The Debian Jones Project

©2005 Keith R. George, Jr -- fair use applies.
Debian is a registered trademark of Software in the Public Interest, Inc.

Friday, May 13, 2005

"Linux Literacy" vs. "Linux Mastery"

One aspect of the world of Linux that I believe differs from Windows is a much larger gap between what I shall call "literacy" and "mastery". The tension this creates is always there, but I think it needs to be defined so that we can address it better.

Linux is a much bigger world to master than Windows, because it gives the knowledgable user much more freedom and power. There is simply no end to the reprogramming, reconfiguring, and re imagining that a really smart computer geek can accomplish with Linux, all the way up to creating a new Linux distribution. With Linux, the ceiling that defines mastery is a lot higher, because there is no ceiling. The sky's the limit.

Which is why we need to be especially careful to not give literacy short shrift. Linux literacy-- the ability to do practical things with a Linux system-- is a legitimate and respectable goal for an individual, and something that the community ought to be actively thinking and talking about promoting. I submit that linux's "no limits" philosphy and structure makes it much harder (if more fun) than Windows to master, but not really intrinsically harder to become literate in. I think that the distinction has been misunderstood way too often, especially outside the community. The resulting confusion has been exploited without shame or mercy by the usual traffickers in FUD. For business, Linux is more expensive than Window, the new line goes, because it's going to take thousands of dollars in support and training for employees to become proficient. This might be true, except that, in the vast majority of cases, mere literacy, not proficinecy, is all that is called for.

Everybody needs to understand that "literacy" and "mastery" are separate, if related, sets of skills. If someone wants to learn how to drive, you wouldn't try to teach em how to build an engine, but all too often, that's what happens in the linux community. Perfectly literate Linux users are made to feel like beginners. Beginners can feel overwhelmed.

I don't want to advocate wholesale splitting off, but someday I would like to see a Linux subcommunity for the literate-- documentation, sites, workshops, maybe a Literacy User Group or two. As Linux continues to develop as free software should-- not according to some corporate plan, but organically in every direction, I believe that this is going to happen, and I'm looking forward to being a part of it.


  • At 10:08 AM, Blogger Tobi Lehman said…

    This is CoffeeMan from JustLinux, and I have to say that I am supportive of your descision to promote linux literacy, I am with you all the way Jones!

  • At 1:14 PM, Blogger Debian Jones said…

    Thanks, Coffee Man! You know, it was you who told me about the debian-installer, and completely changed everything for me. If not for you, I might still be running Fedora, and that would be too bad. IMHO, "Fedora Jones" just doesn't make it.

  • At 7:57 AM, Blogger Alan said…

    I've been using Linux for over 3 years now and I have to say i'm beyond literacy, moving towards mastery, but still nowhere near that yet. The problem I've found with attempting to separate literacy from mastery is that invariable, with any distribution i've tried, you need to do *something* that elevates your skills to mastery in order to get something working in Linux. Sometimes it's a kernel module needing to be loaded because the hardware detection failed, other times you have to rebuld a package because it doesn't support this or that. In my experience, until Linux has a kick-ass GUI toolset for configuring a distro, the levels between literacy and mastery will always be inter-mixed. The KDE control panel is a great tool for cosmetic changes and some peripheral setup (mice, printers, etc), but the real hard-core stuff needs to be made simpler to use. I am an almost obsessive linux fan and I love it like an addict, but the reality is that guys like me love it *because* it gives us that infinite level of control, which is accompanied by an equally infinite level of confusion and difficulty in order to make changes. I've used a LOT of distros in my time, but I've not found a single distro that does everything through the GUI. Until that time, the line between literacy and mastery will always be blurred.

  • At 6:21 PM, Blogger Stomfi said…

    When I learnt to drive a car, back in the last century, the driving course included how the various parts worked and how they all had to be optimally maintained by me, the driver, to perform in a safe and productive manner.
    This doesn't seem an unreasonable approach when teaching Linux, as you can get under the hood, so to speak, and understand how to optimise your system, to get the best out of it.
    When we eventually get a real computing system, where only the human interface parts are all that the user owns, and the network does all the rest, then looking under the hood won't be required anymore.
    But until that long awaited day, we should learn how to lever the pre "Model T" hardware that we are offered to maintain and drive it like the pre "Model T" owners had to.

  • At 4:54 PM, Blogger Debian Jones said…

    stomfi, don't get too distracted by my imperfect analogy. There's no doubt that some basic maintainanace tasks fall under the umbrella of "literacy"

    alan, running debian sarge omn some pretty standard X86 equipment, I'm not sure that I've ever had anything like the problems you describe, so I'm not sure how common they are.

    One thing that gets me by is the fact that there's only a couple of applications (Realplayer, and the Folding at Home distributed computing software) that I want to run that I don't install with a simple apt-get command, and with very few exceptions (meaning in this case "none"), everything I've ever tried to install from apt-get has worked just fine.

  • At 2:07 AM, Blogger Rinias said…

    As I've said before, why does Linux literacy revolve around the Home Desktop user? What about people who use Linux at work and have admins to do all the "hard" things that the home desktop user must do because (s)he is effectively the admin? Can normal users be Linux literate as well? Or are they excluded?

    My girlfriend, should she show an interest in Linux, does not need to know how to install/configure because I am the admin of my own system. Can she then not be Linux literate?

    Literacy is doing what you need and want to do.

    Addressing a letter is something that one needs to know in order to be literate- so knowing where to find a word processing program, type your letter (with address) format it how you want, save it and then print or send by e-mail. that's getting closer to what Linux literacy should be considered.

    Transferring a document to a CD, floppy, USB disk or whatever is probably also needed. But not editing fstab!!! The damn thing should just work! And now, more and more, it just does.

    If programs are installed and the system configured- by a sys-admin- then the tests of Linux literacy are the same as computer literacy but translated into the GNU/Linux OS. Being a "Linux literate 'home' sys-admin" is something else entirely. I think that too much of our blathering applies to these people- and these people are who we are.

    For the most part, I've found that the people who move to Linux are the ones who were moving towards 'mastery' in Windows but got fed up with it or (as in my case) consumed by the idea of Linux. We're always looking under the hood to see what's going on. If it ain't broke, try something new so that you'll have to fix it. A sys-admin is the only user who should know how to use the root account or any command/GUI that requires the root account. Otherwise, our criteria for 'literacy' changes from being able to address a letter to being able to write a resume.

    @ +

  • At 4:27 AM, Blogger Soul Man said…

    Content is king they say yet when I use search phrases such as Search Engine Placement I find that seeking knowledge still captures me so when people talk about Search Engine Placement just remeber this is still the Information Super Highway.

  • At 3:23 AM, Blogger Soul Man said…

    Content is king they say yet when I use search phrases such as Search Engine Placement I find that seeking knowledge still captures me so when people talk about Search Engine Placement just remeber this is still the Information Super Highway.


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