Monday, December 15, 2008

Software as a Subversive Activity, Part 5: Linux--The Kids Will Love It

Software as a Subversive Activity, Part 5:
Indoctrinating the Next Generation of Linux Geeks

Last year, when my youngest son was 5 ½, he was keeping me company in my home office and found my Linux box (this was before The Big Switch, and my main laptop was still in Windows full-time). The boys each have a Windows machine in their room, and he can start a game or a browser on his own, though he still needs help on the urls (“Daddy, can you get me on power rangers dot com?”).

On his own Ethan figured out that the Ubuntu logo was kind of like a Windows start button, navigated through the menu, found the games, and started playing an open source Minesweeper clone. He was happy and he was proud of himself.

You might be impressed, but as much as I love my son you shouldn't be. He just hasn't learned yet that Linux is supposed to be hard. To a child, a computer isn't about the freakin' operating system. It's a way to play games and find cool Pokemon stuff (that's how my 8 year old learned how to use a search engine). The OS is incidental.

As a parent you can try to fight the dominant culture, but you can't win every battle. In selling the kids on Linux, commercial games will be your biggest stumbling block. People who are paying for the licensing rights to Sponge Bob or Hannah Montana or Insert Copyrighted Character That Kids Love Here aren't interested in open source software. In fact, they're positively hostile.

As you choose your battles, keep in mind that Linux is just like all the other really cool toys (sticks, rocks in unusual shapes, the box that the large expensive toy came in, going "bang-bang" while pointing your finger): Free. Sidetrack the kids into the fun and free games Linux distributions like the kid-oriented Edubuntu include, and you can spend your money on their clothes and food instead of giving it to the richest oops, second richest, man in the world.

Linux is also old-computer friendly, as it uses fewer system resources than Windows. Your seven year old machine that can't boot Vista without bleeding internally will make a nice machine for a teenager who just wants to check her MySpace and Facebook, and maybe even (you hope) write her paper. That'll keep her off your computer when you have to do important work (like your fantasy league draft).

The combination of free software and old hardware is as political as it gets. It's green friendly. The old machines suck more power, true, but they're not clogging a landfill. And it's socio-economically empowering, as this testimony from a Missouri mom on the Ubuntu forums notes:
I installed Kubuntu on a refurbished AMD computer I purchased for $184 from a discount online vendor, it came with no OS. It now runs like a champ.

We cant afford much and this was my 14 year old daughter's birthday present this past week. She is overjoyed. And she is already trying to tackle Adept Manager and exploring Linux; adding bling and her music, of course.

I can't tell you how much I appreciate the work you all have done. Its a work of art. If I could thank each and every one of you I would.

You have given her the world to learn and explore.

If you don't have an old machine handy, and you're feeling Christmasy, Linux-based netbooks are getting cheaper by the minute, as low as $279. These low-power laptops are physically small, but that actually makes them more kid-friendly. The kids won't care what operating system it has—they'll care what color it is. Seriously. When my daughter was 17 and the big Christmas present was the iPod, here's the conversation:
“This one's 30 gig, that one only holds 8 gig.”

“But that one's PINK!”

The compromise: 30 gig in white, with a pink carrying case. (iTunes doesn't run in Linux, but GTKPod is an open-source program that'll let you fill up your iPod, if not shop at the iTunes store.)

If you still Linux is too hard, consider this: In Linux, the kids can't wreck anything. Well, they could still spill Kool-Aid on the keyboard, but they can't delete the system files or reformat the hard drive. (More on why you it's hard to screw up a Linux installation next week; in the meantime, just don't give Junior the root password.)

I saw a Windows install completely trashed in one weekend of teenager surfing, so riddled with spyware and popups and browser hijackers (those programs that change your home page to that you couldn't get online without the whole machine grinding to a halt. One of the nastywarez was smart enough to reboot the machine every time I tried to run AdAware. Lord knows how many Nigerian cash scams it was shooting out from my IP address. Three evenings banging my head against it, and no progress.

NOW tell me “Ooooo, Linux is too haaaard.”

Instead of taking it to an ├╝bergeek and paying for several hours of tech support that would have literally cost more than the machine was worth, I wiped the hard drive with Linux, which simply doesn't let that junk in.

They say childhood is the best time to learn foreign languages, and that may hold for operating systems as well. Kids are constantly switching back and forth between Windows, which dominates the home marketplace, and Macs, since schools are one of Apple's biggest strongholds.

The boys are still in Windows most of the time. But they think Tux the penguin is cute, and that's a start. They still ask: “can I play Linux?” and want their own Linux machine. (The plan, for now, is to get them set with bootable CDs or flash drives.) Convert them now and you've taken over the next generation! Mwah hah hah hah!

Next week: Some of the simple technicalities of why Linux isn't just good ideology--it's a better computing experience.


Anonymous said...

Great story. Thank you for sharing it.

I converted my wife to Ubuntu, full-time, 2 years ago. We had a discussion just yesterday, about how she likes Linux and feels at home with it. She's addicted to GIMP and has become quite a good artist.

Minor correction:

Unless I am reading something wrong, the testimonial that you linked to (about the gift to the 14-year-old) was written by the dad (Robert) and not the mom. It's still a GREAT story! I love reading testimonials.

Drew said...

My kids run Edubuntu and once I get the time I'm going to upgrade them to the more recent version.

My kids took to using Linux without any problems. At this stage it just does what they want.

For my 6 year old son, most of the games he wants to play are played online via Flash (Hotwheels, Star Wars, etc.) so the OS is not an issue (except I feel less vulnerable to picking up something from the internet).

My older daughter likes the Linux4Girls theme I found on the Ubuntu forums!

The 4 year old just likes typing ABCs in Abiword.

On the back-side I also use IPCop running on a seperate CPU in the basement for its routing/content filtering abilities which gives me a sigh of relief that if I don't catch what they are putting into the URL immediately there is another level of protection!

This is especially handy because they are trying just about any word that comes to mind and adding ".com" on the end. I think we all know how messy THAT can get (just think; is the site you want, not .com)

Since that time, I've moved my wife over to Linux as well and found my time spent maintaining the systems to drop to practically nothing! It took her a little bit to get used to it, but she's doing pretty good now!