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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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As a computer person and programmer, I really enjoyed the content and writing style.
Originally published in 1999, Neal's essay on operating systems is, like most of his writing, multilayered and filled with palatable prose and a thought provoking potpourri of information that, especially in the case of this essay in book form, often requires rereading for proper digestion.
Neal has a lot to say in Command Line.
First and foremost, I walked away with the following impression: in the world of Neal, Windows is a necessary but doomed operating system. Neal explains why as only he can. He also tells you why Apple is doomed and Microsoft might be. Furthermore, Neal explains that there are better operating systems available and makes a case for why you might want to try them out: they are free, and they don't crash. These two operating systems are Linux, which is a variant of UNIX and BeOS, which is the product of a mad Frenchman but which has many merits that outweigh the product's French origins.
Command Line is filled with memorable statements that sometimes border on or are in all actuality, profound.
For instance - "Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Wells The Time Machine, except it has been turned upside down. In The Time Machine, the Eloi were an effete upper class supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world, it's the other way round. The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how everything works. The much more numerous Eloi learn everything they know from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed and controlled by book-reading Morlocks. That many ignorant people could be dangerous if they got pointed in the wrong direction, and so we've evolved a popular culture that is (a) almost unbelievably infectious, and (b) neuters every person who get infected by it, by rendering them unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands."
In other words, Neal is saying, there are the people who read the book and there are the people who only watch the movie that is made about the book, and the people who read the book are the people who really know what the author was saying. The people who watch the movie don't really get it, because they get the filtered version, the dumbed down version, the version built for mass consumption by those who are less intelligent or perhaps just not as focused.
Command Line isn't for everyone. It's for Morlocks, or those who want to be Morlocks. If you've never owned a pocket protector, opened your computer case up or tinkered with the innards of any of the plethora of electronic devices you own, then you probably won't consume this book with relish, as I did.
Now, if you've stuck with my review to this paragraph, you likely are the type who will enjoy Command Line. Most importantly, you are, in all probability, the type to ponder on and eventually benefit from Neal's closing, in which he compares God to an engineer and remind his readers that, "if you don't like having your choices made for you, you should start making your own."
I came away from reading Command Line thoroughly convinced that I need to explore BeOS when I return from the war I'm currently fighting. And of course, I will continue making my own choices whenever possible, rather than letting others make them for me.
Update: Since I wrote the review I've been talking to people and reading Neal's web site. Two things are apparent to me: a) the book is very dated and b) Macintosh made the very smart decision to move their OS to a UNIX based product. This book will still be a highly enjoyable read if you have the soul of a nerd, as I do.