Saturday, 25 April 2009

After ten hours spent trying to workaround strange software and hardware anomalies caused by a virtual Windows Machine on a Linux distribution, I've come to the conclusion that I don't know what I'm doing. With anything. It's been a week of getting to grips with new software and programmes as well as entirely unfamiliar operating systems. Something of a new world for me, this.

But, we are the generation that grew up with home computers for the first time! I still remember the day a BBC computer was shipped into the corner of our classroom on a small wooden trolley. A special chair was brought out of the corridor for us to sit on. Once a term or so, our teacher would shoehorn an excuse for the computer to be brought into our curricular learning. Usually it took the form of some text based adventure or puzzle game. I recall something to do with Little Red Riding Hood, and also a game about colonising America.

In the second, the player was the quartermaster and had to make microeconomical decisions on rations, firefighting problems such as weevils or rough seas through purchasing power wielded at the next port. There was the game too where you ran a stall at the local fĂȘte, an early business simulation where supply and demand had to be calculated by the player, who responded in price and quantity, trying to avoid the bankruptcy caused by a washout or heatwave.

Those times, when looking back, we thought nothing of it. I began programming my first C64 with little commands at the loading screen, making the screen flash or display characters. Often the games would not work, requiring some sort of information technology voodoo (usually cleaning the tape heads, changing the load command or similar) to achieve the end result - a hypnotic set of multicoloured scrolling bands, followed by infinite worlds. I spent hours with friends glued to the screen, unconsciously mimicing our classroom set-up where we worked in pairs to give us all more computer time.

And it is that experimentation, that ability to workaround and test until something worked that I think holds people to Linux and open-source platforms. Surely it does not draw them into that world in the first place, but once there, it is the simple pleasure in something not quite right eventually working through intervention, that holds them. It is the level of customisation, the fact that there is never a solution. If something doesn't work as you wish, there are always a million suggestions on internet forums for possible fixes.

I know many people who bought computers with Windows only to have to abandon them 2 years later, or even brand new Macs with malfunctioning hardware. I'd rather overhaul my ancient laptop, get to know the intricacies of its hardware and update every six months to a newly-developed operating system free of charge. Of course, it should all work straight out of the box, but really, what computer ever does? Those that had a NES and followed the console route are one breed; those that migrated from C64s to Amiga 500s are another and know what I talk of.

Perhaps with Microsoft's falling profits and Ubuntu's latest Jaunty Jackalope, the tide is turning. Whatever the implications, this whole arena of thought - critical, artistic writing on computers and operating systems and their relevance to the way we developed as cognitive adults - is hugely overlooked. Without retreat into psuedo-science or simple reminiscence, the world is looking for writing that deals with the novelistic feat of early home computer engagement, with these worlds within worlds.

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