The CLIophobia of the Linux Newbie

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Editor's note: Emery Fletcher is a 75-year-old Linux newbie who's chronicling his experiences with the open source OS. His goal is "give you a newcomer’s view of some of the significant experiences I’ve encountered in moving from a monolithic, self-contained, and nearly immutable system like Windows to a flexible and self-directed OS like any of the Linuxes. I notice my own perspective is changing as I learn how liberating it is to have control over so many things, and I’m astonished how quickly I’ve abandoned what one tech writer called the “learned helplessness” of Windows. Now if something goes wrong it isn’t the end of the world – I just set out to fix it!"

CLIophobia (n): An irrational fear of operating ones' computer using the Command Line Interface. Sometimes referred to as Terminal Angst.

If you came to computers as I did, in the age of the mature Graphical User Interface, you learned that the desktop was a lot like a regular office desktop, though the clutter on it was images rather than paper. Still, you could shuffle the pictured papers around, open imaginary drawers and filing cabinets, and develop a pretty solid intuitive sense of the physics of that virtual surface.

That is the stunning genius of the GUI – that it behaves so nearly like the real world. As children, we all discovered by experience our own “laws” about how our world works: flip the switch and the light goes on, turn the faucet and the water comes out. That’s the way the human mind learns, and the same thing happens with the GUI: drag the folder around with the mouse pointer, click it to make it appear and disappear.

Everyone can develop a personal, intuitive set of Laws of Desktop Physics. Just like the light switch and faucet "laws," they form simple, practical rules for dealing with a complex technological environment.

We really know, deep down, that between the mouse and the desktop there’s a great deal of electronics controlled by sophisticated programs, but until something misbehaves we’ve no reason to think about it. Even if something does go wrong, there’s often some other GUI equivalent of a switch or a faucet that we can tweak or turn to bring things back to normal.

But what are we to make of the CLI? Where is the real-world precedent for it, the place in everyday experience where we can achieve control over a physical event simply by using words? You might think of the equations of motion, or quantum mechanics, or electromagnetic theory, but that’s nowhere near the same – the power that equations give you is simply the ability to predict an outcome, not to make it actually happen. That’s an important distinction.

The only thing that seems to behave in the same mysterious way as the CLI is pure magic. Really, how different is it to say “Abracadabra” and make someone disappear, or to type “rmdir” and discover that an entire directory is gone? Only in the mythical world of magic and on the CLI can you do nothing more than express a word and have it cause an actual event to occur. It is psychologically a very different process than pushing a button or clicking on an icon.

So I would say on behalf of us newbies everywhere, we deserve some forgiveness if we approach the Command Line with extreme caution, spiced with a good bit of dread. We really do know that it is a simpler, more precise, and more direct form of control to type the proper words, but deep in our psyches lie all those half-remembered tales from our childhood where magic incantations were famous for going radically wrong.

We will eventually – if we have the courage to keep learning Linux – come to terms with Root Magic and use the CLI as the powerful symbolic technology it truly is. But until such time, remember that Arthur C. Clark long ago pointed out that any advanced technology we do not fully understand is indistinguishable from magic.

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