Learning to love the command line

Last night I attended a free workshop at Free Geek called “How I stopped worrying and learned to love the command line.” Who wouldn’t want to go, with a title like that?

I love FreeGeek. I’ll just say that upfront. Everything about it invokes the New Society that I dream of, but picture only vaguely in my mind’s eye. It’s a community shop that provides ethical computer recycling for those who realize the injustice – not too mention environmental blight – that accompanies computer disposal. But FreeGeek is more than that. It’s a space that forms and nurtures community, where volunteers from all walks of life can come in, tear apart a computer, sort its guts and learn how to rebuild a working machine. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the need for hardware hackers, about the power and importance of their skills. To be able to build a communication machine from a pile of parts – hell, to even know what those parts are for – is something I think is not just a neat trick, but will one day be essential. It’s true, I’ve been feeling an end-of-days foreboding – prolly ever since I returned from Last H.O.P.E. It’s hard not to feel that way around a rag-tag bunch of hackers who seem to personify the D.I.Y. ethic (never mind the hacker ethic, which, of course, they don’t universally practice) and teach you how to pick locks… just in case.

Well. I want to learn how a computer works – its hardware and its software. For whatever reason (actually, my apocalyptic premonition). I don’t think it’s enough just to read and write about computers, to theorize them and to design their place in a utopic future. No doubt, computers are a revolutionary communication tool (the printing press notwithstanding yada yada wocka wocka etc. etc.) that sparked a massive and global (though not universal) shift in the way ordinary people talk, gather, exchange and make change. The “powers that be” (status quo conservators, ruling elite, whatever) have made no secret of their desire to reign in and lock down these newfound communictive freedoms. China, naturally. Now France. The U.S., with its draconian DMCA and Canada, following in eager, drooling pursuit. When digital locks are finally abandoned, the hardware itself will be locked. Richard Stallman wrote about this more than a decade ago in his dystopic fantasy, The Right to Read. What seemed crazy then (and peeps always like to think of Stallman as crazy – this is a classic way of dismissing radical ideas) is happening how – has happened with technology like DMR and threatens to continue with insidious concepts like trusted computing. The perfect storm of a domineering corporate agenda, state acquiesence and manufacturer compliance could manifest a new era of computing that is restrictive, unfree – and thus useless as a communication medium.

See what I mean? End of days. At any rate, my idea is to shift from the level of analysis to the level of praxis. Theorize and do. And if the day comes when the internet is a broadcast medium funneling messages from the corporate-state nexus, which in turn monitors us through our computers, I’ll know a few tricks. And maybe be of some use. In the meantime, I’ll keep hanging out at FreeGeek. It’s been on my mind to start volunteering there – you get a free computer after you log 24 hours. I don’t have any specific skills, but I can sort things. And I’ll keep going to workshops till I figure out Linux and can actually use it, rather than just “study” it.

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