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Linux and the media

By Inoshiro in Op-Ed
Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 01:07:21 PM EST
Tags: Software (all tags)
Software

This story was originally written on the 4th of September in responce to the KDE/Gnome flareup and reporting by those outside the community

No one can know everything in the world.  But people like to be informed.  As a resolution to this conflict, the limitations of the human mind and the need to know, the news media was born.  People informed on the issues report on them, allowing a much greater number of people to quickly understand new developments in the world.


Not everything is ideal as this dry, logical layout of relationship between the media, and consumers of news.  In times past, issues were reported in an active voice.  The reporter would state, firmly, their opinion on the subject.  People were free to disagree, and many did.  Out of this conflict and discussion, other people formed their own opinions.  And the need for varied information about a topic was met.

Then things changed.  The rules governing the reporting of information changed.  Hardened.  It was no longer apropos to state an opinion, and so the news stopped being reported as if people had one.  Each day, people would sit to read the paper or watch the news, and get another large helping of facts.  Raw, unfiltered facts.  If they formed an opinion, or discussed the news, it was now purely secondary to the act of reading it.

Again, it's not quite like that in the real world.  Reporters and columnists, intentionally or not, add a editorial touch to the reports and articles they produce.  The biases and ignorantness show through.  This is important to know because a lot of people depend on the media for their view of the world.  Alter the media, and you alter their view of the world.

Given that the news media was originally a group of people educated on topics which they then wrote and reported on for others (specialisation of the information gathering), you would assume the media would still exist as an entity educated and informed.  That way, even if some editorial opinion slipped through, it would be an informed one. Too often this is not the case.

That's why I'm writing this piece.  The media, while mishandling a lot of issues lately, has been sorely mishandling one that's dear to my heart -- Linux, and Unix.  In many cases, the writer involved has not just mishandled the reporting, they have openly exposed themselves as ignorant about the topic.

You may think this is a bit of sensationalism on my part (sensationalism does seem to generate attention these days), so I'm going to give you some example cases.  I'm stating my bias outright that I'm fairly annoyed at these reports, and that I'm going to pull no punches.  But I'm being open about this -- you can mail me, find me on IRC, call me up, and I'll tell you the same thing.  Keep that in mind, and keep your mind open.  I want you, the reader, to think about these cases.

First on the block: Charles Cooper.  This is a ZDNet reporter who wrote this piece, a "rumours and comment" page which seems to be used as filler for real content (but that's probably my aggravation talking).  The page itself is fairly innocuous (not surprising considering the source), until you stumble upon this nugget half-way down:

"Now that the KDE-Gnome rift in the Linux community is in the open, certain spinmeisters are doing their damnedest to paper over the differences and suggest it's all one big happy family. Wishful thinking."

"I'm a reporter, really!" -- wishful thinking.  I'm going to place myself in this fellows shoes for a bit, to try to understand why these rather funny (if not hilarious) comments are issuing forth from his muse.

"Linux -- it's new!  It's big!  It's the upstart operating system!  Lots of stock market stuff last year, and now there've been even more business happenings.  What's this?  After the Gnome (what's that?) announcement, something called KDE had developers for it write some very, very interesting things about it.  Ah-hah!  A RIFT!  This so called community has always seemed to together, acting like one.  But this came outa the blue for me, so it has to be some thing they were hiding!  Yeeaaahes!  This'll make a great addition to my next column."

And so it was written.  An ignorant man, at home or at work, is a dangerous thing when given the tools to communicate and the audience which will listen.  From my metaphorical tower atop the hill, I can smile and sit back.  "No one will believe this.  ZDNet's not a credible source of news; never has been.  This is just too obvious to be believed." But it is believable -- to someone unfamiliar with the situation and background.  That's why it was written in the first place.

The next article was a lot closer to home (figuratively speaking).  Kevin Reichard, who is employed by LinuxPlanet(tm), wrote a piece on IBM's latest version of the AIX operating system (a flavour of Unix).  The comment, buried down towards the middle, startled me.

"Interestingly, despite IBM's commitment to the GNOME Foundation, AIX 5L will ship with both KDE and GNOME,"

I had to stop and think, "why would IBM's public statement that they would help the Gnome project, through the recently created Gnome foundation, preclude them including KDE in the distribution?"  Just because Microsoft's commitment to Internet Explorer precludes it from including a copy of Netscape and a dialog allowing you to easily change between the two, does not mean that other companies are so restricted.

Now you know I'm annoyed, and you know the source.  So I'm going to give you a history lesson.  If you don't feel the need to read a few paragraphs about KDE and Gnome, skip to the conclusion.  But you're cheating yourself of another thing to talk about around whatever proverbial watering hole you chat at, and you're depriving yourself of a firm opinion on the subject.

KDE was started back in 1996 by a German named Matthias Ettrich.  He took a toolkit (which, in the graphical interface system that runs on almost all Unixes, provides the look and operational behaviour of an application) which was (in his opinion) a quality one, that provided the proper features.  Enough that he could easily add a few more layers, and allow a whole bunch of applications to work together as one cohesive desktop environment.  The K Desktop Environment.

The philosophy of the Unix environment is to provide programs with source, which will fill a niche or perform some required action.  Writers spend great amounts of time writing standards for these applications, and programmers spend greater amounts of time implementing them.  Instead of providing one single solutions, the programmers often work on programs which perform the same functions as existing ones.

A lot of people see this as duplicated or wasted effort, but it is the computer equivalent of democracy.  Applications are developed, and the internals are laid bare for the world.  People use the programs, read the code, and eventually decide to use one particular implementation.  The important part of this system is that it puts the choice in the hands of the end user.

A year later, a fellow named Miguel de Icaza who was born in Mexico decided to write a desktop environment.  This one would be the GNU Object Model Environment, or Gnome.  Miguel had different ideas about how the desktop environment should be implemented, and there were some licencing issues which had cropped up with Matthias's choice of toolkit (named Qt) which looked like they would hinder KDE.

If you've ever run into a Macintosh user, you know they want you to become one too.  If you've ever mentioned you run Windows to a Linux user, they've probably talked to you about how Linux is different.  If you happen to say you're using Linux for your server, some people will come forward to suggest FreeBSD.  There are a lot of choices out there.  A lot of people who think their choice is the One True Way can be a bit more intense in trying to get you to make the Right Choice.  These people are called zealots.

If I were to say a product sucked, and had no reasons to back it up, a lot of users of the product would be upset.  They've made the decision to use the product.  But the zealots are the ones that would go out of their way to contact me about the statement, maybe even tearing me a new orifice in the process.  Every product has a group of zealots to go with it.

KDE had some zealots.  Gnome had some zealots.  Some of these zealots were angry because of the licencing issues, some were angry because of what the other camp had said.  And so a flame war erupted.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the KDE and Gnome developers continued to work on their projects.  They even created ways for their respective environments to interact with each other, and started developing standards.

The flame war gradually died down, as such things do.  In this time, two years had passed.  It was 1999, and Linux was your ticket to riches on the stock market.  Reporters who had no experience, nor even heard of the operating system, started reporting on it.  Mostly, they gave it a business spin.  All they'd ever written before were feature lists and other fluff pieces about the latest offerings from Microsoft or Apple.

That's the end of the history lesson.  You should've picked up the competitive nature of Linux doesn't preclude choice.  It encourages it.  You pick what works best for you, and you use it.  It's a software Darwinism, with the strongest surviving.  Things that aren't used slowly fade away.

The competitive nature also extends to the ideas.  Kernel developers Rik van Riel and Andrea Arcangeli regularly have flame wars about various issues.  Even Linus Torvalds, our Great Leader, has given people new holes in their skins.  These discussions and harsh words are never hidden, never spun by spinmeisters.  You can subscribe to the development mailing lists and read every gory detail.

These mails are written because there is an issue that has to be resolved.  When someone believes strongly one way or another, it sometimes takes a lot of force to change their minds.  If you have ever seen footage of a certain southern US state with military forces deployed in it just so 6 students could attend high school, you'll understand what I mean.

Now it's the year 2000.  9 years since the birth of Linux, many more since the birth of Unix.  You'd probably be considered odd if you called a car a horseless carriage, but that is essentially how most reporters mention Linux.  Linux is still called the upstart operating system, and reporters still fail to understand the issues around it.  These issues are not recent, and they continue to be mishandled.  I hope you understand why I've written this piece.

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Linux and the media | 7 comments (7 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
MP3.com vs. financial analysts (3.66 / 15) (#1)
by fluffy grue on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 02:24:56 PM EST

I have noticed a very similar, very disturbing thing when it comes to how various financial analysts are handling the MP3.com vs. RIAA member company suits. They have no idea what MP3.com does or what the MP3 file format is, but because Napster was about illegally trading pirated MP3s, these financial analysts are writing articles which state, quite plainly, that MP3.com is about sharing pirated music, "just like Napster." Go to abovetrade.com and search on news items for MPPP just to see how bad it is.

Financial analysts are some of the worst out there though. Oracle's stock took a HUGE dump a few days ago when some financial analyst said that Oracle's growth was a "huge disappointment" because their growth was a "mere 42%" rather than the 57% that this particular analyst was predicting. That'd be like me saying, "DOn't run FreeBSD - they didn't implement CC:NUMA as quickly as SGI did, which is a major disappointment."

*grumble*

(Disclaimer: I own Oracle stock, and my cousin and fellow Kuro5hin reader dmkanter works for MP3.com, which is also where I host my music. So I'm a bit biased, mostly aganist people who unfairly represent either company based on their own ignorance.)
--
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]

Context (3.30 / 10) (#2)
by Rand Race on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 04:26:10 PM EST

One of the biggest (of many) complaints I have about today's media is the total lack of context. This KDE/Gnome thing is an excellent example. In context there is nothing important going on. Out of context, the KDE people and the Gnome people are going at it hammer and tongs.

This is like reporting a drunken fight between british and french soccer fans as a 'souring of relations between these two mighty powers'.


"Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, He must approve the homage of Reason rather than that of blindfolded Fear." - Thomas Jefferson

What do we do? (3.57 / 7) (#6)
by Stargazer on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 04:56:28 PM EST

So, the media inaccurately report things. To anybody who reads about free software in major commercial venues (including several which carry "Linux" on their name), this is absolutely no surprise. The next question should be: what can we do?

Writing polite letters to the editor is always a good option. Unfortunately, I've had at least one scrape where I could not find a contact address on a web site, and there's only a slim chance that they'll be printed (unless we start arranging en masse efforts), so this isn't hugely practical.

You can always make sure you don't support such publications with your money. This still doesn't really solve the problem, though.

The best thing I believe we can do is make sure that we ourselves are informed on the issues, and act as educators to others. I'm not saying we go out on the street and explain the actualities of every issue in the free software community to every who passes us. Rather, we should be able to comprehensively explain these issues to others, should they ask us about them. I know my grandfather always likes to point out every note about some free software project he sees in the professional journals; this provides a great opportunity to make any necessary clarifications or explanations to him. I think this would be the most effective solution -- it does not do much about the media directly, but it informs more people. Then, once the people are informed, the media have to watch their act, or else they'll get bitten.

-- Brett



News Coverage (3.75 / 8) (#7)
by PresJPolk on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 05:52:30 PM EST

Much as I love your fair, clear description of KDE and GNOME, Inoshiro, I think this is the most important line in this piece:

Just because Microsoft's commitment to Internet Explorer precludes it from including a copy of Netscape and a dialog allowing you to easily change between the two, does not mean that other companies are so restricted.

Reporting of free software news will never be any good until the reporters understand this concept. The concept is foreign to the reporters, because they've had two ideas ground into their collective consciousness:

Good == Capitalism == Wealth == Bill Gates

Anyone who is different from Microsoft is strange, because they challenge the notion that self-interested action is always wealth-seeking. Popular economics are centered on that notion. Average Americans (warning: US centered discussion approaching), including many technical reporters, take national pride in the idea that Americans are free to try to become wealthy. Since free software developers and companies are openly rejecting the practices that have brought Microsoft and Bill Gates billions of dollars, many people (and reporters) will look at free software as something that is not completely serious. "After all, everyone loves success, right?"

Innovation == Computers == Windows == Microsoft

What's worse, in the eyes of the average person, is that free software is rejecting the software that Microsoft produces. Apple is the only well-known manufacturer of personal computers that doesn't make a point to advertise Windows and/or Windows software, and the Apple computers themselves are seen as colorful toys. People think of Windows as the software that people actually use, and they see free software as "geek toys." Calling Perl the "duct tape" of the internet in an attempt to describe free software as a useful tool doesn't change the image, since duct tape and the internet are themselves seen as "geek toys."

OK, that's all well and good. It's a social inevitability that free software reporting is going to be weird. What can we do about it? Just keep going. As long as free software grows and improves, those two ideas in the social consciousness will change. Perhaps when Navigator 6 comes out it'll happen, perhaps KDE 3 or GNOME 3 will do it, or maybe some killer app that doesn't exist yet will do it. After all, computer games were once "geek toys," but now there are Final Fantasy and Tomb Raider movies coming out.



Re: News Coverage (4.40 / 5) (#9)
by Stargazer on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 08:36:10 PM EST

What's really scary is to consider the fact that the "Microsoft is good" mindset has extended far beyond pro-capitalism and pro-"innovation" criteria. You need only to pick up a recent ZD review of any given GNU/Linux distribution to see this.

The most recent example I have in my head is when some ZD magazine (who knows which? they're all the same) reviewed Windows 2000 -- with that, they had an all out operating systems war, which was so comprehensive as to include 3 versions of Windows and 2 GNU/Linux distributions. One of the things they did to show you how good the operating system was was to give you a screenshot of its default desktop and explain how it worked to you. One of the captions was particularly revealing: it went to the effect of

GNOME footprint icon provides a friendly Windows Start Menu-like interface.

There it is in rough black and white for you: if it's Microsoft, it's best. If it's like Microsoft, it's good. If it isn't, it's bad. Even in the most mundane aspects of interface design -- and not even a mandatory design decision for GNU/Linux, at that.

Whatever happened to independent thought in journalism? Do they think that even mentioning the name of GNU/Linux is a blasphemy?

-- Stargazer



[ Parent ]

Re: News Coverage (3.66 / 3) (#10)
by Perpetual Newbie on Tue Sep 19, 2000 at 10:47:18 AM EST

GNOME footprint icon provides a friendly Windows Start Menu-like interface.

That is painful to read, especially when you consider that the Apple menu existed for years before microsoft moved it from the top left corner to the bottom left and smacked a "start" button on it...

The problem is that all these reviewers have seen is windows, so that is naturally the bar that they compare everything against. Since certain aspects of Unix plain don't exist in Windows(a useful command line, reams of documentation, things making sense and doing what you would expect them to), the reviewer doesn't even notice them.

[ Parent ]

Bravisimo, Inoshiro (2.00 / 3) (#8)
by GandalfGreyhame on Mon Sep 18, 2000 at 05:53:14 PM EST

Bravo. Very well said. However, once the media (or anyone else for that matter) has something stuck in their mind, its going to be very hard to change. Good luck to you and the linux community to get them to change it, because outside of the more technical of publications, its not gonna happen.

-G

Linux and the media | 7 comments (7 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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