Answer: As dumb as necessary.
Let's rephrase: How technically sophisticated should GNU/Linux users have to be? How knowledgeable should any computer user have to be? The answer to that, of course, ranges from "very" to "not very." We need to get past the name-calling of clueless newbie and sneering elitist, and understand that there are going to be varying levels of ability in any community, including the one made up of people interested in using free software. From there, I suggest it is critically important that we expand the size of the free software community. That means dealing with more "dumb" people.
I've been thinking about this in the aftermath of Steve Goodwin's post last week and the resulting discussion. The commenters take up familiar battle positions. Newbies suck because they can't figure it out and can't be bothered to learn how to figure it out. GNU/Linux users suck because they are snobs and the system is hard to use and the combination of the two is why we'll never take over the desktop.
I see dumb people. They're everywhere. They walk around like everyone else. They don't even know they're dumb.
"Dumb" is an inflammatory label, obviously. What we really have are inexperienced people trying to use something new and unfamiliar. I like to think so, because I'm in that group. I may be starting out with slightly more knowledge of Unix-type operating systems, and I may have better skills at searching and trying to find simple answers than some people, but I still get stumped sometimes with asking the right question, or with composing the right search query.
I have empathy for people who struggle at an even more basic level, because I know what it's like to not understand things. I've worked with people whose skills are so far ahead of mine that I get the sense of what it must be like for people lower down on the ladder (if I can be so arrogant to place myself higher than the lowest rung). Yet still, these people are interested in trying GNU/Linux for various reasons. This is great!
What should we do?
When they struggle, we can point out that Windows isn't necessarily so much easier to use. That it just happens to come installed on most computers so that more people are familiar with it, and since it's so widespread, the hardware vendors support it better. Well: duh. That doesn't help get us to our goal: more widespread use of free software. It just tells us we have hard work ahead of us to recruit more free software users and help them figure it out.
Our job isn't so much to explain why Windows continues to dominate, but instead is to break that dominance by getting more people to value freedom and use free software. In order to do that, we have to make it easier for people to switch. We don't want to offer excuses.
We do need to understand why Windows holds the position it does, however. Lock-in is one reason, and sure, Microsoft plays dirty tricks. But I think we also have to acknowledge that Windows is easier to use in many ways. All those useability tests that Microsoft conducts actually have some value and lead to improvements.
It would be helpful if some of the people who use _far superior and more manly_ distros would stop tearing apart the efforts of those working hard to bring in new recruits by offering a "friendlier" user experience.
Efforts are being made to create easier-to-use GNU/Linux distributions, and from my experiments with one of them, Ubuntu, things are going well. It would be helpful if some of the people who use far superior and more manly distros would stop tearing apart the efforts of those working hard to bring in new recruits by offering a "friendlier" user experience. Likewise it would be helpful if people didn't tear down anyone trying to learn something new and potentially enlist in our ranks. Scathing condemnation of enlistees has worked well for the armed forces, but do you think it will be helpful for us to demand new users drop and give us twenty?
Again, how dumb are we allowed to be?
That gets us back to the question of how much people should be expected to know in order to use their computer. I played around with an analogy comparing computer literacy to the invention of the printing press and the industrial revolution and the rise of literacy.
Reading and writing take many years to become proficient at, and it's considered an essential skill in our society. Shouldn't we expect something similar for computer skills, the engine of the new Information Revolution? However, my wife pointed out to me that although most of us can read and write, we're not all reading physics textbooks. I think this is a good point (and not just because she is the boss of me). We should all know how to read and write, but it's not necessary that we all consume the most challenging works available.
We can look at the good old car analogy, but to me that never works very well either. I know very little about how my car works. All I care is that it gets me from here to there. Shouldn't it be the same with my computer? I don't think so. The computer can do so much more. It's a brain amplifier, not just a leg enhancement. Where is "here," and where is "there?" We should be willing to expend as much effort learning to use it as we did to learn reading and writing, so that we'll have the necessary base to get the most benefit possible.
A signpost is useful to a literate person, but only to a point. A novel or a textbook can enlighten and lift its reader up so much more. A car is similarly useful in limited ways, but a computer can and will take us so much further. But we shouldn't expect everyone to get Calculus, and we shouldn't expect everyone to know how to rebuild an engine.
Again, what should we do?
So let's get back to these pesky newbies and their problems and our headaches in dealing with them. (Wait, I'm one of the pesky newbies. But you know what I mean.) Why should we suffer them?
I say that we need them. If your interest is in the success of free software for the freedom it gives us, I think you will agree that the more people using it, the better. If we're just a small, isolated community, it will be more likely that the forces of "unfreedom" will be able to lobby for laws that effectively eliminate the use of free software.
If we want to grow to be a large community, it follows that we need more people using GNU/Linux and other free software. This is a battle on two fronts. Making the software easier to use for the people who just want to read their pulp fiction and take their car for Sunday drives, and doing everything we can to help people understand it and get over their hangups.
Yes, it's frustrating if people are unable or unwilling to figure out the easy stuff. If they resist learning how to fish for themselves. We don't want to answer the same old questions day after day. But still, I think we need to keep handing them the fish, and do our best to help them fillet it and catch some of their own.
Think of it as community service. You should limit the time you spend, but please do spend it. Do things that you'd rather not, for the betterment of the whole community. Again, you may ask what's in it for you, and does it really help to have these dimwits in the community, causing headaches for years to come?
First, behave: they're not dimwits, most of them. Second, many of these people are able to reproduce successfully, and their children will have the chance to grow up knowing what freedom is and valuing it. They may contribute greatly to the community and to your own children. This may be a generational struggle. The other side is hard at work indoctrinating children with anti-freedom propaganda. We need to work just as much at gaining our own recruits. Go forth and multiply!
If you are from the future, you'll be able to visit my home blog at http://www.movingtofreedom.org to read a post I'm planning about an essay by Peter Saint-Andre, titled, "Who's Afraid of the Public Domain". But you can still read the essay now and stay in suspense for my later brilliant analysis. Please consider digging it if you enjoy it.
If you are in the present, please visit anyway to read--among other things--a post inspired by the Richmeister: Makin' Copies! Also, completely off the free software and culture topic, I had a great opportunity to work for and write about another good cause, Kids Against Hunger.
Reusable with this attribution (including hyperlinks), and please note if modifications are made: Copyright © Scott Carpenter, 2006. Originally published in Free Software Magazine. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (CC-BY-SA-2.5).