March 13, 2014

Nerds getting self-righteous about helping the Third World

As part of my ongoing experiment in rolling computer tech back to the '90s or earlier, I thought of using a web browser that doesn't have so much distraction, and that doesn't hog memory. (My laptop in general, and surfing the web, works just fine on half a gig of RAM — only if there's all kinds of cyber-sludge being fed into the system does it start to slow down).

The Dillo browser seemed like what I was looking for — no Java, no Flash, not much of anything other than displaying text and images. The only bummer is no frames, so everything is arranged in one very long column. Yet it has features that the browsers of 20 years ago did not, like tabs and a Google search bar next to the URL bar.

It's been fun poking around websites that usually take a long time to load and that play ads, and seeing only the text and images. The New York Times website, for instance. And good ol' Drudge Report looks exactly like it does in a fancy browser, only with no ads. The best part is that with one tab open, it's only using 15 megs of RAM, compared to 150 in Firefox. Plus it only takes up 1.27 MB of hard drive space.

Not the best browser ever made, but it has its uses, and I could really see this being great on older PCs that wouldn't be able to run any of the popular browsers.

In fact, that was exactly the thinking behind Dillo — create a web browser that has a minimal footprint on memory usage and the hard drive (shoot, it's small enough to fit on a floppy disk), to democratize web access around the world.

However, gaining access to Dillo was not so democratically easy and open for me, since I'm running Windows. And allowing a browser to run on Windows would only be encouraging the monopolistic yadda yadda yadda. So the developers insisted on not providing a Windows version, although thankfully a handful of others have done so on their own (naming it D+). Yet the original is available for Mac — guess they didn't have any problems with boosting the hardware and software costs there. Nothing monolithic or closed-off about Apple, after all.

Thus, in the mind of the typical geek, they're going to democratize web access by preventing their browser from running on the operating system that everybody uses. It must serve the higher goal of Open Source, and if that means that nobody — especially not in the Third World — will end up using it, then that's just not fair.

I see the same ego-stroking propaganda whenever I open up the Vim text editor. Some message about how to help starving children in Africa. Or how the Linux distribution on my office computer is named Ubuntu, meaning something in Swahili. Cuz, y'know, Linux nerds totally hang with black Africans. They were trying to democratize computer usage in Africa by pushing Linux there too, though I don't know if that's still going on — how could you tell anyway? After their efforts, are Africans starting to eat into the code monkey job market dominated by Indians?

B-B-But... it was Open Source! Our technology didn't come from some rich, giant corporation! You aren't forced to use a graphical user interface — the command line allows you to think more freely! Yeah, well, most users aren't interested in thinking. The average consumer just wants to get some basic tasks done and not have to think about it.

That's where Microsoft came in, delivering a user-friendly system to the average person. How else did it become so damn common? Microsoft was not driven by an abstract ideology but by concrete concerns about whether users would buy it or not. And whaddaya know, Windows works way better for starving black Africans than Linux does. Once again, practical demolishes theoretical.

Are nerds going to start designing open source medicines to treat tropical diseases? If their intentions are pure, then the result would have to be better than the medicines currently in use by the pharmaceutical industry. I bet they'd come up with some Rube Goldberg cocktail / regimen that someone with malaria would stand no chance of understanding or wanting to follow through with. The sick person would just ask for a pill from the Peace Corps volunteer, pop it in their mouth, and try to get back to their daily life.

In summary, nerds don't want to democratize access to what is truly best for the average Third Worlder. Rather, they want to develop and disseminate an alternative to the so-called best — something that would prove how idiotic, clumsy, and evil the corporate developers were, and how smart, clever, and noble the Open Source crusaders were.

They wouldn't care if winning their crusade against Microsoft ruined more lives in the Third World than it improved. The Third World is like a new baby in the family that the two older siblings are trying to get to imitate them. If sibling A prevails, that just proves what a loser sibling B is. "C'mon, whose room do you want to play in? I know it's mine, cuz you like me better, don't you? Yes, yes you do!" It's puerile.

What would really help the Third World, technologically? Making it easier for them to get a copy of Windows. The Chinese have gone the route of piracy to make that happen. But it wouldn't have to be that way if the version of Windows were old enough. Windows 95 was pretty easy to get the hang of. They haven't sold that in forever, so it's not like spreading it around the Third World would eat into sales.

True, they wouldn't be able to do all the weird stuff that we can with newer operating systems and more powerful browsers, but then you're expecting too much of the Third World technologically. It would do well enough for them to write their thoughts down in a text editor, keep track of any trades, dealings, and small business with a spreadsheet, and kill time playing card games. Only a nerd so removed from reality would want to squash that in order to push Open Source stuff on them that they would never use.


  1. Ubuntu was created by Mark Shuttleworth, a white South African.

  2. The first time I saw the welcome to vim message I thought it was a joke.

    At the last tech conference I went to, one of the presentations was about how the presenter helped set up and manage long-range mesh wifi networks in Africa. Yeah, that'll solve their problems.

    It seems like 95% of developers use Macbook Pros now. I still use a thinkpad laptop that can load either Windows or Linux. I get an extraordinary amount of shit if I ever tell another developer I use Windows. I think it's status-seeking behavior.

  3. I don't know about helping the Third World but Red Hat pretty much prints money with their open source business. At least it's good for the local North Carolina economy.

  4. I've been required to use a Macbook Pro for a couple jobs. It's annoying (mine refused to install the update fixing "goto fail; goto fail;" recently). Plenty of people just run a Linux VM inside of that. I think organizations prefer the standardization of Mac machines to the anything goes of Linux, like at my previous job. At least OS X has been a Unix-like environment (although based on BSD rather than Linux, and will annoyingly deviate from what's expected of Linux), since that's what nearly all the servers I've dealt with have been running (even when development was occurring on Windows machines).

    I use vim, but I've never seen any such message.

  5. I don't know where it's at, but here's the gist:

    I swear that used to be there on start-up, but it may show up somewhere else now.

  6. Yeah, Open Source advocates want to prove they're the big bollocks programmers who can write better software, actually enjoy trying to write better software and want to thumb their noses at big establishments that are motivated by profit. That's their motivation.

    Not exactly a revelation - they're pretty open about it. Unless you're terrible at reading people and believe they must be motivated in some fake pseudo-altruistic "people oriented" way, rather than that being some random message they added on without too much real concern.

  7. No, they are not open about their concern for the Third World being a sham to score preening points in an insecure status contest against The Man. Understand the argument before commenting.

  8. Hey, the impression I got from your post was that was a significant professed motivation for the open source movement that occupied a lot of their defense of what it's for, not a random piece of boilerplate that like 0.000001% of the open source movement actually care about even slightly.

    The behavior of the open source movement makes sense if you understand that their motivation is generally not about helping the Third World, and that they are quite open that they're generally not about helping the Third World, rather than just making cool software. It doesn't if you're make a bad psychological read and read this as a key motivation.

  9. You're the sperg who can't read people, i.e. flunking basic reading comprehension of the post you're commenting on.

    Nowhere do I claim that their moral preening about the Third World is a "significant" part of their motivation for developing software. I gave several prominent examples -- not some coding flunkie, but the lead developers -- of them doing this, asking how far they will carry it, and showing how risible their claims are about democratization when they insist on Africans copying the Linux crew like some kind of cargo cult, just to stick it to Windows.

    Why bother understanding someone else's point when you can just impute to them whatever will allow you to fart off a snarky internet comment?

  10. agnostic wrote:
    I swear that used to be there on start-up, but it may show up somewhere else now.

    I saw the following when I opened up gvim on Linux Mint

    Help poor children in Uganda!
    type :help iccf for information

    It disappeared after I entered text and then closed and reopened gvim. So it wasn't your imagination.

    What would really help the Third World, technologically? Making it easier for them to get a copy of Windows

    There's an open-source effort to duplicate Windows called ReactOS. I'm not holding my breath as to when it'll be ready for general use. It seems that Windows is a tremendously difficult OS to clone.

    However, gaining access to Dillo was not so democratically easy and open for me, since I'm running Windows.

    There are open-source browsers such as Midori and QtWeb which are supposed to combine a light footprint with excellent functionality. I downloaded them both, they work well, and they don't have any polemics on their home page.

    And allowing a browser to run on Windows would only be encouraging the monopolistic yadda yadda yadda.

    Tons of open source efforts are available on Windows, although they may favor the various Unixes. I guess the developers have enough sense to realize how much they would limit their user base if they didn't target that platform.

    The lightweight Linux distributions I've tested aren't half bad either, and are certainly enough for casual browsing, email, and note taking. I've tried out both Damn Small Linux and Puppy Linux (prefer the second) and they're simple to set up and use.

  11. Open source is really only relevant to the developers and programmers to make it easier for them to fork the project and work on their own version of the software. For the rest of us, everything is already black boxed in an executable and the underlying code really doesn't matter.


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