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Some extracts from In the Beginning was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson

This seminal essay was written by Neal Stephenson at the dawn of GUIs, when computers had become necessities and had gone beyond just being calculating machines and become a lot more.

This is available freely online and yet for an essay as good as this it doesn't have a well formatted version that is easy to read. So I just decided to go ahead and do it myself.

You can read the whole essay here (templated with the excellent twitter bootstrap)
or a readable version here  (Done using the fantastic readabilitly extension).
The original site is here where you will need to download a text file that is a pain to read but excellent for everything else.

You can also download a pdf here.

The essay is rather long so I have collected the extracts that I liked best.

Even the least technically-minded people in our society now have at least a hazy idea of what operating systems do; what is more, they have strong opinions about their relative merits. It is commonly understood, even by technically unsophisticated computer users, that if you have a piece of software that works on your Macintosh, and you move it over onto a Windows machine, it will not run. That this would, in fact, be a laughable and idiotic mistake, like nailing horseshoes to the tires of a Buick.

A person who went into a coma before Microsoft was founded, and woke up now, could pick up this morning's New York Times and understand everything in it--almost:
Item: the richest man in the world made his fortune from-what? Railways? Shipping? Oil? No, operating systems.
Item: a woman friend of mine recently told me that she'd broken off a (hitherto) stimulating exchange of e-mail with a young man. At first he had seemed like such an intelligent and interesting guy, she said, but then "he started going all PC-versus-Mac on me."

In retrospect, this was telling me two things about people's relationship to technology. One was that romance and image go a long way towards shaping their opinions. If you doubt it (and if you have a lot of spare time on your hands) just ask anyone who owns a Macintosh and who, on those grounds, imagines him- or herself to be a member of an oppressed minority group.
The other, somewhat subtler point, was that interface is very important. Sure, the MGB was a lousy car in almost every way that counted: balky, unreliable, underpowered. But it was fun to drive. It was responsive. Every pebble on the road was felt in the bones, every nuance in the pavement transmitted instantly to the driver's hands. He could listen to the engine and tell what was wrong with it. The steering responded immediately to commands from his hands. To us passengers it was a pointless exercise in going nowhere--about as interesting as peering over someone's shoulder while he punches numbers into a spreadsheet. But to the driver it was an experience. For a short time he was extending his body and his senses into a larger realm, and doing things that he couldn't do unassisted.

The Macintosh OS was a revolution in both the good and bad senses of that word. Obviously it was true that command line interfaces were not for everyone, and that it would be a good thing to make computers more accessible to a less technical audience--if not for altruistic reasons, then because those sorts of people constituted an incomparably vaster market. It was clear the the Mac's engineers saw a whole new country stretching out before them; you could almost hear them muttering, "Wow! We don't have to be bound by files as linear streams of bytes anymore, vive la revolution, let's see how far we can take this!" No command line interface was available on the Macintosh; you talked to it with the mouse, or not at all. This was a statement of sorts, a credential of revolutionary purity. It seemed that the designers of the Mac intended to sweep Command Line Interfaces into the dustbin of history.
There was plenty to argue about. The first Macintoshes looked different from other PCs even when they were turned off: they consisted of one box containing both CPU (the part of the computer that does arithmetic on bits) and monitor screen. This was billed, at the time, as a philosophical statement of sorts: Apple wanted to make the personal computer into an appliance, like a toaster.

It follows that if Microsoft sells goods that are aesthetically unappealing, or that don't work very well, it does not mean that they are (respectively) philistines or half-wits. It is because Microsoft's excellent management has figured out that they can make more money for their stockholders by releasing stuff with obvious, known imperfections than they can by making it beautiful or bug-free. This is annoying, but (in the end) not half so annoying as watching Apple inscrutably and relentlessly destroy itself.

Anyone who has ever bought a piece of software in a store has had the curiously deflating experience of taking the bright shrink-wrapped box home, tearing it open, finding that it's 95 percent air, throwing away all the little cards, party favors, and bits of trash, and loading the disk into the computer. The end result (after you've lost the disk) is nothing except some images on a computer screen, and some capabilities that weren't there before. Sometimes you don't even have that--you have a string of error messages instead. But your money is definitely gone. Now we are almost accustomed to this, but twenty years ago it was a very dicey business proposition. Bill Gates made it work anyway. He didn't make it work by selling the best software or offering the cheapest price. Instead he somehow got people to believe that they were receiving something in exchange for their money.

It is a bit unsettling, at first, to think of Apple as a control freak, because it is completely at odds with their corporate image. Weren't these the guys who aired the famous Super Bowl ads showing suited, blindfolded executives marching like lemmings off a cliff? Isn't this the company that even now runs ads picturing the Dalai Lama (except in Hong Kong) and Einstein and other offbeat rebels?
It is indeed the same company, and the fact that they have been able to plant this image of themselves as creative and rebellious free-thinkers in the minds of so many intelligent and media-hardened skeptics really gives one pause. It is testimony to the insidious power of expensive slick ad campaigns and, perhaps, to a certain amount of wishful thinking in the minds of people who fall for them. It also raises the question of why Microsoft is so bad at PR, when the history of Apple demonstrates that, by writing large checks to good ad agencies, you can plant a corporate image in the minds of intelligent people that is completely at odds with reality. 

Nothing is more disagreeable to the hacker than duplication of effort. The first and most important mental habit that people develop when they learn how to write computer programs is to generalize, generalize, generalize. To make their code as modular and flexible as possible, breaking large problems down into small subroutines that can be used over and over again in different contexts. Consequently, the development of operating systems, despite being technically unnecessary, was inevitable. Because at its heart, an operating system is nothing more than a library containing the most commonly used code, written once (and hopefully written well) and then made available to every coder who needs it.

What's hard, in hacking as in fiction, is not writing; it's deciding what to write. And the vendors of commercial OSes have already decided, and published their decisions.

Since then I've always thought of that man as the personification of an interesting human tendency: not only are we not offended to be dazzled by manufactured images, but we like it. We practically insist on it. We are eager to be complicit in our own dazzlement: to pay money for a theme park ride, vote for a guy who's obviously lying to us, or stand there holding the basket as it's filled up with cosmetics.

Americans' preference for mediated experiences is obvious enough, and I'm not going to keep pounding it into the ground. I'm not even going to make snotty comments about it--after all, I was at Disney World as a paying customer. But it clearly relates to the colossal success of GUIs and so I have to talk about it some. Disney does mediated experiences better than anyone. If they understood what OSes are, and why people use them, they could crush Microsoft in a year or two.

The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than this global monoculture, is completely screwed. Anyone who grows up watching TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on network TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie to outdo each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human being. And--again--perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won't nuke each other.
On the other hand, if you are raised within some specific culture, you end up with a basic set of tools that you can use to think about and understand the world. You might use those tools to reject the culture you were raised in, but at least you've got some tools.

Because Linux is not commercial--because it is, in fact, free, as well as rather difficult to obtain, install, and operate--it does not have to maintain any pretensions as to its reliability.  Consequently, it is much more reliable. 

Morlocks, who have the energy and intelligence to comprehend details, go out and master complex subjects and produce Disney-like Sensorial Interfaces so that Eloi can get the gist without having to strain their minds or endure boredom. Those Morlocks will go to India and tediously explore a hundred ruins, then come home and built sanitary bug-free versions: highlight films, as it were. This costs a lot, because Morlocks insist on good coffee and first-class airline tickets, but that's no problem because Eloi like to be dazzled and will gladly pay for it all.
By using GUIs all the time we have insensibly bought into a premise that few people would have accepted if it were presented to them bluntly: namely, that hard things can be made easy, and complicated things simple, by putting the right interface on them. In order to understand how bizarre this is, imagine that book reviews were written according to the same values system that we apply to user interfaces: "The writing in this book is marvelously simple-minded and glib; the author glosses over complicated subjects and employs facile generalizations in almost every sentence. Readers rarely have to think, and are spared all of the difficulty and tedium typically involved in reading old-fashioned books." As long as we stick to simple operations like setting the clocks on our VCRs, this is not so bad. But as we try to do more ambitious things with our technologies, we inevitably run into the problem of:

The first time I launched MPW, I was probably expecting some kind of touch-feely multimedia showcase. Instead it was austere, almost to the point of being intimidating. It was a scrolling window into which you could type simple, unformatted text. The system would then interpret these lines of text as commands, and try to execute them.
It was, in other words, a glass teletype running a command line interface. It came with all sorts of cryptic but powerful commands, which could be invoked by typing their names, and which I learned to use only gradually. It was not until a few years later, when I began messing around with Unix, that I understood that the command line interface embodied in MPW was a re-creation of Unix.
In other words, the first thing that Apple's hackers had done when they'd got the MacOS up and running--probably even before they'd gotten it up and running--was to re-create the Unix interface, so that they would be able to get some useful work done.

Barnes was fond of pointing out that the Mac, with its hermetically sealed architecture, was actually hostile to hackers, who are prone to tinkering and dogmatic about openness. By contrast, the IBM-compatible line of machines, which can easily be taken apart and plugged back together, was much more hackable.

But the price that we Mac owners had to pay for superior aesthetics and engineering was not merely a financial one. There was a cultural price too, stemming from the fact that we couldn't open up the hood and mess around with it. Doug Barnes was right. Apple, in spite of its reputation as the machine of choice of scruffy, creative hacker types, had actually created a machine that discouraged hacking, while Microsoft, viewed as a technological laggard and copycat, had created a vast, disorderly parts bazaar--a primordial soup that eventually self-assembled into Linux.

But I never blamed the Hole Hawg; I blamed myself. The Hole Hawg is dangerous because it does exactly what you tell it to. It is not bound by the physical limitations that are inherent in a cheap drill, and neither is it limited by safety interlocks that might be built into a homeowner's product by a liability-conscious manufacturer. The danger lies not in the machine itself but in the user's failure to envision the full consequences of the instructions he gives to it.

This is a system invented by people to whom repetitive stress disorder is what black lung is to miners. Long names get worn down to three-letter nubbins, like stones smoothed by a river.

For at least a year, prior to my adoption of Linux, I had been hearing about it. Credible, well-informed people kept telling me that a bunch of hackers had got together an implementation of Unix that could be downloaded, free of charge, from the Internet. For a long time I could not bring myself to take the notion seriously. It was like hearing rumors that a group of model rocket enthusiasts had created a completely functional Saturn V by exchanging blueprints on the Net and mailing valves and flanges to each other.

Microsoft refused to go into the hardware business, insisted on making its software run on hardware that anyone could build, and thereby created the market conditions that allowed hardware prices to plummet. In trying to understand the Linux phenomenon, then, we have to look not to a single innovator but to a sort of bizarre Trinity: Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, and Bill Gates. Take away any of these three and Linux would not exist.

 As the visit wears on, homesickness begins to set in, and the traveler begins to appreciate, for the first time, how much he or she took for granted at home. At the same time it begins to seem obvious that many of one's own cultures and traditions are essentially arbitrary, and could have been different; driving on the right side of the road, for example. When the traveler returns home and takes stock of the experience, he or she may have learned a good deal more about America than about the country they went to visit.

Not only that, but it's beginning to look as if, once you get below a certain size--way below the level of quarks, down into the realm of string theory--the universe can't be described very well by physics as it has been practiced since the days of Newton. If you look at a small enough scale, you see processes that look almost computational in nature.

I think that the message is very clear here: somewhere outside of and beyond our universe is an operating system, coded up over incalculable spans of time by some kind of hacker-demiurge. The cosmic operating system uses a command-line interface. It runs on something like a teletype, with lots of noise and heat; punched-out bits flutter down into its hopper like drifting stars. The demiurge sits at his teletype, pounding out one command line after another, specifying the values of fundamental constants of physics:
universe -G 6.672e-11 -e 1.602e-19 -h 6.626e-34 -protonmass 1.673e-27....

What would the engineer say, after you had explained your problem, and enumerated all of the dissatisfactions in your life? He would probably tell you that life is a very hard and complicated thing; that no interface can change that; that anyone who believes otherwise is a sucker; and that if you don't like having choices made for you, you should start making your own.

If you liked the extracts you owe it to yourself to read the whole essay. It really is a great piece by one of the smartest and most visionary writers out there.


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