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In the Beginning...Was the Command Line by…

In the Beginning...Was the Command Line (original 1999; edition 2009)

by Neal Stephenson (Author)

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1,918245,571 (3.7)15
This is "the Word" -- one man's word, certainly -- about the art (and artifice) of the state of our computer-centric existence. And considering that the "one man" is Neal Stephenson, "the hacker Hemingway" (Newsweek) -- acclaimed novelist, pragmatist, seer, nerd-friendly philosopher, and nationally bestselling author of groundbreaking literary works (Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, etc., etc.) -- the word is well worth hearing. Mostly well-reasoned examination and partial rant, Stephenson's In the Beginning... was the Command Line is a thoughtful, irreverent, hilarious treatise on the cyber-culture past and present; on operating system tyrannies and downloaded popular revolutions; on the Internet, Disney World, Big Bangs, not to mention the meaning of life itself.… (more)
Title:In the Beginning...Was the Command Line
Authors:Neal Stephenson (Author)
Info:William Morrow (2009), 160 pages
Collections:Your library

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In the Beginning...was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson (1999)

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I read this piece right around when it first came out (on a Palm PDA, no less), and last year when I went back to using Linux part-time I wanted to reread it, because I remembered it fondly. As other reviews here at GR point out, it's very dated and a lot of the criticisms of the GUI don't hold up and may have been off-base even then. Stephenson said in the mid-2000s that the essay needed a completely overhaul but he was unlikely to do it.

BeOS is gone, of course, and Linux now has a GUI and competes with Windows and Apple's OS in terms of ease of usability in some of its distros.

But what's interesting is that some of the essay still resonates, at least it does for me. The conspiracy theory parts and the intellectual condescension are a bit much, but some of the metaphors are great. Windows as a big unwieldy station wagon or ATV (yep, still true), Apple as a sportscar (mostly true although diminishing), and the split between reliance on software and reliance on hardware respectively (still true despite the app store). Also, rereading this at a time when Apple has lot a bunch of value because of flat or declining mobile phone sales and Microsoft is increasing profits through their cloud focus feels a bit like a similar inflection point. I doubt Apple is going under or Microsoft will pull away from the pack, but it's a reminder that these cycles are fast.

If you were too young or not paying attention to these battles in the 1990s and early 2000s, or you just want a flavor of what being on the internet was like back in Olden Times, this is still a fun read. But I strongly recommend that you read it here, with Garrett Birkel's annotations. They're from 2004, which is still a long time ago, but they make a great companion to Stephenson's original argument (and Stephenson approved it).

This review is also terrific: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

I much enjoyed returning to this world and era. I think it explains why I keep trying to do everything in Linux from the command line even though it is so much easier to use the GUI. ( )
2 vote Sunita_p | May 17, 2019 |
About twenty years ago Jobs and Wozniak, the founders of Apple, came up with the very strange idea of selling information processing machines for use in the home. The business took off, and its founders made a lot of money and received the credit they deserved for being daring visionaries. But around the same time, Bill Gates and Paul Allen came up with an idea even stranger and more fantastical: selling computer operating systems. This was much weirder than the idea of Jobs and Wozniak. A computer at least had some sort of physical reality to it. It came in a box, you could open it up and plug it in and watch lights blink. An operating system had no tangible incarnation at all. It arrived on a disk, of course, but the disk was, in effect, nothing more than the box that the OS came in. The product itself was a very long string of ones and zeroes that, when properly installed and coddled, gave you the ability to manipulate other very long strings of ones and zeroes. Even those few who actually understood what a computer operating system was were apt to think of it as a fantastically arcane engineering prodigy, like a breeder reactor or a U-2 spy plane, and not something that could ever be (in the parlance of high-tech) "productized."
  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
Excellent explanation of the OS/hardware wars between Microsoft and Apple. The nature of the battle has changed since this was written, but its still an excellent distillation of the history of the industry. ( )
  grandpahobo | Apr 7, 2015 |
It's a fun book. Neal writes from the perspective of someone dropped into the operating systems world right about the time that some things were vanishing, and others were just coming into their own.

For a better, more interesting overview, I recommend Peter H. Salus's "A Quarter Century of UNIX" or Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon's "Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet." Actually, you should read them both.

As a sad note, this book was not printed on acid free paper, and I can see that it's already beginning to yellow, just a tiny bit. ( )
  Lyndatrue | Jan 3, 2014 |
This is an odd little essay about the nature of computer systems and user interfaces, though it's a little too dated to truly inform today's users except in a very broad sense.

For example, Stephenson proclaims his love for Linux, but reassures us it's actually pretty hard to use -- which is no longer true (most Linux distros offer nice, clean, *fast* GUIs that I prefer to Windows and the Mac).

He deconstructs the earlier years of Apple and Microsoft in an amusing and interesting way, and while his analogies often run pretty far afield, they do serve to illustrate the essential madness that defined Apple and Microsoft in the 1990s.

The value in this (for me) was his explanation of open source development and what it offers the end user. I arrived at many of the same conclusions independently (I was a hardcore Mac user from 1985 to 1995 when the Mac's constant crashes pushed me to Windows, though after a few days with Windows Vista on a new laptop, I installed Ubuntu Linux, which is now an easy-installing, easy-to-use OS).

I now run my 25 year-old marketing and consulting business from four Linux machines, so I understand Stephenson's love of the OS.

I'm less understanding of some of the wild digressions found in the book, and ultimately think I'm giving it three stars instead of two because I think several of his points are spot on (if a little hard to uncover).

For example, Writers should probably heed his warnings about proprietary file formats -- as a fulltime professional writer, 95% of my copy is written on programmer's text editors (including the Emacs editor Stephenson mentions in the book).

And yes, Linux is hugely elegant and offers users a choice of GUI or command line (it's not a coincidence the Mac OS is built atop a free version of Unix).

Interestingly, Stephenson -- a longtime Emacs text editor proponent -- said in an interview his latest book (Reamde) was written in Scrivener, a commercial Mac-only piece of writer's software that makes it easy to stitch together (and rearrange) scenes and chapters of a book.

I don't know if that means he's abandoned his beloved Linux in favor of the Mac (there is now a beta version of Scrivener available for Mac & Linux, though I don't believe it was available when he wrote the book), but it does mean portions of this book are no longer accurate. ( )
  TCWriter | Mar 31, 2013 |
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About twenty years ago Jobs and Wozniak, the founders of Apple, came up with the very strange idea of selling information processing machines for use in the home.
It is the fate of manufactured goods to slowly and gently depreciate as they get old and have to compete against more modern products.
It is the fate of operating systems to become free. [37]
There is massively promiscuous metaphor-mixing going on here, and I could deconstruct it till the cows come home, but I won't. [63]
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