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In the beginning there was the … command line?

Re-occuring read on my pile of (electronic) books, yet as far as I can tell I never so far wrote about it:

In the beginning there was the command line.

Neal Stephenson, most likely known at least to some as author of novels such as “Snow Crash” (which might be considered a later cyberpunk classic even though I am unsure whether he would like being placed in this category), “The Diamond Age” or “Cryptonomicon”, also provided a bunch of essays on different topics, and this is one of them.

Essentially, “In the beginning… ” is a write-up about technology. It’s a lengthy article about computer operating systems and some of their characteristics especially when it comes to how people interact with them – either in a command-line based fashion, as still the case on many Linux/Unix systems, or on a visual point-and-click/tap user interface (as, effectively, on most of the rest of the systems).

Feeling bored already?

No worries. Though, of course, having bit of a technical background (or let’s even just say “interest”) won’t hurt, this article’s also a worthy read if you’re not too much of a geek, as Stephenson is pretty good at looking at things from a “bigger picture” point of view. “Bigger picture” in this case, includes quite a bunch of different things. It includes aspects such as marketing and selling products and why people decide to buy certain things. It includes socio-cultural aspects of “communication” in terms of images vs. words, in terms of use and reception of various mass media or even some of the social implications arising from this kind of technological environment:

"[...]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.'[...]".

Needless to say: This is quite a worthy read, and, even assuming it has come to some age now (written in 1999), still an article I get back to then and now, start reading across it, spot some things I missed before or things that make more sense now than they made a few years ago. The full text can be downloaded here (very much suiting the topic being just an unformatted zipped text/plain file), so no reason to not give it a closer look. Stephenson has both an entertaining style of writing and a talent or enthusiasm to write well-founded books with a load of insights from a load of different fields and aspects of mostly culture and science, and this article is no exception here, leaving it with a lot of moments that are great to read and yet make one think:

"[...]There is massively promiscuous metaphor-mixing going on here, and I could deconstruct it 'til the cows come home, but I won't. Consider only one word: "document." When we document something in the real world, we make fixed, permanent, immutable records of it. But computer documents are volatile, ephemeral constellations of data. Sometimes (as when you've just opened or saved them) the document as portrayed in the window is identical to what is stored, under the same name, in a file on the disk, but other times (as when you have made changes without saving them) it is completely different. In any case, every time you hit "Save" you annihilate the previous version of the "document" and replace it with whatever happens to be in the window at the moment. So even the word "save" is being used in a sense that is grotesquely misleading---"destroy one version, save another" would be more accurate.[...]"

Food for thought, indeed. And in days in which we’re not even talking command-lines vs. GUI driven interfaces anymore but consider an omnipresent (ubiquitous) approach to “computing” with small, touch-driven, “always-online” devices available to and voluntarily used by an audience even larger, a lot of these aspects turn to be even more interesting and worth thinking about. Same, definitely, goes for some of the way less “techie” insights that also can be found all along these lines:

"[...]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.[...]"

Take yourself a few hours off to read this article. There definitely are wastes of time much worse…

4. Juni 2015

Filed under:

culture , essay , linux , readings , stephenson