How dumb can GNU/Linux users be?

How dumb can GNU/Linux users be?

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!

Other promotion

If you are from the future, you'll be able to visit my home blog at 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).



Mauro Bieg's picture
Submitted by Mauro Bieg on

Yes, with a computer you can do a whole lot more than with a car. You wrote:

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.

But a craftsman doesn't have to be able to write an essay with the same quality as an author or a teacher has to. The craftsman should have other, more practical skills than to express his thoughts in perfect words and write them down correctly. Although it would be nice if he could do that too, he can do other things better - that's why he's a craftsman. And that's why people that aren't skilled in crafts do other things (like writing).

In the same way an author shouldn't have to worry about his computer in the same degree as a programmer does. Probably, the author is better in writing books than he's in programming computer code. So why should he be forced to invest a lot of time in learning how to use his typewriter? Of course, it would be nice if he knew how exactly his typewriter worked. Then, he could repair it himself or enhance it if he got a new idea to integrate into the design. But it shouldn't be necesarry for him to figure that out. The programmer is probably better in those things.

What I want to say is just that in a specialized society, not everyone has to be able to hunt his dinner nor should he be forced to know how to repair his car or his computer. Sure, if he wants to know, he should be able to find out (information wants to be free). But if he sinply doesn't care, he still should be able to use the technology to do what he actually wants to do. So, why not make free software in generally, and GNU/Linux in particular, more userfriendly?

P.S. Tech-savy user will profit too: the more people using GNU/Linux the more people will be willing to pay for support.

P.P.S. The craftsman from the beginning who isn't skilled at writing might be glad if he can use a microphone or a camcorder and his connected computer to spread his thoughts to the world in other ways than writing a text.

Scott Carpenter's picture

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mauro. I was thinking of more ideas around the reading/writing/computing analogy, especially after reading some of the comments to Anthony's post today here and at digg.

It seems there are a lot of people who resent the popularization of GNU/Linux and the move to being more of a mass-market product. We can look again at reading and the different kinds of books out there. Should the nuclear physicist be offended that in addition to books in her field, there are also books for people who just want to learn how to build a patio for their house?

I'd emphasize the comments that mention there are still plenty of interesting and cutting edge things to do in GNU/Linux and it is far from being boring. The idea that GNU/Linux is tainted because the commoners are taking it up does seem quite elitist.


Terry Hancock's picture

I used to have to do computer tech support for people who most people would regard as some of the “smartest” in the world (research astronomers). Many of them have all of the same problems that ordinary “dumb” people have.

Obviously there's not one ladder. When Scott says “dumb”, I think he really means “dumb about this particular specialized knowledge set”.

But I think emphasizing that many scientists and engineers have the same problems with computer integration and maintenance shows just how important this issue of specialization is: you can be awfully smart and still be inexperienced or have poor aptitude for computers. And I'm going to think twice before calling a guy with a Nobel prize “dumb” for not being able to figure out KDE's menus.

Good interfaces are supposed to eliminate or reduce those kinds of barriers. Microsoft Windows is still better at that aspect and of course, Apple's GUI is far better than that (I'm trying to speak objectively, the truth is, Apple's is my personal least favorite and KDE my most -- but there are objective concepts of interface design and ergonomics that apply especially to new users). They've put a lot of expert human-factors people on their designs.

This isn't something that is so easy for programmers to do for themselves, because they have to “think like a novice” in order to get there.

Some effort is being made to do this with Gnome and KDE, but we're a long way from the finish line. And by the time we get there, we're probably going to be looking for the next evolutionary step in computer interfaces.

Mauro Bieg's picture
Submitted by Mauro Bieg on

And by the time we get there, we're probably going to be looking for the next evolutionary step in computer interfaces.

This could be true enough. I think, the next step in computer interfaces will be enabled through touch-screens which accept multiple touches at once. There's some research going on in this area, screens getting cheaper. Here an awesome video demonstration.

It would be terrific if a new Desktop Environment for GNU/Linux would be created which was built around an intuitive user interface especially designed for these touch-screens coming up. If it was really easier to use than todays mouse-based GUIs it could gain quite some market share. Bundled with a device, maybe similar to the 100$-Laptop, this could boost GNU/Linux adoption significantly and bring computing to an even broader public. It is really amazing what kind of interfaces we could create witch this Multi-Touch Interaction technology. Maybe someone who's into user interface design for GNU/Linux should team up with this Jeff Han, the guy leading the research.

jett's picture
Submitted by jett on

I believe the linux communtiy should some how figure out how to better the integration of proprietary software instead of outright banning it. Company are not going to just give out there source code for thier drivers or very few at least. This presents a problem for the FOSS community and this topic should be more brought up in forums and discussions. People dont want to spend hours configuring there wireless laptop with ndiswrapper and sound drivers. If they install the OS and it doesnt work all they know is that it doesnt work and they will go back to MS Windows if it doesnt work.Another thing I see is that linux communities are very seperated. Theres thousands of different Linux OS's trying to find and fill another niche. What these communities of developers should be doing is investing there time to be worth while helping create one of the more popular distribution like opensuse, fedora, ubuntu, freespire, PC LinuxOS, or Xandros. Instead the community continues to seperate itself and allow linux as a whole to be less impacting on the non-linux community. More leadership is needed to manage these millions of deveopers.
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Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

>I believe the linux communtiy should some how figure out how to better the integration of
>proprietary software instead of outright banning it.

Nobody needs to ban anything. Some Linux distros include closed-source apps and drivers as standard, others give you the choice if you want them or not, and yet others refuse to include them. But even in the last category, they still can't stop you from downloading and installing such things anyway. This is Linux--you are always free to choose what you want and don't want to run.

It's a free market, and purveyors of closed-source software are increasingly finding that they have to compete with open-source. I think the balance is inexorably shifting to the latter, but it's a slow process, and closed-source will have a place in the market for a while yet.

Lawrence D'Oliveiro

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I agree with you totally here. I've been playing with computers since the days of Apple-DOS and MS-DOS. I've worked my way up through Windows, and have started to work with Linux. In fact, I was in college learning to program in arcane languages (read COBOL and FORTRAN) when Linux first came out on floppies.

Yet, I'm still a newbie. Even though I've built computers, and have installed various versions of Windows (including being a beta tester for Server 2003 R2, Vista, and Longhorn), jumping into the Linux side of things was hard. I've never had to use programs like makefile in order to install anything before. Like most of the "newbies" or "dummies" that people slam, I was used to clicking on a exe or bat file, and it does the rest.

Whether anyone likes it or not, that is going to be one of the things that makes Linux great. The ability to click on an installer, and have it do everything for you. Yes I totally agree that the power in Linux lies in the command line. And, I tell everyone that I talk with about Linux, this very same thing. I've even gone so far as to show them on older versions of Windows, where the power was (and that Microsoft decided that we were too dumb to handle that power, so they hid it from us). And when I've had it available to me, I've shown them in Linux as well.

The problem is this. A solid majority of the people who will **consider** switching to Linux are not going to want to learn the command line. They're going to want it to be simple, like they're used to in Windows. They're going to want to click on a program, and have it install the program they are trying to get.

Our job is this. One, help them by making the installers work. That way, the users will make the move over to Linux. Then, our job is to make sure they learn the command line. For that is where the true power lies. We shouldn't ridicule them for not knowing the command line. We should encourage and educate them about it. Once they start to get a feel for it, and the other advanced features of Linux, they'll move from the "GNU/Linux" distros to the "beefier and more manly distros". But our job is NOT to scare them off.

I'll go so far as to say this. If you can't help the newbies without ridiculing them, then keep your fingers to yourself. In other words, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. While I agree with the author (Scott) in that you should help out a little, I have to say that if you're going to help me, but ridicule me in the process, I'd rather you don't help me at all. I'm sure someone else will help me-- without feeling the need to make me feel like I'm too dumb to use Linux.


Scott Carpenter's picture

Hi, Patrick. Thanks for your comments. It's great to hear from someone in similar circumstances. We can expect things to be different and look forward to learning new ways to do things, but yes, why not make things easier on the surface where possible? It will be a good challenge to keep simplifying the interface while leaving all the power and configurability near at hand for those that know how and want to use it. I'd like something for myself (and others) that lets us dive in and start using it and then experiment at leisure, and it seems that there is a lot of progress in this direction. (And still things to struggle with.)

I agree that people should be pleasant about helping, or not help at all. I understand it can be hard to maintain patience sometimes, but I also know from experience that "Google is your friend" can come across as quite condescending. (Now hopefully I'll remember my own advice if I manage to gain enough proficiency to start performing some "community service" myself.)


Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

At the distribution level, having to compile things by hand is becoming less and less common through modern "package management".

Applications such as Adept or Synaptics in combination with a healthy repo such as Debian's put most applications right at your fingertips and will settle dependencies for you.

Whether's its Debian's apt-get, Fedora's yum, Arch's pacman, or Gentoo's portage, installing applications has become pretty easy. Sometimes there are still problems with these systems, but significantly fewer issues arise today then just a couple years ago.

Also, some distributions such as Gentoo or Ubuntu have amazing documentation and helpful users in the forums, the problem is that sometimes the answer to your question perhaps isn't as obvious as it could be.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I think you are in the right ballpark in your thinking about computer literacy (a term that seems to have fallen out of favor) being as important as "regular" literacy. And I also think you are right about it being a generational process. And if the "keep them dumb, ignorant, and non-free" forces don't get draconian laws passed, I think it is likely to happen more or less on its own.

I remember 25 to 30 years ago when it was common for people to advocate the need for computer literacy. And then the Macintosh came out. When the small tech company I was working for got its first Macintosh (which resided in the president's office, but I could access it after hours) some of us started questioning whether the general populace needed to be computer literate after all; they could just point and click their way to nirvana. Boy were we wrong!

It is only now that we are beginning to see any significant part of the adult population who have been around computers for essentially their whole life. In most cases their parents only started struggling with computers (and in most cases it was a struggle) as adults. As these young adults start having their own kids, I think you will see dramatic changes in the population's relationship to computers. At least if things are kept free enough that those who desire can explore as far as they wish. And particularly if they can encounter different software/OS's so that they can actually learn about computers rather than learning about a (ahem) particular company's software and thinking that is the beginning and end of computers.

As I scan back through your blog I don't see it, but I believe you suggested that computing freedom will become increasingly necessary for other freedoms as we move into an increasingly digital world. I agree. As such maintaining digital freedom becomes a moral imperative. The biggest challenge for us now is to keep things from getting so locked down that the natural progression toward computer literacy does not have a chance to blossom.

Scott Carpenter's picture

I did write something along that line but also don't remember where at the moment. (Thanks so much for your continued interest in my writing!)

I agree -- I think everything is naturally pointing towards a more free, open, and sharing culture, if only we just let it happen. And since the computer and the things we do with it will become more and more central, it is absolutely critical that the architecture be free and open. It will happen sooner or later, I just have a selfish desire to have it be sooner.

We have these industries desperate to hold on to their power, and that stifling control they would like to have is very disturbing to me, when the alternative is a wildly creative and free culture that would flourish as the public domain grew richer.


AmyStephen's picture
Submitted by AmyStephen on

Scott -

You are one of my favorite writers. You weave humor and kindness throughout your writing and your reading is encouraged forward.

Good points on an inclusive attitude for more people -- even us dumb ones. I think another reason to make it easy to get on board is that everyone has something to contribute. Perhaps they are "dumb" in the area of operating systems (I am!), but we need their gifts as well in areas that operating systems mega-geeks are "dumb."

It takes everyone working together to further the free open source revolution.

Good read - again! Thanks much!

Go forth and multiply! ;-)

Scott Carpenter's picture

Thanks, Amy! Your kind words here and at digg really brightened my day. I'm glad you enjoyed the article, and I like your points about the different strengths we need in this job.

For example, while technical documentation isn't typically something I like to do, I think I can do a decent job at it and therefore should try my hand at writing some decent tutorials, etc. It can be satisfying if those instructions help people, but then of course you really wade in to the morass of questions that go along with writing code and documentation. I'm thinking in recent times of all the WordPress plugins and tutorials I've seen that have comment sections that go on forever with people struggling to get things to work. Not especially appealing if you're already short on time, but I guess that's exactly the kind of thing I was writing about.


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Scott Carpenter's picture


Scott Carpenter has been lurking around the fringe of the free software movement since 1998 and in 2006 started a more concentrated effort to "move to freedom." (Chronicled at the Moving to Freedom blog:

He has worked as a professional software developer/analyst since 1997, currently in enterprise application integration.

(Views expressed here and at are strictly his own and do not represent those of his employer. Nor of miscellaneous associates including friends and family. Nor of his dog. It's possible they're representative of his cats' opinions, but unlikely. Void where prohibited. Local sales tax applies.)