My Introduction to Free Software 🐧
In my final year of high school, the time I spent in front of a computer increased dramatically. All of my classes were delivered as video conferences, and many of my instructors looked for software to fill the gaps between online and in-person instruction. The need to manage all of my credentials for these services introduced me to free software. After a particularly arduous password reset process, I looked for a way to avoid similar issues in the future. My internet searches led me to Techlore and their Go Incognito series.
This brought me to Keepass, a popular free and open source (FOSS) password manager. I continued focusing on my online security, trudging through thousands of old emails to enumerate my online presence. A sense of dread arose as my knowledge grew. There was a childhood’s worth of accounts and data that I would have to request to be deleted.
The days of online school gave me time to individually delete each one of the accounts. There must have been close to one hundred. It was less difficult (albeit boring, to be certain) to add all the accounts that I intended to keep to the password manager.
A sociopsychological note
An attribute of generation Z that, I feel, goes without appreciation is that we were the first generation to have the modern internet (“web 2.0,” social media) integrated into our childhood. Instagram became popular in elementary school. At around six or seven years old, I began watching YouTube more than television. This pervasiveness was key in the generation of my massive internet footprint.
As a child, I was not able to understand all of the components entailed by my internet usage. I only saw the top level of abstraction. I would argue that if more people had a fundamental understanding of infrastructure and networking (HTTP/TCP/IP), the population’s internet practices would change dramatically.
Our computers (and web browsers, in particular) make thousands of unsolicited requests every day, many of which disclose personal information. Even the radio technology used by smartphones implies some level of tracking.1 Social media networks are even more direct in their tracking. On top of these fundamental dangers, websites like Instagram store all of the locations you have ever signed in from, all of the posts you have ever seen or liked, a copy of your phone’s contacts (if you gave the app that permission), and more.2
All of this data is fed as inputs into algorithms architected to exploit human psychology. As communicated in popular documentary, The Social Dilemma, the creators of today’s social media platforms were specifically educated in algorithm design that takes advantage of our mind’s weaknesses. Our desires for social approval, stimulation, and connection are all leveraged in order to increase screen time.
My migration to a password manager had introduced me to online communities built around the safe use of the internet. I continued watching Techlore’s Go Incognito series, and was exposed to the idea of using Linux to avoid Microsoft Windows’s telemetry. After watching demonstrations of various Linux distributions and speaking to their users, I installed Arch Linux on an old hard drive by following a guide from LearnLinuxTV.
The installation went well, but I was perplexed by the subtle differences between Linux and Windows. The process of installing programs was particularly odd. I had installed a Spotify package from the AUR, as well as the Snap (or maybe just a binary) version of the program. I was confused that I had two seperate instances of Spotify on my computer, and I could not figure out how to uninstall either one of them.
Growing pains like the one described above temporarily pushed me away from Arch Linux. I spent a few months using Pop_OS! to familiarize myself with concepts like package management and the shell. I came to enjoy the simplicity of installing programs and benefitted from the increased accessibility to free software. I began writing my essays in LaTeX, and gradually moving away from proprietary software in all spheres.
For Christmas I received a solid state drive to replace my slow Linux hard drive. I am typing this article on an Arch Linux installion on that very drive. You can get an idea of how I have configured things in the video where I demonstrate the Ansible playbook I created for my website.
Replacement of proprietary software
With a Linux system, free software is more easily available and better integrated into the computing environment. In my emigration away from Windows, I did not look at each piece of software and decide on an alternative. Instead, I began with a very minimal installation, just a terminal emulator and window manager, and found software as necessary. This strategy allowed me to switch paradigms without noticing the lack of old software.
I use the terminal for most of my work. I program and write using neovim. I use
pdflatex to compile text files into binaries and pdf files,
respectively. The web browser accounts for the next most significant portion of
my usage. I use Firefox for most tasks, with separate profiles for school and
general usage. I keep Ungoogled Chromium installed so that I have a
Chromium-type browser if needed. There are a handful of other programs that
come in handy: Zathura for pdfs, mpv for video, Wireguard to access home
computers, and imv or sxiv for images. I try to relegate any remaining
proprietary software to the web browser. For Zoom meetings and Discord, I use
the web apps.
Recommendation to readers
If this article has interested you in Free Software, I encourage you to try incorporating it more into your computing environment. You can start small, like installing a password manager. If you are particularly concerned about your privacy and control of your computer, you ought to consider switching to Linux.
I would recommend Arco Linux to new users3. You will benefit from the package availability of Arch Linux without having to concern yourself with the installation process. I recommend Arco Linux over Manjaro because it is closer to Arch Linux, and there is one fewer organization (Manjaro) to worry about. If you read the Arch Linux news, your experience should be smooth after you get off the ground.
The internet has been shifting increasingly into the hands of just a handful of websites belonging to just a couple of organizations. While this dynamic can create a sense of hopelessness in conscientious users, it should be received as a call to action. We have a unique ability to take control of our computers. Every major protocol that we use is open. Our computers will execute, for the most part, any instructions we give to them. Let’s realize this opprtunity while it still exists.