Earlier this week I received absolutely no credit for an assignment in one of my courses at university. Occasionally I have been known to skip low-stakes assignments when I know that doing so won't negatively impact my grade, but that was not the case this time. I did the assignment up to my own standards, which almost always earns me an “A” and I turned it in on time. When I received my feedback and found that I had failed the assignment—not just failed, but lost every single point—I thought there must have been a mistake. I noticed that my professor had added comments, so I quickly opened those up to see if I was missing something or the professor made a mistake.
The situation actually turned out to be much worse than either of those scenarios. As frequent readers of my blog will know, I am vehemently opposed to software complexity, so I don't use what most people consider “modern” software—for the most part, I haven't had an office suite installed in years. Instead I opt for tools like
troff or TeX. For music typesetting, I opt for LilyPond instead of Musescore. Typically, this is not a problem at all thanks to PDF. As long as the end product is accessible to the parties that need to read it, all is well, and most professors couldn't care less that I use a relatively obscure or niche document preparation system as long as they get a nice crispy PDF.
PDF is nice because it is truly universal. Any device you own can probably open PDFs without having to install any additional software. Or, if you do have to install additional software, a minimal viewer with few dependencies is often all that is needed. Nobody in their right mind would distribute a document as anything other than a PDF, because PDF is the file format to use for sharing documents. No other format even comes close in ubiquity.
Anyway, let us look at this particular assignment's requirements:
- Save your Word Doc (emphasis mine) as your last name, underscore, assignment title. For example, if I were a student, I would save my file as Redacted_Project1Plan
- Upload your assignment to Blackboard under Week 2.
I always get a little annoyed when professors use the phrase “Word Doc” because usually they don't mean it, they just mean something they can read. For years, whenever I see this, I always just turn in a PDF because I obviously don't have software capable of writing Word documents, and for years, this has literally never been a problem. Most professors can't even tell the difference, and the ones that can do not care. Apparently this professor can tell the difference and cares. Here is the feedback I got on this particular assignment:
In the future make sure you follow formatting guidelines for submission - this Plan should have been a Word Doc.
That's right folks, I got a full zero on a paper I wrote because I turned in a PDF instead of of a
.docx file! To say I was angry upon reading this comment was an understatement. I was fuming. This is absolutely absurd and entirely unacceptable, especially for someone that is extremely thoughtful about how he produces documents. I contemplated writing a very angry email. I also contemplated installing Windows 98 on an old machine I have and putting Microsoft Office 97 it so I could specifically turn in Word documents so outdated, that it would be very difficult to read them on modern Word, just to be petty.
I did neither of those things. After meditating for a few days on my existence in this twisted, lawless reality where students are discriminated against for their choice of software, I ultimately had no choice but to accept my defeat. I had to come to terms with the fact that this battle I'm fighting with digital minimalism simply isn't worth it. It is costing me too much. Today it is costing me my grades; in the future, it might cost me a job and thus a means of providing for myself and my future family. It is entirely reasonable that a potential employer would reject my résumé for being a plain-text document instead of a Word document. That risk, among many others, is one that I simply cannot afford to take.
For years, I've been making a choice to reject bloated software and use minimal, usually command-line software. This decision, which is both ideological and pragmatic, has never really affected my ability to do business on the internet in 2023. People have been very understanding in using my preferred platforms for communication, and I have never had a problem doing my day job or submitting class work using the software I normally use. Unfortunately, this decision is getting more and more costly—so costly that I can no longer maintain it, much to my deep sadness and regret.
There are a number of reasons I say this; the first is simply that I am significantly disadvantaged as a result of my choice of software. I can't do the things that other people can with computers, despite being a computer scientist. Additionally, I can't comply with the requirements of my superiors, which is necessary for my wellbeing. I am to the point where I realize that this isn't a battle worth fighting anymore. It makes no difference whether I rage against bloated software or not—the people that use that software don't care, and I am no position to force them to use something different. I must comply, or I loose my standing at university, or I lose my job. I'm only hurting myself by choosing not to use certain software.
Not only that; I'm hurting others that I've convinced to join me in my crusades, sometimes against their will. My fiancée, for instance, is using
troff for her novel not because it is a technically superior tool to LibreOffice, but because I am just too stubborn. She had a few complaints with LibreOffice, but they were all solvable. Instead, I convinced her that she need to abandon LibreOffice and use an ideologically pure tool which would solve her problems with ease. This is not good for her, or any other non-tech-savvy people. Eventually, we will be getting married and she will be integrated into my network. My network needs to cater to her needs as a person that uses computers as a tool and nothing more. She's going to need a fancy GUI to do the things she will be doing and I owe it to her to not turn her computing world upside down completely.
I am feeling many things right now. Mostly anger when I think about the assignment and my professor, and mostly defeat when I think about my future in corporate America. I am mostly feeling that, well, resistance is futile. It is no use trying to limit my software use, it only inconveniences me and those around me that must try to cater to my artificially-induced needs. I can go on with this way of living no longer. Computers are a tool and I need to stop trying to lobotomize them for some ideology that in the grand scheme of things is meaningless. When I get to the end of my life and I'm standing before God, do I really want to admit that I have nothing to show for my life because I spent it re-inventing modern software instead of trying to build something new?
At the end of the day, that question has been rolling around in my head a lot. I know that these changes are good. There is nothing wrong with abandoning my current views on software and adopting a more useful approach. It is a sign of growth. I want to be pragmatic. It is good to have everything set up nicely for my fiancée. It is good to have it set up nicely for me too, I already save so much time on mundane tasks like adding things to my to-do list or calendar, or checking my email. I'm rediscovering how convenient computers can be if you don't think about them too much and just use them. I've been fighting against them for so long that I forgot. As much as I do enjoy working with computers, I don't want them to consume me. I have a life outside of them, and I need to live that life and not let computers get in the way. From now on, I want to focus on creating content using the right tool for the job, instead of re-inventing the tool first like I tend to.
Addendum: This doesn't mean I'm abandoning my commitment to privacy, or open-source. Far from it! I'm not talking about installing Windows and Microsoft Office on my computer, or giving up on free, privacy-respecting software. Not by a long shot. I'm still sticking with OpenBSD. OpenBSD is still by far the best operating system I've ever used and I don't plan on giving it up. But what this does mean is that I'm now running a GNOME desktop with Firefox, Thunderbird, LibreOffice, and a few other productivity applications. For the time being, I'm satisified running Synapse and a Radicale server for CalDAV and CardDAV. I'm running a real email server now instead of bridging it to Matrix.
While gone are the days of an extremely minimal operating system install, I am not abandoning my ideals for a minimal online presence. I'm still self-hosting everything on OpenBSD—I will never move anything to the cloud. I'm only adding more software to my stack, not switching it all out for something totally new. I'm not getting on social media or going to be liberal in creating online accounts. I still want to be as offline as I can possibly be. I just can't equate that with software minimalism anymore. Where an online service would normally do, I have an open-source native piece of software.
A part of what led me to digital minimalism in the first place was my desire to be self-sufficient. I didn't want to depend on anyone else for software. While generally that is still true, I've accepted that I'm going to have some dependencies. I can't comprehend and maintain everything I need to function, there is simply too much. One could spend a lifetime on writing a browser alone. Or an operating system. Or any other tools that we tend to need on daily basis. Instead, I've settled for mirroring the entire OpenBSD packages repository. This allows me to have all the software I could ever need offline in case something happens to my internet connection or OpenBSD. Both of which are highly unlikely, but it still makes me feel better having all the software I need on my disk in an installable format right next to my files, because ultimately, files are only useful if you have the software to read them. An Office document only has value if you have the Office suite to read it.
I'm still planning on writing software that has minimal dependencies if possible. I don't plan on abandoning my current software projects, and I still would love to write my own operating system some day, though it would be more for learning than actually for being useful. This post isn't intended to say that I wish I didn't understand how computers work. I still absolutely plan on growing my knowledge and digging deeper and deeper into understanding how everything works. I still believe that one should understand the software he or she uses. I am fully aware that I am introducing a lot of complexity to my setup. I believe I understand the risks and am doing so intelligently. I believe that is the most important thing. If anything, I am only expanding my horizons and opening myself up to learning even more. This will also make me more helpful to the people that ask me for tech support.
© 2019-2023 Jordan Bancino.