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Review: in the Beginning... Was the Command Line

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Madeleine Shepherd reviews 'In the Beginning... was the Command Line' by Neal Stephenson.

In the beginning...was the command line is a non-technical, comparative study of computer operating systems (OSs) from one man's personal viewpoint. That man is science fiction author, Neal Stephenson - styled 'the hacker Hemingway' by Newsweek. Stephenson set out to write an article for Wired magazine and so rich was the material that he ended up with a 150 page paperback, which is also available as a web essay. While it's great to have things available freely on the web, a piece this length on the screen is not easy on the eyes. It prints out at 50 A4 pages that end up feeling more like homework than a fun read. You may say that a comparison of OSs couldn't be a fun read at all but you'd be wrong - and I'm glad I found the book version first.

Stephenson grew up during the move from mainframes to home computing, using punch cards, tickertape, and teletypes at school and college, and programming Apples in the Eighties. He tells us about this early in the book, not as a 'tedious, codgerly reminiscence about how tough we had it back in the old days' but to establish his credentials for commenting on 'up to the minute topics like Open Source Software'. He makes an entertaining job of it and certainly convinced this reader.

The book opens with the observation that Paul Allen and Bill Gates were truly weird for imagining that they could sell to the general public '...a very long string of ones and zeros that ... gave you the ability to manipulate other very long strings of ones and zeros'. At the time the public perception of computers and their software fell into the same category as nuclear power - i.e. not for the likes of us. Yet now they have been 'productized', sold like soap powders with each new version getting the Hollywood premier treatment.

Public perception, and its manipulation, is a major theme of this book. Stephenson gets stuck into this early on with the first of many analogies, this one between manufacturers of OSs and cars. The stylish, expensive, Apple sports car, the massive Windows 95 station wagon and its sister off road vehicle Windows NT, the beautiful and fully operational, yet cheaper BeOS Batmobile and the anarchist collective-built free tank that is Linux yeild 4 pages of amusing explanations of why the majority of the public end up buying a more expensive, uglier, technologically inferior product. This particular metaphor was picked up by Scot Hacker in BYTE magazine, where he pointed out that typecasting BeOS like this could do for their OS what Batman ultimately did for Adam West's acting career. It makes BeOS look too specialised - would you nip down to the shops in a Batmoblie?

Metaphors are a curse and a blessing in this book. Stephenson' own metaphors are extremely creative and he takes them to their logical conclusions. A classic example is the power drill story he tells to illustrate how Unix got its reputation. My first encounters with Unix felt much the same.

However there is a large chapter in the middle of the book criticising the idea of the Graphical User Interface and its use of metaphor. GUIs are characterised as the Disneyland of computing where the mediated experience is all. With a GUI you get a set of pre-defined 'choices' which lock you into the software house's pattern of use while giving the illusion of freedom - 'Where do you what to go today?'

'Why are we rejecting explicit word-based interfaces,' Stephenson wonders. Given the Situationist outlook of this section, perhaps Debord's Society of the Spectacle may offer some clues. 'The spectacle, as a tendency to make one see the world by means of various specialised mediations (it can no longer be grasped directly), naturally finds vision to be the privileged human sense.'

But back to the OSs. The final pages of the book see a kind of mystical speculation on the existence of the operating system that is running our universe programme. The ur-hacker tweaks all the parameters of our physical constants, 'the right pinky of God' hits the return key and off we go with another Big Bang. And what if we got to programme our lives in this OS of all possible choices? Would we pound out an immense command line or have the whole thing summarised with icons, dialogue boxes and radio buttons? The complexity of the relationship between the choices would be so off putting that simplification would be sought in each new version until only one choice remains: live? Yes / No

The point being '... if you don't like having your choices made for you, you should start making your own'.

As you can see this is far more than a book about operating systems and is actually classified by the publisher as 'sociology/business'. It's a good read, highly entertaining, full of background detail and foreground information. It covers a whole lot more ground that I've mentioned here e.g. the old Apple/Microsoft debate gets a new look, and the pros and cons Open Source Software such as Linux are discussed. In the end it is more about modern western culture as reflected by OSs than about OSs themselves and all as coloured by Neal Stephenson's personal journey through the development of OSs. But don't take my word for it - look up a copy on the web, buy the book, make your own choice.

References

  1. Stephenson, N., In the Beginning ... was the Command Line. Avon; New York November 1999 ISBN 0-380-81593-1
    or on the web at http://www.cryptonomicon.com or at http://www.skywriting.com/~ping/in_the_beginning.html http://www-classic.be.com/users/cryptonomicon/beginning_print.html
  2. Hacker, S., In the beginning was the command line. Byte August 23 1999 http://www.byte.com/column/BYT19990823S0013
  3. Debord, G., The society of the spectacle. 1977 revised translation, Black and Red, Detroit or at http://www.nothingness.org/SI/debord/SOTS/sotscontents.html

Author Details

 

Madeleine Shepherd
Administrative Assistant
International Centre for Mathematical Sciences

Email: madeleine@maths.ed.ac.uk
Web site: www.ma.hw.ac.uk/icms

 

Date published: 
23 March 2000

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How to cite this article

Madeleine Shepherd. "Review: in the Beginning... Was the Command Line". March 2000, Ariadne Issue 23 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue23/checkout-review/stephenson.html


article | by Dr. Radut