When Neal Stephenson penned In the Beginning…Was the Command Line in 1999, a book of technical essays had a short shelf life. Now, it’s almost inconceivable that a writer would dedicate as much time to lovingly detailing the essence of his favorite operating systems; by the time the book was released, it’d be obsolete. And so this slim classic of the genre, in which the “Hacker’s Hemingway” breathlessly pontificates on Linux, is now more of a historical relic than a timely rant on tech. That said, it’s still not obsolete.
It is Stephenson’s specific virtue in this text that although he happily roots around in the muck of programming–a true nerd, Stephenson dedicates entire chapters to open-source evangelism and refers to Unix as the Gilgamesh epic of hacker subculture–he also flings great and lofty observations up from below. The prevailing metaphor in this book is the command line, which Stephenson likens to a direct channel into the heart of the computer. In the days of command-line programming, users needed to be versed in computer language, needed to stretch themselves to understand the perimeters of machine logic. They had to make an effort. The same kind of effort, Stephenson argues, that people made back in the days of book-reading and old-fashioned culture learnin’: it wasn’t easy to read canonical texts and turn them into knowledge, but that was the nature of being a person. Stephenson writes, “just as the command line interface open a much more direct and explicit channel from user to machine than the GUI, so it is with words, writer, and reader.”
With the advent of the graphical user interface (or GUI) the hallowed tradition of command-line tinkering was sublimated into something palatable to the lay user, the person uninterested in learning to code for themselves. The personal computing revolution democratized use, but in doing so, placed an opaque veil between the user and the command line, which is to say, the computer at its essence. Stephenson compares this to a Disneyfication of culture; just Disney turns mythology, literature, and folk tale into flat symbols, into adventure parks and perfectly-manicured replicas, so did Windows turn the arcane (and often torturous) relationship between computer and user into a theme park of visual mixed metaphors.
Stephenson’s deconstruction of those metaphors, incidentally, is a highlight of this book; his passage on how “Saving” documents is really a form of annihilation and replacement rips, delightfully, into the bloated interface design elements we all take for granted. What we’re really buying when we buy an operating system, he writes, is not just these faulty metaphors but “the underlying assumption that metaphors are a good way to deal with the world.” Metaphors work for writing, they work for Disneyland, and they have made software companies a lot of money over the years, but is something lost along the way when hard things are made easy? Are those “desktop metaphors” just magic mirrors, concealing the guts of real computing?
Being a dyed-in-the-wool hacker, Stephenson thinks so. In his estimation, despite the fact that we sometimes want to go to Disneyland, the sheer power and complexity of a Linux machine overrides everything. Which makes sense: a writer is someone who likes to take the lid off of things and meddle around inside. A science fiction writer is an even worse case, someone fascinated with the dirty mechanisms that, beneath the surface, shore up those metaphors which turn the impossible detail of reality into a story that makes sense. In an increasingly technological world, the hacker model of science fiction authorship depends on an open channel down to that root–a command line, if you will–as it’s those mechanisms, flawed or otherwise, that propel us into the future.