A perceived sense of inferiority

I have to break stride here for a little bit — considering that my last two posts were about console applications, I don’t want this blog to turn into some kind of “console app-a-day” site.

Not that that would be a bad thing, it’s just a little gimmicky for me, there are lots of sites like that out there already, and I don’t have the resources (read: time) to pursue that sort of project. And really, this is where I stash my notes and thoughts about Linux, not introduce software or distributions. Usually.

What has my brain turning today is a simple thread in the Ubuntu Forums that sparks the age-old discussion about the usefulness of the CLI over GUIs. Without getting too far into that debate, I can tell you that when I was a moderator and a forum regular, I would usually resort to helping troubleshoot with console commands over GUI instructions. The logic should be fairly obvious — I was unfamiliar with most non-Gnome desktops, my own desktop was rather esoteric, and I couldn’t predict what the other person was using.

So like most other moderators at the time (and probably still now; they can confirm that if they like), I usually offered solutions at the command line, over point-and-click. End of story.

Or is it? The quote that grabbed me out of the aforementioned thread, was this one.

It also ascertains a distinction among “classes” of ubuntu (or linux) users – if you know the shell, you’re in. If you are afraid of the shell (like meself, not because I now feel more comfortable with a graphic environment, but because I feel less comfortable with typing in commands i dont know what they mean) – well, dunno, you’re afraid of the shell.

I know, and I have experienced, a sort of “inferiority” that occasionally swirls around Linux in general. I have been told to RTFM, and also been told that if I didn’t understand something, I shouldn’t be pursuing it. It’s unfortunate. I make no apologies, but I accept that snotty tone as the nature of the beast. After all, this entire movement started out (as a loose explanation) as a challenge, burgeoned into a hobby, became the domain of the geek, and is only now becoming mainstream and accessible to the ordinary, non-technophiliac John Q. Public. Maybe soon that snotty tone will be gone altogether.

But if there is an upper “class” of Linux users that is somehow determined by whether or not a person uses the terminal … well, I have my doubts. Speaking for myself only, I could care less if you spend your entire life at the GUI, if you play halfsies with a terminal emulator on a graphical desktop, or if you drilled holes in your skull so you could wire your brain to your CPU. I make no distinctions as to whether you’re hip or square, cool or a tool just because you type in your commands, instead of moving around a mouse.

So if you’re getting some sort of sense of inferiority by reading this site, a feeling that you’re somehow a lesser being than me because I prefer the text-based interface that is easily 40 or 50 years out of date … that’s something on your end. PEBKAC.

Moving back to the larger scale, I have to wonder how many people who mention this same sense of inferiority — because the OP’s assertions are reinforced later, so there must be more — are also guilty of this, when the person offering the advice is doing little more than taking the quick, efficient route to a solution. I’m guessing for Ubuntu in particular, that feeling is inferred, not implied.

(And as a side note, I can attest that occasionally, when I mention Linux to some Windows users, there is a similar bristling effect, which suggests to me that perhaps that same sense of inferiority is perceived on their part.)

So where’s it come from? I don’t know. But the OP’s post — to me, at least — suggests a hesitance to learn, and from that, my own belief is that the sense of inferiority stems somehow from that. (Everything goes back to transactional analysis, but that’s just my own philosophy. :roll: )

The moral of the story, if you ask me, is ask what the command does. Make an effort to learn. You’ll be sidestepping the sense of inferiority that seems to come about from ignorance or fear, and at the same time will somehow permit you to “enter” that “upper echelon” of Linux users that otherwise seems to exist. And once you’ve done that, you’ll realize that there was no class system, just one big happy family. :roll:

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18 Responses to “A perceived sense of inferiority”


  1. 1 James 2009/11/13 at 3:27 PM

    I experienced condescension when I first started messing around with Linux. I couldn’t figure out Debian at first, so I was just running Knoppix, which preconfigured everything and installed to the hard disk nicely. Knoppix documentation and IRC support was somewhat lacking, so I’d frequently drop in on #debian. It rapidly became a cloak and dagger affair; if the Debianites discovered anyone was really asking a question about Knoppix (even if the answer would have been generic across any Linux distro), they’d stonewall the asker. Never mind that the Debian tools between the two systems were close to (if not) identical.

    Dramatic reenactment:
    1: “How do I change the default locale?”
    2: “Should be easy. Just run this command…”
    3: “Wait a minute… You’re running Knoppix, aren’t you!”
    1: “Yes…?”
    3: “Fie upon thee! Flee, n00b!”
    2: (replies with working command)

    I know there were differences between the two distros, but the amount of Debian elitism and snobbery struck me as remarkable.

  2. 2 Freduardo 2009/11/13 at 7:35 PM

    Unfortunately those kind of superior vs. inferior attitudes appear in pretty much every large ‘community’.

    I remember being somewhat laughed at for not using gentoo by some, back when it was the hottest distro around. And it must have hit a nerve because some of those responses lead me to wrongfully hold a grudge against the distro itself for a while. (Silly me)

    However I’ve also seen it happen the other way around. Where I would get snotty remarks for suggesting a cli solution.

    As long as you remain aware that the way you address a problem, be it graphically or through cli, is your own conscious choice, I see no need to feel neither inferior nor superior.

  3. 3 FreeBooteR 2009/11/14 at 2:44 AM

    If you looking for help, instruction given by command line or GUI should be applauded. If it fixes the problem your having, perfect.

    In my opinion though, GUI will never be as versatile as the command line. I’m not a command line freak, just fact.

  4. 5 Dann 2009/11/14 at 6:11 AM

    Perhaps people should be more specific about how they want their answers: cli versus gui.
    Some newbies might not even know the cli exists though, which is part of the larger problem: computer education.
    It’s unreasonable to expect people to know about the cli, so for the time being I feel that the community will just have to learn to deal a little more gently with the new guys (and girls).

    However, I also find that a lot of newbies (if they aren’t trolls), have really poor grammer and unspecific questions which is also difficult for the helper.

    It’s definitely a PEBKAC issue.

  5. 6 Grant 2009/11/14 at 6:31 AM

    The reason for the answer in the forum being CLI is that it can easily be very specific, rather than “look for the little picture that looks kinda like a house with a dog eating the roof.”

    Also, I tend to split my time. i use the GUI for one off things, but use CLI when I will need to do it again, or when wildcards are useful because I am breaking a lot of files all in the same way.

    Another thing to consider is that if you can use the CLI, you can generally figure out the GUI, but the inverse may not be true. So, your answer at the end is correct. Don’t fear the command line, but find out what the command does before you run it. you will be better for having done so.

  6. 7 Anton 2009/11/14 at 7:57 AM

    I will preface this remark with the following : I recently reinstalled my system with Ubuntu 9.10. After going through (in rough order), Redhat, Suse, Mandrake, Gentoo, Debian (stable, testing), Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian (testing), I’m back to Ubuntu. When trying to install the latest nvidia binary driver on Debian I was told (by apt) that I had to uninstall X. Right…
    My goal with Ubuntu (I hate Gnome but Kubuntu is just not there in terms of bugs) was to not have to use the CLI at all. It was fine until I needed to install (quickly, the missus was waiting to watch a movie :-)) the codecs and dvd decrypters needed. So I have to add the (“illegal”) repo myself – this hasn’t changed in 10 years, I’m used to it. But what seems to be missing are the “productivity” features of “other” OSes. WTF, I can’t select multiple apps to simultaneously install from the Ubuntu Software Centre? I should be able to multi-select. So I know the package names of what I want to install, that’s not the point! So if you want to do things efficiently you need to go to the CLI…
    So we’re not there yet in terms of GUI for the true noob. But wait…

    I work in a 99.25% Windows shop (and I spend 95% on C# and Windows maintenance). I am the FOSS/Linux/Anti-M$ man. What do I see becoming more and more prevalent? Windows CLI. Be it Powershell or simple command-line apps, the percentage of things that are now done via the (horribly lacking) CLI on Windows is increasing rapidly. They tout Core as being the future of their Server platform. I can see a not so distant future when we will see MVPs telling secretaries to “type this in a console”. If you look at the IIS/.NET fora you’ll see quickly that MS are putting out heaps of tools that are CLI based, and if you want to do anything quickly (read productively), then you need the good old Run -> cmd. The problem with the “other” OS, is that half of what you need to do can’t be done via the CLI/scripts. I spent no less than 3 hours today battling with scripting a SQL Server replication. Hmmm. So much cheaper than Oracle… just that the GUI works half the time and there are *no* decent resources for SCRIPTING the task on the web (I even tried Bing!).
    There will be a day when Linux is truly ready for power-noobs (it’s fine for people with no knowledge now, my parents are good examples) but we’re not there yet. Maybe Google will put a bit of cash where it is really needed in terms of finessing the GUI… We’ll all see in a year or so!

  7. 8 Carl Snyder 2009/11/14 at 10:47 AM

    My own experience with CLI vs. GUI is that with the GUI, you must spend time coaxing the person REQUESTING help to specify what, exact version of the operating system (whether Linux or Windows) they are using. Since the GUI changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes radically, from version to version (even leaving out DE changes), you must have the same version and environment to ensure you can guide the n00b through the correct menu to the choices to fix their problem. With a CLI, the changes are usually less radically changed from, say, Gutsy to Karmic. You might even be able to apply a solution from a couple of years ago to your present system, if the commands are CLI oriented.

  8. 9 Curtis Veit 2009/11/14 at 12:15 PM

    Another point to cli instructions over the GUI is that cli instructions can often be anywhere from 4 to 10 times shorter. Considering that I am not being paid to help and in fact may be taking time away from a short 15 minute break at work to answer a question. This difference in complexity of answer is the difference between being able to help or simply being unable to take the time to help. (In case you are wondering…I have written both command line and GUI instructions for manuals at work and I am very familiar with the amount of time and space that each type of instruction requires.)

    (Perhaps this is the reason that MS is moving in this direction as mentioned in the post above.)

    This might also help any newer users to understand why asking for GUI help when cli help was already given sometime meets with some rudeness. In the case of a moderatly complex issue you have just asked the person that gave a great 5 minute answer to take another 20-50 minutes just because you are uncomfortable opening a command window and typeing a few lines of text. If you really need GUI instructions often detailed “how to” documents have already been written. They can be found with google. Also there are a number of good distribution specific books that can be purchased with this style of help.

    We do understand your preference, it just is not always resonable to take enough time to give a good GUI answer.

  9. 10 Elder Geek 2009/11/14 at 1:09 PM

    Typos are the fear of they non-cli crowd. They typed the command you gave them and it did not work. Or they don’t know if it worked because it spewed 30 lines of stuff.

    CLI commandos have a trained eye. You scan spot a typo in a command. Or you can scan 30 lines of text for the 1 line you need in 3 seconds flat. But for those without those ninja like skills….often the command line scares them.

  10. 11 ajlec2000 2009/11/14 at 11:42 PM

    If the Linux community is really interested in selling Linux to the Mac and MS users then sensitivity will be important. I know people who won’t try Linux because of this issue. I’m a Linux user because the GUI works for me (at least it does in Ubuntu 8.10). Because I get satisfaction out of using this distro I’ve started exploring the use of the CLI. I’ve perceived some of this “snottiness” on occasion. I haven’t felt inferior because of it. On the contrary, I feel pretty good at what I’ve accomplished since starting from a point of complete ignorance.

    One thing I’d like to see from the CLI experts is a tutorial that could be followed by a novice and that teaches the basics of commands and demonstrates why the CLI is more efficient then the GUI.

  11. 12 JohnP 2009/11/15 at 6:17 AM

    If you are using the GUI to do things and can’t figure it out, perhaps the “Help” file ought to explain it?

    I dunno since I’m a dumb shell user for the last 15 years and it isn’t my job to teach you UNIX for free. It took me and others like me years to learn. You expect to gain this knowledge without the required effort. That is rude, wouldn’t you agree?

    OTOH, almost everything in UNIX administration can be scripted and automated, unlike GUI-centric OSes used by the masses. It takes 1 or 2 cmds to explain exactly how to set something. Not a video showing which window to open, menu, menu, button, button, checkbox, Option to set something.

    There are these magic things called “man pages” that often explain everything about a command. Learning -how- to read a man page took me a few days. After which, I was good to go with any other man page provided. Programs that provide .info or html files instead need to be caned into man-page submission, IMHO. When IBM stopped installing man pages by default …. well, I’ve stopped using AIX and my company doesn’t buy IBM machines anymore.

    After I post a solution with some typing involved, a non-shell user will usually say that it shouldn’t be THAT difficult. Uh, just because they had to type 25 characters. A “thank you” would have been nicer.

    Unplug your mouse for a day and use your computer. Just for fun, this is how sight impaired people work daily.

  12. 13 anonymous coward 2009/11/15 at 6:45 PM

    What a topic… ;)

    Once we can assume that the help seeker and the “guru” have a mutual understanding about things like
    http://www.catb.org/~esr/faqs/smart-questions.html

    and “netiquette” in a specific thread, I really wonder how somebody doesn’t feel the urge to read, learn new things and try them out on their own. That’s at least half of the fun and enlightening at times.

    I’m the kind of guy people call to “fix something”. I’m sure all of you are as well. Gals included, of course ;)

    What I can’t stand is lazy people. And people who’d like to be spoon-fed (figure of speech ;) ). Maybe there’s actually a need for a PC user driver’s license just to reach the point where people are as knowledgable about their IT hardware as they are about their cars. I’m still not sold on this idea. Whatever. ;)

    Then (just as an example) I often see people who could easily win the SMS typing marathon/fast track at the Olympic Summer Games. So, there are obviously resources for that and non whatsoever for thinking and typing for themselves in front of a “real” computer? Probably a matter of shifted priorities…

    As noted by others, I see CLI commands as the shorter, more logical variant to screenshots with lengty explanations. Which, by the way makes the reader read and scan and parse the picture as well as accompanying explanations. And it takes a lot more time to create/upload/annotate screenshots/screencasts. And it increases traffic. It really does. ;)

    So, what’s one line of CLI “voodoo” compared to unnecessary cumbersome bloat of text and graphics? A big win, if you ask me.

    I probably forgot a few important points, but I’m willing to step off my soap box for now. ;)

  13. 14 SMP 2009/11/15 at 6:59 PM

    There is a whole lot of snootiness from GUI only noobs from the Windows side as well. The GUI is fine for desktop settings and the like, and certainly some things that should be on GUI are missing in Ubuntu and other distros.

    However the CLI is the best tool for other things. For example configuring the X Server using a GUI is not a good idea because at some stage you are going to end up being locked out by a misconfigured X Server. Midnight Commander and SSH are a godsend for remote system administration, and local system administration, and I would never consider using a GUI tool for that.

    The GUI’s advantage is that you don’t have to remember very much since you simply search and click on one of the items and see what happens. Its disadvantage is that you are tempted by the instant gratification to click on an inappropriate choice and mess something up, so for root access and critical system administration tasks the CLI is far superior.

    The CLI is completely uniform across distributions and versions, and it still works when most things have gone wrong – eg. when the user has messed up the X Server, and parts of Gnome, and for remote access you don’t need to set up remote X, VNC, NX, and various ways to access the machine securely and through a firewall, so for tech help CLI is much better than the GUI. The problem is that many noobs don’t understand this and don’t bother to write down what they learn from tech help. Perhaps this should be explained to them on a sticky note on every help forum.


  1. 1 A bad workman blames his tools « Motho ke motho ka botho Trackback on 2009/12/22 at 9:24 AM
  2. 2 Your way is the right way « Motho ke motho ka botho Trackback on 2010/03/09 at 10:21 PM
  3. 3 There are no ugly GUIs « Motho ke motho ka botho Trackback on 2010/08/28 at 7:49 AM
  4. 4 One does not imply the other « Motho ke motho ka botho Trackback on 2010/11/11 at 7:03 PM

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