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In the Beginning...Was the Command Line
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In the Beginning...Was the Command Line

3.80  ·  Rating details ·  7,657 ratings  ·  441 reviews
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, Cryptonomi ...more
Paperback, 151 pages
Published November 9th 1999 by William Morrow Paperbacks (first published May 1999)
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Greg Kennedy
Sep 09, 2008 rated it it was ok
This essay is nearly 8 years old, and in dire need of an update. So in 2004 Grant Birkel set out to do just that, producing a set of comments called "The Command Line in 2004". It's freely available on the web, and I suggest you read that version instead of the (older) book.

As far as Stephenson's original writing: Wow, what a disappointment. I think Neil Stephenson writes some fun and highly entertaining fiction, and I really enjoyed both Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. However, this was a subje
Sep 16, 2010 rated it it was ok
A dated look at the Linux, Windows and Mac OSes (written circa 1999). Stephenson's enthusiasm for anything cool and hackerish - solely based on it's hackerishness - is a trait that informs a lot of his fiction works in a very positive way (his ability to dive into technical miscellany and history, his enthusiasm in imagining where neat things are headed), but unfortunately backfires here, in a straightforward essay on then-modern operating systems and, eventually, why Linux is the best of them. ...more
David Bjelland
Hostility towards Microsoft is not difficult to find on the Net, and it blends two strains: resentful people who feel Microsoft is too powerful, and disdainful people who think it's tacky. This is all strongly reminiscent of the heyday of Communism and Socialism, when the bourgeoisie were hated from both ends: by the proles, because they had all the money, and by the intelligentsia, because of their tendency to spend it on lawn ornaments.

ItBWtCL is a pithy, casually-but-astutely observed es
Michael Trouw
Nov 02, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: programming
Not THAT good as the impression left on me by readers who recommended to read this book.
Basically it's
+ an explanation of the differences between soft- and hardware companies,
+ a personal historical experience of the rise of the computer and information era
+ and a shitload of Apple and Microsoft bashing
+ a lot of Linux / GNU unix loving
Sep 16, 2016 rated it it was ok
"People who use [GUIs] have abdicated the responsibility, and surrendered the power, of sending bits directly to a chip that's doing the arithmetic, and handed that responsibility and power to the O.S."[p. 61]
I've worked in three separate operating system kernels in my twenty year old career, and find that statement astonishing. Not just because it is completely inaccurate, but because it feels like a weird assertion airlifted in from the lunatic fringe.

But just as my eyes are about to start goi
Lync Lync
Nov 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing
At only 151 pages this should have been a doddle, but the text is as densely packed as any of Neal Stehpenson's fiction works. Published about 17 years ago, it is amazing how little has changed given how much things changed since the 20 years or so before this dissertation. At least in computer land, that is. The really big change since this was published has been the rise of miniatursation leading not to better interfaces but better phones and smaller portable computers such as the laptop, then ...more
Duffy Pratt
Jan 04, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: journalism, science
This is a fifteen year old essay on operating systems that is still interesting, in a few ways. It has some nice ideas about operating systems and information systems in general. Because it's by Stephenson, it's fun, well presented, geeky but well written. And, because it's by Stephenson, it casts some light on things that appear in his (better) novels.

He contrasts four operating systems: OSX, Windows, Linux, and BeOS. Of these, he hates the first two, primarily because the GUI takes away the co
Sep 05, 2007 rated it liked it
Shelves: e-text
Recently finished the e-book version of this; not sure if it was the whole book or the lengthy essay that the book was based on - since I read it on & off over the past few months, I didn't get a good feel for how long it was.

It's bit dated (at one point he indicates he is writing a portion in Jan of 1999), but still has some excellent observations on the past, present and future of personal computers, as well as human acceptance of & interaction with computer interfaces. He examines the busine
Bill Coffin
Sep 21, 2013 rated it it was ok
Neal Stephenson, a guy with no small degree of technical knowledge when it comes to computers, published this essay/book in 1999, at a time when the Internet was old but the World Wide Web was new (and changing everything), and when Apple was having its second Steve Jobs halcyon, on the verge of launching iTunes, the iPod, and creating the kind of retail tsunami from what Stephenson would derisively call "hermetically sealed" operations systems.

And for all this, what we get from "In the Beginnin
May 25, 2009 rated it it was ok
This ridiculous collection of interrelated essays by Neal Stephenson manages to be both dated and contemporary, depending on whether you're still ranting about the advance of computer operating systems, or you've accepted the inevitable but are frustrated with its intractable failings.

Stephenson wrote this book in 1998 and '99, and in it he rails against Windows and the Mac OS for taking away the power of the DOS prompt and making us all view computers visually. A professional writer, he believe
Part instructional essay, part political treatise, but ultimately I've got no idea who it's aimed at. It's Neal Stephenson's explanation as to why he believes the command line interface is the 'best' way to interact with a computer. That the GUI is only a metaphor for controlling the computer, a mediated experience that removes too much of both the control and the power that the command line interface allows. Stephenson doesn't go so far (as some reviews have suggested) as pushing for the remova ...more
Sep 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: literature
This. Is. Mindblowing.

A tiny little thing, just a long essay, really, yet so packed with one explosive idea after another, brilliantly and beautifully written, sliding under your overconsciousness like the cutting razor edge of broken glass and stripping the carefully-pasted skin and gloss of perception off the world you see around you - smashing illusions, firing x-rays through groupthink and consensual mass delusion, laying bare the way the world actually works underneath how we think it does
Mar 16, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: computers
The book is a very short collection of fun essays, often hilarous. Yet it is hopelessly out of date, as the computer world has moved very far since 1999. Stephenson hates both Microsoft Windows and Apple's MacOS, because they are both proprietary. He loves Linux and BeOS, because they are open-source. He also loves the command line, because of the power and precision that it gives the user. On the other hand, he realizes that the command line approach is fraught with an amazingly steep learning ...more
Mar 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic essay about Unix, Windows, Mac, the ethos of open source, construction, cars, and much, much more. It's 20 years old at this point so some stuff is out of date, but I was amazed at how much still holds true, and how good of an intro guide to Unix it is for beginners. I think everything getting started with CLI should read this book. Stephenson is a master of making the technical accessible through elaborate analogy. ...more
Nichelle Crocker
Apr 30, 2014 rated it liked it
Though I enjoyed the book and found it pretty interesting, it took a fair amount of sifting to get to the tasty bits due to the fact that some of it is outdated and some of it is geeky beyond my interest level.

It seems that a lot of readers took Stephenson as a snooty intellectual who thinks you're sort of a moron if you prefer the warm bath of Disney-like interfaces and mediated experiences that filter out what's challenging (and interesting and useful). Because what you should want is the cold
Snail in Danger (Sid) Nicolaides
May 11, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: computer geeks, technology historians, and Neal Stephenson fans
I'm not sure if this is interesting but fundamentally dated, or dated but fundamentally interesting. One of the two.

I first read this around the time it was published, when it was released for free as a file on Neal Stephenson's web site. This was so long ago that no one used the word "ebook," at least not as a matter of course. I think the book may have been released simultaneously as a dead tree book and as a distribute-for-free file under the GPL or something similar, but the difficulty of fi
Sometimes I can be a complete plonker, but never more so than when I start grabbing virtual copies of books without bothering to read their descriptions. Which is how what I thought would be a little slice of sci-fi turned out to be an essay on computer operating systems.

I’m far more computer-friendly than most people I know and also have a thing about always finishing what I start, but for the first time in years I couldn’t bring myself to finish this, giving no shits whatsoever about the subje
Daniel Noguchi
Aug 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
You have to put yourself in the mindset from the time this book was written. I was the late 90s, where none of the computational wonders of today were close to being usable (cloud applications, mobile apps, etc). At that time, local applications that you had to install in your system dominated the market. Meanwhile, Linux started becoming almost usable for an non tech savvy end user (remember, Ubuntu wasn't around until 2004). This reads like a cultural analysis of the Computer Software of the t ...more
Jul 07, 2011 rated it really liked it
Dated as any ten year old book about computing is going to be, I still highly recommend this exploration of the Operating System. A great deal of the history of Microsoft and Apple has now become myth, but Stephenson breaks it down nicely as what it really is--two corporations trying to make money. His metaphors--and the idea of the operating system as a metaphor--displayed the deft mastery of writing that one expects from him as an author. His broad knowledge of computing explained how he becam ...more
Laura Jean
Jan 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Laura Jean by: Stan Gunn
Shelves: kindle, non-fiction, 2014
A beautifully written explanation of operating systems: how they work, what they do, how they do it. He also delves into the differences between Apple, Microsoft, Be, and Linux. Simple enough for me to understand and appreciate. Stephenson also goes into American culture and explains why consumers respond to these corporations/organizations as we do. Very thought provoking.
Jan 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
I feel like I just listened to my grandfather say really smart things about something he cares about for two and a half hours. Wry, philosophical, filled with big words I had fun looking up. Outdated now, and certainly opinion-driven rather than hyperfactual, but an overall entertaining and interesting little read.
Jul 19, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Read this a goodly time back. Great stuff...
Josh Laird
Apr 26, 2016 rated it liked it

I should install Linux.
May 06, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: ownebook
A few dud universes can really clutter up your basement.

- Neal Stephenson, "In The Beginning. . . was the Command Line"

What a fun read. It's about technology, sure, but more about culture. Neal takes a good look at operating systems, why we get emotionally involved with them, and why Windows is still so popular. He does this with a grand detour to Disneyland, and a hefty dose of humor. The above quote was from near the end of the book, where he imagines hackers creating big bangs from the comman
Seth Benzell
Unique book length essay about operating systems circa 1999: their relative merits, their business models (some of the discussion a prefiguring the two-sided platform business/econ lit by half a decade!), and their metaphysical meaning.

Engaging throughout. I far from agree with everything written, but strongly recommended.
Simon Sweetman
Jul 29, 2019 rated it liked it
Kinda funny reading this now - a book that is 20 years old and deals with Linux, Windows and Mac OSes. A weird choice, but funny reading about computers when so removed from social media in particular. Up next, The Y2K bug! I hope we make it through?! Lol.
Mar 12, 2018 rated it liked it
I wanted to read this to learn more about Linux and I learned some, but not as much as I wanted. I didn't like Stephenson's snotty attitude about how people use computers. ...more
Dec 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good read but

Neal Stephenson"s historical fiction account of the history operating systems is a good read but it is antiquated due the exponential growth of technology. Apple Inc has prospered to the growth of cellphones and the IPad,among other things. Good read!
Apr 10, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting read

This book gives you a lot to think about. Not what I was expecting but in a good way. It is a bit old and i would love to see his take on computer systems today.
Michael Caveney
An interesting read (more of an extended essay) on the history of OSs intended for mass use, and why none of them can really hold a candle to Linux, when it comes down to it.
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Neal Stephenson is the author of Reamde, Anathem, and the three-volume historical epic the Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World), as well as Cryptonomicon, The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and Zodiac. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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