Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Wed 9th Aug, 2006

How People Change

A largish group of CLUGgers met up with Pia Waugh at All Bar Nun last night for a quick chat. I can't remember how we got onto it but at one stage I was asserting that I had structured my talk about installing MythTV to say that people didn't have to throw out the old VCR and install a new computer to do the task - that they could incrementally install bits at a time and gradually get used to the new interface. I thought people would would prefer to have this gradual method of change than an all-or-nothing cataclysm.

Pia challenged me on this. She said that the change that people usually go through is the cataclysmic one. We'd been talking before about Windows machines and several people attested that friends using said proprietary operating system had bought entire new computers specifically because their old ones had become so clagged up with malware that they were impossible to use. Steve Hanley (I think) pointed out that most computer users don't want to understand why something is broken, or how to fix it, they just reinstall Windows entirely, treating it as a fact of life; Matthew Oliver knew a guy who would sometimes reboot Windows twice after installing a patch "when the first time didn't take". This guy would shrug and say, "everyone knows to do that" - as if computers are just a little temperamental at times and have to be sweet-talked into it.

Now, all this is true, but it doesn't mean that people want to do things that way. People, us Linux geeks included, would rather have everything continue to work the way we're used to and never have to change at all. So saying they go through cataclysmic changes and therefore they want to is post hoc ergo propter hoc. I don't think anyone really enjoys paying money for a new computer because they don't know how to fix the old one, but I can see that, compared to having to know how malware works and how to eradicate it successfully [1], reinstalling Windows or buying a new computer is probably easier (and more reliable). This does not mean that the person wants to change this way, and neither is it a way to get them to move to Linux - you can almost hear them saying "But I don't even know how to use this computer, darling, I'm never going to understand this Linux thing you keep talking about."

As another example, many people will be familiar with The Open CD. Part of the point of distributing Windows versions of popular Open Source programs that also appear on Linux is to let people become familiar with the programs we use on Linux without the paradigm shift that a full OS switch entails. The purpose of Live CDs is to allow people to look at Linux and get familiar with it without having to trash their OS completely or repartition their drives; Ubuntu takes this a step further and allows the Live CD to then 'install', creating a dual-boot system (I believe). All of these methods are ways of gradually easing people into using Free Open Source Software, both applications and operating systems.

Now, when we had the "Make The Move" talk at CLUG, we had a talk from a person from the (much larger) PC Users Group of Canberra. They've had a Linux SIG for years, but have never made inroads into getting a full-scale change in the club. Partly this is because there are Windows bigots out there. But one thing Rod said was that they've had little success with things like Live CDs and Installfests. I'd argue that this is because we're still stuck with that "why change?" question. If someone's already got Windows installed on their computer, they're more likely to boot into that by default than to boot into Linux simply because that's what they're familiar with. The only thing that makes these people change is a cataclysmic shift - that's what forced most people to go from Windows 98 to Windows 2000 and from there to Windows XP, after all; they had to buy a new computer and the new OS came with it and it was more difficult to install the old OS on the new machine.

But, when people want to change, it's very rare to get them to move in one great leap. On the one hand, we need to concentrate on getting people familiar with FOSS tools - which is why Software Freedom Day is so important. On the other hand, when cataclysms occur, I think that's when we should be leaping in and saying "Well, if you installed Linux, you'd never have that kind of problem at all!" and "Why throw away your old computer when you can make it fast, secure and free!" and "Yes, Mum, so you're not going to notice the difference, are you?". The arguments of libre-freedom, beer-freedom, and security-freedom are still our most powerful. Use them!

[1]: There are some people who go further in this know-nothing, nudnik approach, and actively refuse to learn what I would call elementary websurfing safety. I can only assume that either these people also wander down dark alleys in places like King's Cross and Soho because "it looks so interesting", or that they think that computers are perfectly harmless "because, look, it's never leapt up and bitten me when I did something you call 'wrong'". These people, in my bigoted opinion, need a real application of clue-stick; they must be actively punished for making spam and malware the menace it is today. Revoke their internet license forthwith!

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