What my Linux adventure is teaching me about our possible future

January 10, 2021

I am a Linux ambassador of sorts. I’ve been using the Linux computer operating system since 2013. I can still remember the light feeling I had the day I broke free of the Microsoft Windows operating system.

No more constant worries about viruses hijacking or corrupting my computer. No more outlays to pay for each upgrade. No more worries that the next upgrade will be really lousy and buggy and remain so for months or even years. And, above all, no more freezes in the middle of my work and work lost as a result.

Now eight years into my Linux adventure I am wildly satisfied with that choice. That remains the case even though my most recent upgrade did not go as planned and got stretched out over several days. But this latest upgrade has made me think hard about why I stick with Linux and what the Linux way of doing things can tell us about a possible, better future.

I think some of the principles and structures I’m seeing are found in practically every pursuit, agriculture, education, the arts, politics, and commerce. If you are growing some of your own food, you are practicing these principles and creating similar structures. If you are teaching outside existing educational systems, you are likely doing the same. If you are writing, painting, singing, dancing or somehow expressing yourself artistically, you are probably already moving toward the world that the Linux community is pioneering in its own corner. If you created a business not only to have a livelihood, but because you want to change the world, you are almost certainly on the same path.

Let me explain a little about Linux, and then try to relate that to the broader world.

First, I tell people who decide to try Linux that they are not merely loading a piece of software on their computer; they are joining a community. This is a very important distinction.

When you BUY an operating system (either separately or already loaded on a computer), you are a mere passive consumer. You are beholden to the company that provides it and subjected to their competence or incompetence. You are likely to get locked into a certain set of products that go with that operating system such as a compatible office suite with word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation programs. If you run a business, your business software is often designed to run only on the dominant operating system. In our present world that means Microsoft Windows.

By contrast, when you load Linux on your machine, you are giving yourself choices. First, you don’t have to abandon your current system. You can keep it, usually on the same machine. (For the uninitiated, it’s what is called a dual-boot machine on which you get the choice into which system you boot each time you turn on your computer. You can also set a default choice so you don’t have to decide every time, just when you want to. There’s actually another way to do this called a virtual machine—more choices!—so ask your computer-savvy friends about that if you want to explore that option.)

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Second, the community you join isn’t controlled by a corporation or the government. It is an aggregation of all the efforts of those who use, document, comment on and create the Linux operating system. Nearly everyone of them is a volunteer. A few people work for the Linux Foundation which reviews and approves proposed changes to the essential core of the Linux system and also helps people learn about Linux. Some Linux projects are funded and directed through a hybrid of corporate direction and support and volunteer efforts. The Ubuntu version is a prominent and very successful example. Others are directed almost entirely by volunteers though they may have many individual and corporate supporters who donate services and money. One example is Debian Linux. The version of Linux I use, Linux Mint, is run more along these lines.

There is no prohibition on making money selling programs that work on Linux systems or technical and support services to those who use Linux or even a Linux operating system itself. But almost all versions are available free to anyone who wants them and the office, graphics, video, internet and other programs people use daily all have excellent free versions that are included with most distributions. And there are many, many distributions to choose from.

And that’s the third point. There are literally hundreds of versions of Linux. Many of them are specialized for specific purposes such as running servers, assisting in scientific research, games, running on mobile devices, running on desktop computers and, for those who are new to Linux, versions that are geared toward beginners. And, there are more versions on the way. Anyone can try to write a new version and see if people will use it and even help improve it. That’s because no one owns Linux; we all do.

Certainly, you can see some parallels between the Linux model and what is happening elsewhere. For example, as large agrobusinesses try to gain control of the world’s seed supply, community gardeners are saving and exchanging seeds. Earth’s bounty belongs to all of us, they insist, not to some corporations. Community and urban agriculture is taking off, especially in this time of pandemic which is calling people to greater self-reliance.

Those who have read John Hagel’s prophetic book on the emerging management and business revolution, The Power of Pull, will understand that many of the most talented people in business are seeking ways to use their talent to change society for the better. Linux and the open-source and free software movement is almost certainly benefitting from this movement of talent. It’s actually exhausting sticking to the narrow, stale roles that most organizations require of their employees, roles the main purpose of which is to enrich top management and shareholders (i.e., make the rich richer).

By contrast it’s energizing to work on a team dedicated to something bigger than ourselves, even when the hours are long. And on those teams each person leads as is appropriate to his or her interests and talents, and so, team members are able to express and execute their ideas instead of continuously playing the political game that corporate life requires.

In the arts an explosion of expression made possible by the internet has its positives and negatives. How does one sort through all of the choices to find ones you want to watch? How do each of us take what we’d like to tell a broader audience and even find that audience in the clutter that has become the internet? Part of the answer might be to look closer to home in one’s own community. But that’s an entire essay by itself.

Here’s another development, this time in politics. Regardless of your view of the outcome of the most recent U.S. general election, one very big thing changed. Voting is back in style! We had the highest voter turnout in the United States in a general election since 1900. People in the United States think that politics matters a lot more today than they did as recently as 2018.

Whether political participation like that can be sustained is anybody’s guess. And, the violence associated with this political re-engagement—from a tiny, but frightening group of people—is problematic. Sometimes politics can matter too much to some people!

But, remember, political participation isn’t just about voting. In fact, more important than voting is simply showing up to city council meetings or school board meetings or county commission meetings or advocacy group meetings or service organization meetings (on Zoom these days, of course). It means keeping track of what is going on in your community and country and seeking ways to affect it. Can we find a new way in politics that allows individuals to give greater voice to their needs, and politicians to respond to them in liberating ways?

Another development called preference voting or ranked-choice voting is one way to make the system more responsive at all levels. The simple way to describe it is this: You can vote for all the candidates you like, ranking which is your first choice, second choice, third choice and so on. Then, there is an instant runoff when the votes are tallied in order of preference until one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote. What it means is that you can vote for the candidate you want, say, the one who is the most progressive or the most conservative, without fearing that a candidate who is in the other party will get elected because you didn’t vote for the establishment candidate. New York City has just adopted this kind of voting for 2021. It will mean more choices for voters and more nuanced choices—and that’s the main point.

Now let me circle back to my latest encounter with Linux. It took me some time to realize that my problem in reloading a new version of Linux on my computer resulted from having hardware that was pre-2015 and a high-definition monitor that was running ahead of the adjustments of some Linux developers, more specifically, the ones who put together the particular Linux combination that I prefer. That took some time to figure out. And, there were other adjustments I wanted to make in the way I was using Linux to streamline my use of computer resources and to allow me to handle my email differently right on my machine while still having access to much of my past email for search purposes.

I searched out explanations for my troubles and also solutions for my wishes. And, as has been my experience in the past, 99 percent of my problems or wishes have been experienced by other users who found solutions, sometimes many different ones. I often had to try out several proposed solutions for myself before I found what worked for me.

What has in the past taken an afternoon got stretched out over four days. But in the end I had a better setup than before, one that more closely matches my needs in a tool that is critical to my life as a writer and consultant. Strangely, I found that instead of being exasperated by my difficulties, I felt deeply satisfied with the process and the results. And, if the past is any indication, those results will be stable for some time to come. I’ll hardly need to think about my computer until I upgrade next time.

Now here is my point in telling you this. Self-reliance takes work. Self-reliance takes time. But self-reliance is the only way anyone can get solutions that are tailored to his or her needs and not to the needs of the corporation and the central government. And self-reliance isn’t a lonely path; rather, it is one made possible by the collective work and support of others in a community organized around assisting each of us to attain our goals.

The slick, pre-packaged, mass solutions provided by the corporate model are seductive. They seem so convenient. And, many of them claim that you can “customize” those solutions to your needs. But typically, the only thing you are doing when you “customize” is transmitting personal information to the company providing the solution so that it can manipulate you even more effectively in the future. The corporate model wants to shape your mind and limit your options. But I think more and more people are discovering ways to break out of the cage the corporate model seeks to reinforce.

In one specific area of my life, my computer operating system and related programs, I have been able to achieve something that is, in fact, tailored precisely to my needs and (this is important) which can be adjusted as my needs change—if only I’m willing to put somewhat more effort into maintaining my computer system than the tech overlords require of those who buy their cookie-cutter products. And, I’ve done this with far less input from the corporate economy than before switching to Linux.

I understand that for some of you reading this, good gardening tools and heirloom seeds are more important than a computer that runs using open-source software. But the principles are the same. Open-source means transparent and freely available and typically a result of many people cooperating, sometimes across the globe. If nobody owns the genes in your seeds, you can freely exchange them with your neighbors and friends. In that way you are building a garden that more closely matches your needs without having a corporation tell you what you can and cannot do.

That’s the direction we can go in multiple areas of our personal lives and our society—if only we are willing to put in the effort to make the journey. I think it can be a both a joyous journey and a joyous destination. And, in many cases it may not seem like that much of an effort at all! Come to think of it, that was the feeling of lightness I had when I first loaded the Linux operating system on my computer eight years ago.

Image: A Linux desktop (Ciberlinux) with penguins on beach (penguins are the symbol of Linux). Creator: Mhoyos. Via Wikimedia Commons

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: computers, linux