. (snicker)”

The people I am talking about live for opportunities to say these things.

Why It’s Not Important

Ok, so I’ve highlighted a few of the issues that various geek sub-cultures seem to have, but what’s the point? Well, my point is this: If someone insists on judging another person, it should be based on what they do with their tools — not what tools they use to do it.

I am not condoning judging someone based on this ether, all I’m saying is that it makes a lot more sense. There are people out there running FreeBSD or Gentoo as their desktop because it gives them a high to know that few people are doing the same. Well, what do these users actually produce with these highly superior environments? That’s the real question. Many in this category create little or nothing at all; they instead spend their time on USENET and in forums for “lesser” products berating the mouth-breathers for not being as advanced as they are. You seldom see them using their vast powers to actually create something useful.

Objectivity and Perspective

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what tools one uses to accomplish a given task — it’s only the output that matters. Of course, if one tool does the job better than another, by all means use that one, but that should be the primary consideration. People caught up in the camp politics of “my x is better than your y” can’t help but become resistant to truth when that truth implies something negative about their golden OS or application. It’s much more healthy in my opinion to not care one way of the other and focus on what the tool allows one to do.

I’ll leave you a picture of two people. Bob is a highly technical Linux user running a dual processor, 64-bit workstation with 2GB of RAM. He spends his time putting down Windows in public forums and generally wreaking havoc on anyone who doesn’t use the same applications he uses. Alice, on the other hand, is a WindowsME user who’s running Word 97 and a 4 year old Pentium II. In her spare time, she writes proposals for increased science education in local middle-schools.

Who commands more respect?

For me it’s clearly Alice. Why? Because she has a worthy goal. The goal in her case is to get more money for field trips to the planetarium this year. Bob doesn’t seem to have much of a goal — other than convincing people that were he to have one, he’d be able to go about accomplishing it better.

As geeks, I say let’s focus on respecting people less based on what they use, and more on what they accomplish.

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