Does Free Software Restore Dignity?

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The other day a high-school student came by the public library computer center where I work in Takoma Park, Maryland. I recognized him right away as a student who regularly visits the computer center to do his homework. On this visit he looked sad. “Do you have a restore DVD for this Sony Vaio laptop?” he asked, with his relatively new Windows 7 laptop underneath his arm.

“Sorry, no,” I replied.

His laptop needed to be restored, and he had misplaced the restore DVD. He tells me Sony requires $139 to send him a restore DVD. He doesn't have a spare $139, and neither do his hard-working parents. I didn't want this student to leave empty-handed, so I said, “If you like, I'll install Linux on your laptop, and you can get it working again that way.”

“That's just fine with me,” he replied quickly.

About 20 minutes later we had Linux Mint installed on his laptop, and he was surfing the Web wirelessly using Firefox. Although he faced a punishing charge from Sony, he found a helping hand at his local public library. But I wonder: Do other public libraries help community members install Linux on computers? Do other public libraries hand out Linux CDs and/or CDs with OpenOffice? Perhaps a few public libraries do. For the most part, though, community members in other towns have few options when Sony requires a fee of $139 for a restore DVD.

Hmmmm. I wonder if that $139 includes the shipping and handling fee? If I were Sony, I'd charge $39 for shipping and handling. Might as well gouge people when they are at their most vulnerable, right? Might as well humiliate that high-school student in front of his parents. Serves him right for misplacing his restore DVD.

Meanwhile, last week another community member handed me a Pentium III laptop and asked me to give it to someone who can use it. With Linux installed, that laptop could see a couple more years of use by some middle-school or high-school student. In a family where sharing one or two desktops is a source of tension, this older laptop could reduce that tension. It's certainly worth my time to install Linux on this laptop. I'll install Linux Mint LXDE, which runs beautifully in 256MB of memory. And I'll add TuxTyping, because the recipient of this laptop may want to teach themselves how to type.

If you're not sure whether your local public library distributes Linux CDs, call them up to ask. At the same time, ask the library whether it offers any training in OpenOffice (now called LibreOffice), GIMP, Scribus, or Inkscape--all free and excellent software programs. If the library hasn't yet thought about that, this might be the right time for them to consider doing so.

Alternatively, we can all continue to pony up $139 to Sony for restore DVDs. Greed has no bounds, until it is bounded. The only people who can bound it is us. We are the solution. You are the solution, if you so choose.

When dignity is denied, free software restores dignity.

Phil Shapiro

The author of this article is an educator and community builder in the Washington DC-area. He has worked for several public library and public school systems in the DC-area. He can be reached at and on Twitter at

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