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Editor's Note: Knowledge Is Terrifying

Mar 20, 2009, 23:02 (38 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

Why is the Linux command line so terrifying to so many people? True, we all have our fears. I can't quite bring myself to handle rattlesnakes, and when someone invites me to their church or "business opportunity" meeting I experience powerful get-me-out-of-here impulses. In fact I have a similar detente with rattlesnakes, religious proselytizers, and multi-level marketing hucksters: leave me alone and I'll leave you alone. The snakes eat rodents so they're welcome to hang out in the pastures; the others, no.

I asked "Linux Command Line Terror! But....Why?" in the Linux Today blog yesterday. Now I confess it was written with a bit of mischief, a touch of snark, but nevertheless I was serious-- what is so scary about it? Time after time when anyone writes about the advantages of the CLI they get all kinds of comments like these:

"Command lines are powerful. Way too powerful, even for an expert user."

"...the CLI is evil. It is a warning sign that says that the Linux community would rather be archaic than modern."

"...its uninuitive..."

"...a GUI can always beat it in terms of power and efficiency providing it is a *good* GUI. This is a distinction command line zealots fail to comprehend."

Such passions! I wish people would get that excited over things that really matter. And so many irrational assumptions. I suspect that few of them read past the headline anyway. I don't recall ever reading a serious article about the Linux CLI that said 'don't let anyone use a graphical interface, ban GUIs!'. These folks act like saying "The CLI is cool and has many advantages, here, try it, it's not scary!" is trying to take something away from them. Or forcing them to do something. (There were a number of good and insightful comments as well, if you feel like cruising through them.)

Too Powerful?

There is a strange disconnect in the thought that the CLI is dangerous and the GUI is safe, first of all because the GUI is merely an incomplete interface on top of the command-line, even on Macs and Windowses. On Windows it's the user CLI interface that is crippled, not the underlying structure. (And now they're boasting muchly of their Powershell, woo for them.)

I think that as a general rule GUIs are more dangerous because they let users click randomly and make things happen without having any real knowledge. This is why so many Windows systems suck-- because users and system administrators don't bother to learn anything first, they just fire it up and start messing around, and then get all mad when it doesn't work right. Or worse, get it sort of working and leave it as a big insecure, unstable, inefficient mess. One of the greatest harms (among so many) perpetuated by Microsoft is the myth that owning a Windows PC transforms the user into an instant expert on everything-- accounting, sound and video production, graphics editing, presentations, system and network administration-- it's nuts, it's wrong, and people still fall for it even after years of frustration and failure.

There are two ways to get in trouble with the CLI: typos, and copy-and-pasting something that some clown on the Internet says is good to try. You can't just guess-and-click; you have to actually have something in mind, and have done a bit of homework first. With all of the great information available without ever leaving your chair, it's very easy to find good howtos and tips.

The GUI is Intuitive

This is a myth that must die. Nothing about a computer is intuitive. It's completely abstract and artificial. Go ahead, test this yourself-- find someone who has never used a computer. Sit them down at yours, and see how well they do.

The folks who claim "The GUI is intuitive!" have forgotten how many years they spent learning Windows or Mac before they tried Linux. The Mac is supposed to be the most intuitive of all-- so why is Mac OS X Leopard: The Missing Manual the O'Reilly best-seller? Why are "iPhone: The Missing Manual" number two, and "iPod: The Missing Manual" number three? All three have been at the top of the O'Reilly charts for a couple of years.

Typing Terror

Tracyanne over at LXer said
"That's what scares most people, the fact that they can't type, and think they might be called upon to do so. That is also why most people don't use secure passwords, they can't type, and it's so hard just hunting and pecking out really simple passwords that contain only lower case letters, that anything that requires upper and lower case (most people don't even understand the terms), numbers that might include zero (what number is that?) and non alphabetic characters (what are those?)

"So the very thought that they might have to type actual words to get the computer to do something throws them into a catatonic panic."

I guess that spending fifteen minutes a day with a free computer typing tutor is out of the question.

Best of all Worlds

The way Linux is organized, we get the best of both worlds-- X terminals in our graphical desktops, drop to the console, close down X completely. Did you know you can run multiple X sessions at the same time, and inside of each other? The more you know, the more Linux lets you do.

It's seamless for the user who wants both GUI and CLI at the same time. Use Alt+F2 to bring up a dialog to quickly run a single command. Put a command launcher in your panel. Use a tabbed terminal and have five dozen remote shells going at once. What's not to like?

Skillz Are Stoopid

As long as keyboards are the primary computer interface, it makes sense to develop decent typing skills. As long as computers are important everyday tools, it makes sense to work towards becoming proficient in using them, and learning the most efficient ways to get things done. Oh I know, real people would rather make the same mistakes over and over and over and over and blame their computers. It's only us uppity geeks that think being good at anything is desirable.

I know, nobody has time, they don't care, they like their GUI, whatever, blah blah. I'm tired of hearing all that. I don't care who does what on their systems, just please do us all the favor of not celebrating ignorance. Let's have a change of pace and celebrate how open Linux and FOSS are for learning, and how the more you know the more you can do. So much of modern consumerism relies on ignorance and gullibility-- is that really something to be proud of?

I treasure a comment made in the Talkbacks a few weeks ago:

"Many people bag on Linux because it forces you to learn; I use it *because* it allows you to learn."

Thanks Jeff, I needed that!