Linux and the Tyranny of the Default

I just finished Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble, an interesting examination of how algorithmic filtering is hurting our society.

He has an interesting section that applies to software in general and Linux in particular.

He starts by comparing the organ donation rates in some European countries, with some areas having donation rates above 90% and others having them below 20%. The cause for the difference? Some countries have citizens opt into organ donation, which makes for a low rate, and some countries have citizens opt out of organ donation, which makes for a high rate:

And because software architects clearly understand the power of the default and use it to make their services more profitable, their claim that users can opt out of giving their personal information seems somewhat disingenuous. (emphasis original)

Let’s substitute the idea of giving personal information for the idea of software settings.

Pariser’s point suddenly has implications for the Linux community. While default settings are changeable, it’s not a trivial act. For a default to be changed, a user must know the setting is changeable and how to change it. So to make a change to a piece of software or a distribution and say “The user can always change it back” is, as Pariser points out in his own example, a bit disingenuous.

Pariser goes on to further explore the tyranny of default settings (according to Pariser, the phrase tyranny of the default was coined by venture capitalist Brad Burnham):

But to give people control, you have to make clearly evident what the options are, because options largely exist only to the degree that they’re perceived. This is the problem many of used to face in programming our VCRs: The device had all sorts of functions, but to figure out how to make them do anything was an afternoon-long exercise in frustration. When it comes to important tasks like protecting your privacy and adjusting your filters online, saying that you can figure it out if you read the manual for long enough isn’t a sufficient answer.

I was fascinated by that section because documentation has long been a weakness within the Linux community. Many a new user has been chased away from more experienced ones with responses like ‘search the forums’ or ‘read the wiki’ or ’RTFM,’ but the truth of the matter is, even those tools are often useless to someone who is new to Linux.

Linux is about freedom and change, but as distributions try and separate themselves from other distributions, with different defaults and different settings, it can be hard for users to know what exactly their options are. Pariser’s point is that freedom is pointless if the user doesn’t understand what she is free to do.

As desktop Linux continues to move forward, to innovate and to improve, I hope the teams behind the various distributions will consider the tyranny of the default and will implement ways for users to understand their options in configuring their desktops. Not to say that all Linux distributions should become generic and homogenous blobs that users must customize themselves. Instead, I’d rather distros become curated operating systems whose tweaks are relatively simple to see and to make.

Contributors across time and across the world have worked very hard to preserve and protect the freedom of the code that powers Linux. It would be a shame if that freedom existed under the hood of the operating system, but not in the cockpit, where so many of the users are.

As Pariser illustrates, the default setting is not something that should be entered into lightly. Default settings are the only settings for many users. Unless users understand what can be changed and what cannot be changed, most will probably assume the default is the only option, inadvertently removing choice from users.