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In The Beginning Was the Command Line

There is a book. Called “In The Beginning Was the Command Line” written by Neal Stephenson. 1 You might know him from such books as Snowcrash or Cryptonomicon, but he’s written some non-fiction as well.

It’s hard to describe but it’s about the act of computing and the choices that surround folks who computed, especially in the late 90’s.

It’s compelling for many reasons, but I think I can point to at least one reason what I was so fascinated by the command line and by linux. In the book Stephenson builds an analogy between cars and operating systems where in he describes Apple as so:

Expensive but attractively styled cars with their innards hermetically sealed, so that how they worked was something of a mystery.

He describes Windows like so:

Eventually the big dealership came out with a full-fledged car: a colossal station wagon (Windows 95). It had all the aesthetic appeal of a Soviet worker housing block, it leaked oil and blew gaskets, and it was an enormous success. A little later, they also came out with a hulking off-road vehicle intended for industrial users (Windows NT) which was no more beautiful than the station wagon, and only a little more reliable.

He also talks about BeOS 2, but the most compelling description of all for me was linux:

Linux, which is right next door, and which is not a business at all. It’s a bunch of RVs, yurts, tepees, and geodesic domes set up in a field and organized by consensus. The people who live there are making tanks. These are not old-fashioned, cast-iron Soviet tanks; these are more like the M1 tanks of the U.S. Army, made of space-age materials and jammed with sophisticated technology from one end to the other. But they are better than Army tanks. They’ve been modified in such a way that they never, ever break down, are light and maneuverable enough to use on ordinary streets, and use no more fuel than a subcompact car. These tanks are being cranked out, on the spot, at a terrific pace, and a vast number of them are lined up along the edge of the road with keys in the ignition. Anyone who wants can simply climb into one and drive it away for free.

That piqued my interest.

  1. While you can read the book entierly online it’s also available as a thing you can purchase. https://www.amazon.com/Beginning-was-Command-Line/dp/0380815931 ↩︎

  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BeOS ↩︎