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In the Beginning...was the Command Line Paperback – November 9, 1999
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Neal Stephenson, author of the sprawling and engaging Cryptonomicon, has written a manifesto that could be spoken by a character from that brilliant book. Primarily, In the Beginning ... Was the Command Line discusses the past and future of personal computer operating systems. "It is the fate of manufactured goods to slowly and gently depreciate as they get old," he writes, "but it is the fate of operating systems to become free." While others in the computer industry express similarly dogmatic statements, Stephenson charms the reader into his way of thinking, providing anecdotes and examples that turn the pages for you.
Stephenson is a techie, and he's writing for an audience of coders and hackers in Command Line. The idea for this essay began online, when a shortened version of it was posted on Slashdot.org. The book still holds some marks of an e-mail flame gone awry, and some tangents should have been edited to hone his formidable arguments. But unlike similar writers who also discuss technical topics, he doesn't write to exclude; readers who appreciate computing history (like Dealers of Lightning or Fire in the Valley) can easily step into this book.
Stephenson tackles many myths about industry giants in this volume, specifically Apple and Microsoft. By now, every newspaper reader has heard of Microsoft's overbearing business practices, but Stephenson cuts to the heart of new issues for the software giant with a finely sharpened steel blade. Apple fares only a little better as Stephenson (a former Mac user himself) highlights the early steps the company took to prepare for a monopoly within the computer market--and its surprise when this didn't materialize. Linux culture gets a thorough--but fair--skewering, and the strengths of BeOS are touted (although no operating system is nearly close enough to perfection in Stephenson's eyes).
As for the rest of us, who have gladly traded free will and an intellectual understanding of computers for a clutter-free, graphically pleasing interface, Stephenson has thoughts to offer as well. He fully understands the limits nonprogrammers feel in the face of technology (an example being the "blinking 12" problem when your VCR resets itself). Even so, within Command Line he convincingly encourages us as a society to examine the metaphors of technology--simplifications that aren't really much simpler--that we greedily accept. --Jennifer Buckendorff
From Publishers Weekly
After reading this galvanizing essay, first intended as a feature for Wired magazine but never published there, readers are unlikely to look at their laptops in quite the same mutely complacent way. Stephenson, author of the novel Cryptonomicon, delivers a spirited commentary on the aesthetics and cultural import of computer operating systems. It's less an archeology of early machines than a critique of what Stephenson feels is the inherent fuzziness of graphical user interfacesAthe readily intuitable "windows," "desktops" and "browsers" that we use to talk to our computers. Like Disney's distortion of complicated historical events, our operating systems, he argues, lull us into a reductive sense of reality. Instead of the visual metaphors handed to us by Apple and Microsoft, Stephenson advocates the purity of the command line interface, somewhat akin to the DOS prompt from which most people flee in a technophobic panic. Stephenson is an advocate of Linux, the hacker-friendly operating system distributed for free on the Internet, and of BeOS, a less-hyped paradigm for the bits-and-bytes future. Unlike a string of source code, this essay is user-friendlyAoccasionally to a fault. Stephenson's own set of extended metaphors can get a little hokey: Windows is a station wagon, while Macs are sleek Euro-sedans. And Unix is the Gilgamesh epic of the hacker subculture. Nonetheless, by pointing out how computers define who we are, Stephenson makes a strong case for elegance and intellectual freedom in computing. (Nov.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
A glaring omission is the early history of Stephenson's beloved Unix. To hear him tell it, Unix begins with Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds. Now, to be sure these two are giants whose shoulders we stand upon, but where is the story of Unix's actual invention at AT&T in the early 70s? The word "AT&T" appears only once in the book, briefly cited as something that Stallman was reacting against. The dark side of Unix's corporate past - the fact that Unix originally was a proprietary operating system under AT&T, and that AT&T completely missed the point of Unix and sold the license to Novell, who also blew it - would have fit right in with Stephenson's argument. Basically, for Stephenson, Unix IS Linux. There is no description whatsoever of the rich Unix tradition that precedes the founding of the Free Software Foundation, nor of the contributions that commercial Unixes like SunOS and Solaris have made, such as NFS, NIS, etc., nor of academic contributions like BSD or X. Stephenson lauds XWindows but makes it seem as if it too were a product of his open-source, hacker utopia - and not of the MIT X Consortium. These traditions were direct antecedents of today's hacker community, and Stephenson gives them short shrift.
Finally, there is Stephenson smugly chiding us on how GUIs make us into sheep led by a corporate shepherd. But he undermines his own argument by detailing (pretty factually) the time and sweat of installing and using Linux. So we are supposed to like this better than Microsoft? For the uninitiated, it sucks just as much - maybe more! If you are a programmer and a professional, Linux/Unix is the best route to go down. For the rest, people want something that turns on quickly, that doesn't wreck their stuff, and is easy to use. Windows isn't that - but neither is Linux. Stephenson is missing out on the real story: the imminent destruction of the personal computer as we know it. Someday very soon, small, highly-networked, specialized devices will replace the generalized, complicated computer. People will only pay for what they need. And what they get will be appliances, things that require neither a $95 per call help line (Microsoft) nor a descent into the depths of hacker message boards (Linux), to fix. Something like a TV set. Probably Linux or its descendant will be the operating system that these things will run on, but most people besides programmers won't need to care.
It's a fun ride, and you'll certainly finish knowing more than you did when you started. If I had to do it over, I'd buy and read this book again. But there is much more than this.
I'm a new convert to Stephenson (I've read both Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash in the past couple of months) and find his writing brilliant. This "book".. really more like a very long essay.. is the only bit of nonfiction writing of Stephenson's that I'm familiar with. While the PC vs Mac, UNIX vs Windows discussions are interesting (I'm a PC user but I'm no techie), what really gets my blood flowing in this work is when Stephenson dares to get "philosophical" -- he's quite good at it. His take on postmodernism had me nodding in agreement and howling with laughter at the same time.
That aside, "In the Beginning Was the Command Line" should be required reading for anyone who a) regularly uses a personal computer b) has expressed an opinion on the current DOJ vs. Microsoft case. Most computer users are as unfamiliar with why they use Windows (or Macs) as they are with the history of the elevator. The elevator did not significantly change the world; GUI's & PC's have. I know half of you are already yawning, looking for another book to purchase, but wait...this is a really quick read, &, better yet, it's hysterically funny! Yes, folks, you not only get informed, are given some concepts to contemplate, you actually enjoy the process!
Stephenson admits this book is simply an essay, his musings on the 4 main operating systems currently in use (MacOS, Windows, Linux, BeOS) & how they can be viewed in the context of global culture. He gives examples from personal experience, & unlike most techno-geek/hacker types, he doesn't appear to view Bill Gates as the anti-christ (which is probably why some people hate this book). But please, don't let that scare you off. This book is an easy read for those who have never typed a single line of code in their life, while still being thought provoking for even the "Morlocks" (Stephenson's term) of the world.
Let's face it: if you're reading this, you're an Internet user. Thus, you use computers. You need the information in this book. It's only $6. BUY IT!