I am a firm supporter of free and open source software (FOSS). These days, though, I rarely evangelize about FOSS when face to face. While I will argue in favor of FOSS in articles, or in speeches, I hardly ever do so in casual conversation.
Part of the reason for this reticence is politeness, a sense that inflicting my views unasked is bad manners, no matter what the subject or my interest in it. Another part is my anarchistic inclinations; while I have firm beliefs on the subject, I am mostly content to leave other people to their own beliefs, unless they are trying to denigrate mine or inflicting theirs unasked. However, mostly, my reticence is based on my growing conviction that evangelism is rarely effective.
This conviction struck me harder than every the other night, when we were at a gathering at our neighbors’. Another guest asked what I did for a living, and I explained that I was a journalist who wrote about free and open source software. After warning the other guest that I could talk for hours on the subject, I started to explain. I soon had three reactions that I have grown wearily familiar with from past efforts to talk about FOSS.
One female guest frankly refused to believe anything I said. Microsoft did not own her software, she insisted, nor could it record information about her activities or the legality of her software. GNU/Linux couldn’t be free of cost, either. Nor could it be possibly be less prone to malware and viruses than Windows. She was willing to consider the possibilitiy that the Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens, but not a few facts that anyone with an Internet connection can quickly establish.
The second reaction was from the male host. He regularly downloads movies from – let us say – sometimes questionable sources, and has suffered from malware and viruses in the past. At least once, he had to have his computer purged by an expert.
Yet this man thought that the security built-in to GNU/Linux was too much trouble. In fact, he thought that having separate administrative and user accounts was too much trouble. I had helped him set them up on his latest Windows machine, but he had soon changed them so that every account had administrative privileges. I asked him what was so difficult about taking ten seconds to switch accounts, and all he replied was, “I know you think it’s a foolish decision, but for me the security just isn’t worth the effort.”
I started to ask him if he though having an infected machine and having to spend money on software and assistance wasn’t more of an effort, but then the guest who had started the conversation thread announced that the discussion was boring. From the look on several other faces, I realized that, for them it was.
“I guess that’s a hint,” I said with a smile. But, inwardly, I was thinking: These are people who social activists. They are concerned and can speak with some knowledge about the hardships faced by the average Palestinian in the Middle East, the state of education, anti-poverty measures, and environmentalism. Yet none of them could see that I was talking about issues close to their senses of self-identity and about concrete steps they could take to put their ideals in practice in their computing – not even when I spelled out the connection in so many words. They spend hours on the computer most days, yet they did not care about realizing their ideals in their daily life.
Faced with such massive indifference and disbelief, I could either go into full rant mode or keep silent so as not to spoil the evening. I was tired, so I chose not to spoil the evening.
The encounter was not surprising, nor particularly unpleasant. All the same, it and countless similar encounters have made me keep my evangelism quiet. These days, I state my position only when asked, and stop expressing it when other people look bored.
It’s not that I care so much whether people think I’m obsessional. Rather, I hate being branded as such for no useful purpose.