Why I use Linux

I’m strongly inclined towards decentralized, hacked together, self-organized entities. They epitomize evolution.

Linux fits this model rather well. In contrast to the top-down-control operating systems aiming to cater to all users with a familiar set of interfaces and applications, Linux represents an entirely transparent and distributed paradigm, lacking any particular defining façade. A myriad of Linux-based variants exist, in the hundreds, some surviving natural selection, some gradually becoming phased out, each independently maintained, with inherent benefits and limitations, catering to a particular user-base with preference for working in a certain way. See distrowatch to have an idea on the lower bound of how many variants are in existence.

The affair is less complex than it sounds. Many distributions are derivatives of others, and many overlap in philosophy. Each variant, however, represents only a starting point, limited perhaps by the particular package manager (the ecosystem for managing installed applications/packages), a default window manager, if any, and a common pool of initial packages. A user ultimately has the freedom of customizing the particular distribution to the extent of imagination, beyond recognition even.

It is in the extensive control provided to the user that lies the strength and the beauty of Linux. A user can define whatever workflow, interface(s), and interaction that lend themselves to the subject of desire. This can include the impressive array of alternatives among text-based and graphic-based applications for accomplishing a task, a choice of a Window Manager (graphical-interface system) among dozens of popular variants alone, the flexibility to work in a more traditional GUI-style similar to Mac or Windows, or rely on the terminal for virtually all traditionally GUI-oriented tasks.

The advantage of working in the terminal lies in the ability to devise a set of macros, aliases, shortcuts, automations, at almost all levels of the workflow, making routine operations as non-imposing as possible, yielding focus to the analytical aspect of the workflow. The speedup also heavily owes to the decrease in the mechanical aspect of hand movement. If properly configured, a user can work almost exclusively with fingers around the alpha-numeric portion of the keyboard, eliminating constant movement towards the mouse or the arrow keys. In fact, a mouse can entirely be eliminated from the workflow by properly harnessing terminal-based alternatives for email, calendar, file management and manipulation, document composition and rendering, music listening, and much routine maintenance.

Linux can become whatever you want it to be within very broad constraints of your hardware and a foundational core (the Linux kernel - which, by the way, you can also modify since it’s all open-source). It is this non-defining identity that causes much confusion among the beholders.

One friend of mine who I once guided in configuring Ubuntu on a slower laptop, commented that it felt hacked together. I still wonder where the critique lies in that statement. “Hacked together” is a virtue. It is this ability to be hacked that enables anyone to find holes and strengthen the system. It is in this ability that lies the potential for continued evolution - from the bottom up, with any user capable of contributing, enhancing, discovering novel features and uses, and influencing the ecosystem.

Another friend of mine, to my great amusement, upon observing my heaps of multiplexed terminal sessions occupying the entire display, draws a reference to that, let’s say, pseudo-operating system called DOS, from the period of early to mid 90’s, which, incidentally, also based itself around terminal commands. In retrospect, I prefer that reaction to the one of mistaking terminal emulators for acts of cyber-mischief among airport personnel.

Sometimes I operate in a terminal-based file manager. Lately, Ranger has served this role, but historically I’ve relied on Midnight Commander, a derivative of Norton Commander that I’ve used as early as 1995 in a DOS environment. The visual layout has remained largely unchanged absolutely identical, with the traditional blue background, headers, footers, and all. I suppose this choice of interface can lead to further odd conclusions.

I’ve interchanged between Linux and Windows as early as 2002, and then relied exclusively on Linux since 2009. Although relatively slow to assimilate changes in style considering the long time frame, I’ve experimented with several major variants, migrated to VIM, Latex, and Pandoc for all document manipulation (with the intent of never interacting with a word processor), severely minimized the Window Manager footprint (coinciding with my general trend towards minimalism), and ultimately transitioned to an almost exclusively terminal-based workflow, short of a web browser.

If not for Linux (or access to other Unix variants), I would likely have long chosen a path that deviates from personal computers. Being heavily sensitive to the aesthetics and the mechanics of the components I interact with on a daily basis, I don’t sympathise with the mainstream operating systems, not mechanically, not aesthetically, and certainly not philosophically. But something to the likes of Linux would always have existed, because Linux represents the alternative, the underground, an entire movement rather than an OS, and an evolutionary response to the top-down imposed structure comprising the status-quo.

Sources referenced

  1. distrowatch
  2. Ranger
  3. Midnight Commander