The Arch Linux Rant – Part Two

As I mentioned early on in part one (you may read it here), comments like this are somewhat frequent on the “newbie” forum over at the Arch Linux forums, although the one I linked is probably the mildest of the lot. While they follow the same motif, they range from individuals voicing veiled frustration over the fact that Arch doesn’t seem to “work” like their favorite distro, that it requires too much effort, or that Debian/Ubuntu/<insert distro here> is so much easier (for some value of easy). Fortunately, the majority of these posts are filtered out quickly by the moderators and dealt with accordingly (see the “Topics Going Nowhere” forum for samples). It’s one of the reasons I love the Arch community–the wheat is separated from the chaff early on, and consequently, most of the threads that live beyond a day or two tend to be useful, interesting, or informative.

Now, fair warning: I’ll be illustrating my point with a fair amount of allegory. There are also a few rather broad generalizations ahead, and I’m aware of this. I also don’t address related issues like self-sustenance or the benefits of having broad, practical knowledge (I’ve always wanted to make my own cheese, for instance). This is intentional.

So, let’s begin.

The problem, fundamentally, is not one that’s endemic to any one Linux distro in particular. It’s actually a consequence of society coddling the fools and bringing up the helpless. Before you feel offended, let me clarify that I don’t mean to sound brash. It isn’t the fault of those who are helpless per se. An efficient, productive society creates specialized niches, and sooner or later there’s a threshold that’s crossed where it’s no longer possible for any one individual to know everything they need to know in order to function without outsourcing some of their daily activities.

I realize that the word “outsourcing” has developed exceedingly negative connotations recently, particularly in the US, but it’s the only term that fits. Outsourcing isn’t inherently wrong, nor is it evil. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that you do it all the time. When you go to the grocery store, you’re buying products that have essentially been outsourced for you: Rather than baking your bread, you outsource the baking to the store and exchange some currency for the finished product. Rather than farming your own wheat or milling your own flour, you purchased bagged flour at the store. An efficient society is one where the individual can focus on other tasks (like programming) instead of being overly concerned about day to day needs (such as growing food). An efficient society therefore approaches a point where individual specialization is such that we’re all “helpless” to a point. For example, I’m not particularly mechanically inclined and wouldn’t know where to begin to look to fix a car, but I have family and friends who often look to me for help with technical matters (or building their own systems). We outsource to each other. Put another way, you and I outsource our issues in areas where we lack the expertise or the domain specific knowledge to those who have it.

As I alluded to earlier, this sort of helplessness isn’t a bad thing. It’s the hallmark of a productive, efficient society. However, it’s also important to know and understand these individual limitations before embarking into areas where one lacks the required knowledge. Ignorance is a refusal to learn; arrogance is a refusal to listen. Unfortunately, ignorance and arrogance often play a part in some of the discussions I’ve seen, and it’s all too common that the two traipse around together causing mischief where there otherwise should be none.

The problem then is that the efficiency of society–of outsourcing–has created a clime where a certain subset of the population accumulates the mistaken belief that their problems are the fault of others who are unwilling to help them. They fail to understand the difference between outsourcing a product, such as bread, and voluntary efforts like Arch Linux which require the consumer to be his or her own navigator in seas uncharted. Perhaps the most sinister thing about this lack of understanding is that it’s not primarily cognitive–the consumer in this scenario fully understands that open source projects are largely staffed by volunteers–but it is a form of devious dissonance that leads them to behave as though they’re still outsourcing. It therefore expresses itself as a deep seated inability to make the correlation between F/OSS (Free/Open Source Software) and volunteer labor versus outsourcing and paid-for products. I won’t cover it further here, but if you’re interested in a much more lengthy discussion along these lines, it would behoove you to read the excellent article Linux is not Windows.

I should point out that it’s one thing to say “Help! I don’t have a clue what I’m doing! Can someone point me in the right direction?” but it’s another thing entirely to say “Help! I can’t get my favorite feature to work. It worked fine on my previous platform. Can yours not do this too?” The former expresses ignorance combined with a willingness to learn–this is a good thing, because it’s easily correctable. The latter combines both ignorance and arrogance, culminating in a distinct unwillingness to do research while placing the blame on those who would otherwise offer their help.

But I digress.

To continue: Because of the efficiency and specialization that our society encourages–another good thing–there are some individuals who therefore think that their problem is not their own. The “problem ownership” is then shifted, in their minds, to the people trying to help. This is exacerbated by those who refuse to do any legwork on their own, and it is this personality type that often leaves with unresolved problems and a certain level of anger.

What this means for Arch but not limited to Arch is that there’s always going to be some small number of people who aren’t necessarily willing to help themselves. The clueful ones may eventually acknowledge the error of their ways, apologize, and possibly redeem themselves after some embarrassment. Others are beyond redemption, and when they find their repeated inquiries for help are no longer wanted on the Arch forums, they’ll eventually become a bother to someone else.

However, I think that at least a small part of the problem stems from the evangelism we Arch users periodically exhibit. (Yes, I’m guilty of this.) Because we tout the benefits of rolling-release distros and the simplicity of Arch often without the appropriate warnings attached, newbie users hear these and immediately develop an unrealistic ideal of what Arch is (and can never be) and then project that into their pleas for help. On at least two occasions I’ve seen this develop, and the easiest way to spot these types are from remarks such as “Arch is supposed to be the best rolling-release distro, but I’ve never had these problems with ${other_distro} before!”

The best solution, of course, is to amend our evangelism with warnings like “Arch isn’t for everybody,” but I doubt that would work. We’re all aware that most people gloss over warnings (myself included) whenever a specific threshold of positive remarks is reached. If one’s mind is made up that the road is paved in gold, little attention will be paid to the sign that reads “there be dragons!”

The next best solution is to educate in addition to evangelizing. If you know someone who’s interested in Arch, point them to the forums and the wiki, but be sure to emphasize that Arch is a do-it-yourself distro. Educate interested souls on the merits of problem solving and figuring things out. (Bonus points if you link them to the late Richard Feynman’s book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out as a tongue-in-cheek gesture.) If your friend is someone who isn’t particularly interested in or adept at solving problems, Arch is very likely not the best match. That’s not to say they may not benefit from learning Arch, but you’ll likely save them (and yourself) from some frustration in the event of mismatched expectations.

I really like Arch Linux, and I’d love it if everyone I knew used it. I also think that’s an unrealistic expectation, because I know that not everyone finds enjoyment from the same things I do. If you’re considering using Arch, you need to be aware that you’re going to run into problems. The difficulty of the problems you’re likely to encounter will be determined by your relative skill; the more skilled you are, the easier a potential problem will be to solve. There will also come a time when an update may break the system, and you must be ready to spend an hour or more without access to a graphical environment (shell only). It also helps to familiarize yourself with chrooting Arch in the event you have to rescue your system from a live CD. You must also read the front page news articles prior to an update process, because important information about potentially breaking changes is posted there (if applicable). If this sounds like too much work, you may have to concede defeat. Arch may not be for you.

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