In my last post, I explained why it’s a good idea to build your own PC, rather than use a Mac. I would go further than this, though: I would build a PC, and install Ubuntu or Debian or some other major Linux distribution on it rather than the Windows operating system.
Linux and virtually all the applications and software you’re ever likely to use are free. You will thereby save the $100 you would otherwise have paid to Microsoft, and you will also save a couple hundred more dollars each year by not having to rent Microsoft Office—thereby striking a blow against Microsoft’s dominance over operating systems.
Linux is an open source version of the Unix operating system. Unix was developed by Bell Labs back in the 1970s, and was used internally and cheaply licensed to universities and computer scientists. Paradoxically, when AT&T was broken up by the Justice Department, Bell Labs was allowed to sell Unix as an expensive commercial product, which prompted a Finnish graduate student named Linus Torvalds to create an open source version known as Linux. Linux took off in the late 1990s and 2000s where it powered the web servers for the exploding World Wide Web, but went into something of an eclipse with the rise of cloud computing the following decade. Nonetheless, it continues to power millions of Chromebooks around the world, and is widely used in the Maker community which uses Raspberry Pi’s. I now own four Linux desktop machines, a Linux laptop, and perhaps a dozen Pi’s, and am writing this piece on a Linux machine as we speak.
Using a Linux computer in 2021 is a nostalgia trip for me, because I grew up in a Unix world. I first started using computers in the 1980s when I worked at the Rand Corporation (if you don’t count the horrible Wang word processors installed at the State Department in the early 1980s—the government is terrible at buying IT equipment). At that time everyone had a terminal in their office connected to a DEC PDP-11, the hottest minicomputer at the time that ran on Unix. There was no WYSIWYG at the time or graphical interfaces; everything was text based and if you wanted to format a new paragraph you would have to type a code:
This is a new paragraph
You would then have to print it out before you really knew what it looked like. (Of course, if you use Linux today you will have a free version of Libre Office, which provides WYSIWYG interfaces for all the equivalent Microsoft products.)
But in the year 2021 there are still good arguments for using Linux apart from not paying the Microsoft royalty or buying a Mac. The main one is the command line: if you are good at it, you can use commands to do things that would be very tedious in Window or MacOS, like finding all Word files created before February 1 of the previous year larger that 500 kilobits and starting with the letters StopGoogle. (To be honest, you can also do this on a Mac, since MacOS is based on the Unix derivative BSD and has a command line as well—it’s just that few people know how to use it.)
Linux has some other advantages. It has a lot of networking tools for moving files from one computer to another, encrypting them, and for logging into other Linux machines and controlling them over the Internet. If you write software, this operating system has probably the largest set of development tools available of any operating system. It is stable, and in the unlikely event that it should crash, will give you a complete account of what happened. The operating system and the programs running on it update regularly, just like Windows or MacOS, but again you never have to pay anything to keep them current.
Another consideration is security. Since there are relatively few Linux aficionados compared to Windows or Mac users, there aren’t as many hackers writing viruses targeting Linux machines. (On the other hand, since many corporate backbones ride on top of Linux systems, there’s a whole class of hackers who try to get into them.)
There are Linux versions of many popular software programs like Firefox, Chrome, Zoom, Thunderbird, and programs for editing videos, recording music, playing movies, or manipulating photographs. The only major drawback in my view is that many of the big, complex, and expensive software suites like Adobe Creative Cloud or Autodesk’s Fusion 360 and 3DS Max don’t have Linux versions. It’s for that reason that I still own a Windows computer.
Hardcore software developers partake of something we will see repeatedly as we cover a range of technologies, which is intense nostalgia for a technology that’s about 50 years old. (I'll talk about the explosion of interest in vinyl records in a later post.) Programming languages like Java or C++ or Python are distributed with so-called Integrated Development Interfaces, or IDEs, which provide a text editor, debugging tools, compilers, and the like. But there are some programmers who insist on using ancient (meaning dating back to the 1960s) text editors like Vim or Emacs that their grandparents used to program in Fortran, or the editor I grew up with at Rand. Instead of using windows and a mouse, they memorize complex keystroke combinations to move around the screen, and swear that they can operate more quickly that way.
It's a way of getting in touch with the past, and experiencing what older generations experienced.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe