Using Operating Systems Intentionally
Installing Fedora Linux on my old Dell laptop has made me think about how I try to use operating systems intentionally.
Fedora is really good. I've been looking for a Linux distribution I can be comfortable with for years and years and years and it never quite works out. These days, I use MacOS mostly, and run Windows 11 in a Parallels VM (to use PowerBI, and occasionally play some Steam Games I can't get on MacOS). I'm very happy to have a third OS to use and explore alongside MacOS and Windows. And I’ve been very impressed by the install process - video, touchpad, touchscreen all working from the off, and much better performance than the laptop was managing with Windows. Plus a very polished general desktop experience.
Why do I want to use different operating systems? Well, to give a long-winded answer to my own question: I think there are three stages of development in using technology. (I'm pinching these stages from David Chapman, and also cheekily renaming them so they fit the subject of technology better.).
The first I'm going to call the Unintentional. You sit down at the computer, you turn it on, Windows (or whatever) starts up and you try to do some stuff. Along the way, things happen, you learn some stuff. And maybe there is some swearing.
Whenever anyone starts talking about stages of development, there are some deep risks: particularly around snobbery and elitism. People can do amazing things with an Unintentional approach to technology. It may be that stage is entirely sufficient, because technology is genuinely peripheral to what someone is trying to do. And that's grand.
But some people will do so much swearing at their computer that they move onto the next step, the Systematic stage. This involves understanding, at a more formal level, how something works - in this case an operating system - and increasing the feeling of control in using it. Examples of this more formal learning that I've found particularly helpful include:\
- Organising the key mechanisms of an operating system (for example, the dock or the folder structures) so they remove friction in every day use.
- Figuring out how to use workspaces or desktops to separate out different types of activity.
- Learning keyboard shortcuts to do certain repetitive tasks more quickly.
Again, for many people this stage is sufficient in itself. But some of us who spend too much time at our laptops and love to over-think these things reach the point where we start to see the gaps and weak points within the system we're using.
For example, I've been learning to use MacOS across the last couple of years. Mostly, it's been a very positive experience. MacOS, like most Apple things, does mostly just work and that has been a big relief after hacking away with very well intentioned open source software that doesn't mostly just work without vast inputs of time (and swearing). But increasingly I'm also noticing the things that don't work - both practically (e.g. Siri, inter-operability with stuff outside the Apple eco-system) and in terms of values (the sense of working within a walled garden that protects you from things not working but also feels a bit quiet and eerie.)
This process of disillusion leads to the stage that I'd call Intentionality. (David Chapman calls this stage meta-systematicity, and applies it across multiple disciplines but then he's much cleverer than me.) It is the realisation that whatever system you are working with and within is imperfect, that it has its own gaps and weaknesses, and that other systems exist and you can use and explore them too. Those other systems will inevitably have their own, different, gaps and weaknesses.
It becomes less a matter of choosing and mastering a system, and more a matter of knowing when to use different systems in different contexts, based on when those systems will be helpful, given their particular strengths. It is less about zealous identification with particular systems or approaches and more about pragmatic exploration, with the ability to switch modes and systems when required.
So Fedora reminds me of the strengths and values of open source software, with some of its failure modes (around ease of use and dependence on deep technical expertise to get basic stuff working) addressed.
The ability to shift systems is related to the ability to shift perspective. For a while, my line of argument has been: very sadly, Apple's control-freakery around hardware and software has allowed them to create a coherent eco-system in the way that open source hasn't, and in desktop environments aimed at ordinary users you can see that most clearly. Well, seeing where Fedora has got to challenges that argument, at least to some degree.
Am I abandoning my Mac? No, it works really well in many contexts. But I'm keeping my eye on, and keeping my hand in, alternative ways of working, knowing there's no single way forward.
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