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In the Beginning...Was the Command Line

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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.

160 pages, Kindle Edition

First published May 1, 1999

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About the author

Neal Stephenson

105 books24.8k followers
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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Displaying 1 - 30 of 456 reviews
38 reviews4 followers
February 25, 2009
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 subject that needed much more grounding and the essay doesn't have it - it's prone to offer ridiculous analogies, and often ditches the point entirely so it can lament McDonald's expansion into foreign countries and the popularity of the television show Cops outside American borders.

Let me try to distill his argument: the GUI evolved on top of the command-line, and it allowed the computer to become much more accessible to the everyday user. However, the two major commercial OSes don't offer a way to get back to the command line in a useful way, and so "hackers" lose out on a lot of power and flexibility that they used to have over the machine. He extols the virtue of Linux because it gives you the terminal and doesn't offer the hand-holding and useless features that other OSes do. Stephenson likens the GUI to Disney Land, where ideas and cultures pass through a filter that narrows down the world to a single presentation accepted by the masses. In choosing the GUI we give up our control so we aren't overwhelmed by choice. (OS X pretty much demolishes this argument by itself, as Stephenson readily admits today, but things were different 8 years ago so it's better to look at this in a historical context)

Now, this argument doesn't really hold up under close inspection. To provide a simple counter-argument: The command-line itself is an interface, just like the GUI, and the choice of what options to make available is not a factor of whether or not the mouse is an input device but whether or not the feature itself is a worthwhile addition. Linux lets any user contribute a feature that they would find handy, and the commercial world is instead driven by a need to provide more general features that the majority of users might pay for, but one could just as well argue that Linux is building a dull Swiss Army Knife while Windows and MacOS are building very sharp single tools. Like all interfaces there are good and bad design choices, independent of who developed the underlying OS, and that is the real problem. A well-designed interface will offer users a maximum amount of power and flexibility without impeding their ability to get tasks done - if an application is not up to par on this yet, it needs nothing more than simple refinement. This has nothing to do with the OS or GUI environment and everything to do with simple UI choices.

I think the real trouble with this essay is one of viewpoint. Stephenson takes the position of someone who is computing just for computing's sake - he finds programming interesting in its own right, without a need to accomplish any specific task. So the most efficient way to do this at the time was the command-line interface, because you can be coding your function very quickly without having to delve into pages upon pages of window-opening code. (Incidentally this is only a problem of library refinement: we have had years to come up with printf() and getch() and all the little functions that make CLI programming easy - life was much tougher before the C stdlib. Nowadays GUI toolkits and languages based around the GUI make coding applications almost as easy as the CLI, and some are even cross-platform!)

However, he's trying to foist this viewpoint onto all users, without allowing them the freedom to choose an OS to suit their own individual needs. It's almost as though he is insulting the users who want their PC to be nothing more than a tool to get their work done - those who like the simplicity of clicking emails in Outlook, who want to use the Start menu because it's fast and easy, or who think the Office paperclip is a handy feature. (Okay just kidding about that last one: nobody really believes that). At times he's suggesting that people are simply ignorant of other operating systems, and if they knew more, they'd pick a "better one". In any case, needing less direct interaction with the PC isn't any indication of a person's general interest in complexity... Perhaps a user of Windows will spend their time tying lures for fly-fishing, though most people would just buy some from the store. We all give up options in some areas of our lives to make time for flexibility in others. Birkel's counterpoint here is especially relevant because he continually points out that the real value of any UI is how much it enhances our ability to accomplish tasks, not how much we can muck things up with it.

The last problem with this essay is that it's outdated. Of course there is nothing that can be done about that, though Birkel tried, but many readers would no longer find it so relevant.

In summary: Don't bother with this one, unless you're highly interested in Neil Stephenson, operating systems in 1999, Linux zealotry, and anti-American Global culture. And even then, read the annotated version. I think Birkel's comments provide the grounding in reality that the original essay desperately needed.
Profile Image for Sandy.
79 reviews2 followers
September 25, 2010
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. (Well, BeOS specifically, which indeed was cool but has since died out.)

He seems to forget that computers are, to most people, tools. Even for the people who love to play around with them, at the end of the day you often just want to send an email, or get your job done, or save your file without losing it. In one chapter he asks, why run Windows when you could install Linux, install WINE (a Windows emulator) on top of that, and then run your Windows application? It's free and so much more awesome than just buying Windows! To which I say: Holy crap, Stephenson. Yes, it's certainly possible, but (especially back then, when Linux was still learning user-friendliness) that shit was tough, and required way more digging than I think most people would have been willing to give it. And all to achieve the exact same end as the easy path. Is it worth it? If your aim was simply to have something that *works*, then no. It is a perfectly valid and intelligent position to have, reflecting nothing more than priorities of where you choose to put your attention and time, and one which Neal Stephenson doesn't seem to recognize. (In one particularly eye-popping chapter, he equates people who use Windows and/or GUIs in general to people who go to Disneyland instead of traveling to a foreign country. Because, obviously, they're dumb and don't care about culture or what's real and true.)

He also argues that GUIs are for chumps, and if you are really serious about computers you'll be hacking it out at the command line. (To which I say: The command line itself is just another interface, a layer between you and the box, and based entirely on what people have chosen to write for it and how strong their code is.) He asserts that visual iconography isn't as strong, direct, and understandable as the written word. (Which, this one especially: huh?) He points out, with great disdain, how GUIs frame the information you work with in more understandable metaphors and hide complexities from the user. (That's the point, and, when done well, a good thing!) Overall: just sigh.

Now, I love Linux. I couldn't live without a CLI. And I liked a few parts of this book. He's a good writer, and is best here when he throws away his pretensions and writes about his struggles with all three of the OSes. I also liked it when he talked about how technology companies work on the basis of temporal arbitrage, which is a great and inspired way to frame the trend in technology to chase after the next big thing. He just misses the point so often here, and is so frustrating and condescending to read, that, in the end, it isn't quite worth it.

Two stars.
Profile Image for David Bjelland.
148 reviews40 followers
February 28, 2019
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 essay on the (then-)current state of the desktop computer market and how we got there. Like a really good blog, but one that doesn't strain your eyes and has great typesetting, it's more about coming to familiarize yourself with the author's peculiar voice and perspective of the world than it is a properly historical, or even editorial, work. Drifting from topic to topic with plenty of detours, it's a work that only got properly published because of Stephenson's guaranteed audience; still, I ended up wolfing it down in a single sitting, so clearly part of me thinks there's something irresistibly compelling about it.

Here are some reasons I think that's the case, most of which boil down to "Neal Stephenson is a broadly, instantly likable writer who knows what he's doing and is very good at it":
- The book goes the perfect level of depth into its technical subject matter: it's all accessible enough to make non-techies want to learn about this stuff, and funny/opinionated enough that the rest of us don't mind re-hashing it
- Stephenson has a god-like ability for catchy, instructive metaphors
- This is the first pro-Free As In Freedom software writing I've stumbled across that makes its case from a purely pragmatic, rather than ideological, standpoint. Sure, his dire predictions about the sustainability of a corporate duopoly on operating systems may have been proven wrong by the developments of the last ~20 years, but I think his analysis is still insightful
- This essay, and in particular, the section "Interface Culture", passionately affirms the idea that something is at stake here besides the peacocking vanity of hackers. Like the best criticism, it draws non-obvious but compelling connections between a social phenomenon and higher principle - here, that of engaging with reality in its unwieldiness rather than settling for a mediated, reductive experience. (And naturally, this is flattering to my peacocking hacker-lite vanity)
- Did I mention that it spiritually dovetails with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and directly quotes / riffs on David Foster Wallace's E Unibus Pluram? It's like this thing was focus-grouped specifically so that I would love it
6 reviews1 follower
November 2, 2013
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
Profile Image for Derek.
1,217 reviews9 followers
September 16, 2016
"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 going squeaky-squeak from rolling at the current-at-publication technology discussions, the topic darts to Disney World to discuss interface and cultural influence, and I am enthralled.

And then, too soon too soon, we are back again to stay. "The operating system [Linux] and its fundamental utility programs are too important to contain serious bugs."[p. 105]

Profile Image for Lync Lync.
Author 2 books6 followers
November 9, 2016
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 the tablet, and then iPads and the like. Operating systems, as such, have barely changed from a user perspective, except that with the advent of Windows 10 the command line interface has now disappeared from both Apple's products and Gates'. This then, can be seen as the history of human computer relations until that loss, and a very entertaining knowledge packed read, at that.
Profile Image for Ashish.
601 reviews21 followers
September 14, 2012
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 -
All with the beautifully crafted metaphor - no, example - of technological paradigm shifts.

It's not about the computers, the operating systems, about technology - it's about us.

And today, as we argue hysterically about PC vs Mc vs Linux, iPhone vs Android, privacy settings and identity theft, cookies and ad networks, Siri and who knows what... it's a brilliant way to step back and look at what we're really creating such a ruckus over.
And it's damn funny.

Consider this required reading for all Mactards, Winsheep, and the entire hacker community - unfortunately only one of these 3 will read it, though.
Profile Image for Duffy Pratt.
445 reviews130 followers
June 16, 2014
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 command line interface and makes them too cumbersome to hack elegantly. He loves Linux but recognizes that it's a steep learning curve, and admits that a GUI, while just a metaphor, is a useful metaphor for most people. His pick of the litter is BeOS.

Funny then that the BeOS company went out of business and sold to Palm (for just 11 million) only two years later. Palm then caused it's Be subsidiary to sue Microsoft for having tortuously interfered with its business relationships, and Microsoft ultimately settled the suit for 23 million, without admitting liability. So it looks like Stephenson might have been right about BeOS, but that MS, in the endless spirit of "innovation" that it's supporters always talk about, killed the company because they couldn't beat it on technology.

He does a great job explaining the implications of having a business selling operating systems. One implication is that the business itself is doomed because operating systems are both free and commonly known, at least to hackers. This caused the symptom of feature creep, in the hope of creating an illusion of value in something that should be free. He thus predicted the downfall of the OS business as king, without claiming to know what development would knock MS from the throne. Turns out it was Google, on the one hand, and the advent of smart phones on the other.

There's also a delightful explanation of the Microsoft help system, and the irony of making customers pay, $95 per incident, to help debug Microsoft's own product. This business model was designed to hide how buggy the product was, and to delude people into thinking that the information they got from MS was valuable. In the hacker world of Linux, help was available readily and for free, but assumed a certain amount of technical competence. The further point, that Stephenson did not make, is that most of the businesses that flocked to Microsoft we're already hiring computer experts to handle their systems, and those people could have managed Linux better. So why did MS prevail so long?

Stephenson calls it "mindshare". The only monopoly that MS seemed to have was in the collective minds of people who didn't know any better. That sort of monopoly is the most fragile of all. It's the same thing that turns a pop singer into a cultural phenom one week, and makes her a has been in less than a year.

Finally, not content to simply talk about actual Operating systems, the essay closes with a neat comparison of computing outputs to the multiverse. Imagine there's some sort of computer that creates universes. A programmer puts in the various physical constants on something like a command line: grav-9.88; port size-1.02;etc... As he puts it, this makes for a lot of dud universes in your basement, but a handful of structured ones, and a few that have life or even intelligence. So, from OS wars to philosophy, and all with a sense of humor. That's Stephenson for you.
Profile Image for Tracey.
2,031 reviews47 followers
December 18, 2007
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 business practices of the main providers of operating systems: Microsoft & Apple, as well as the Linux community and the BeOS group, coming to the conclusion that OS's shouldn't really be a product at all.

Sidebars abound: I found the comparison between GUI's & Disney World fascinating, if a bit depressing. This work is chock-full analogies - most are well-thought out and creative. Although it was written by & for techies, I think anyone with an interest in the history & psychology of computing will find In the Beginning... an interesting read.

Notes and Quotes
"It is commonly the case with technologies that you can get the best insight about how they work by watching them fail." shades of Donald Norman!

"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 all on lawn ornaments."

Stephenson compares Apple Co. to a commune - noting that many communes, behind the ideals of peace, love & harmony, were actually run by control freaks.

He also comments on how many Disney properties came out of books (Pooh, Alice, Peter Pan) & that the originals not only aren't on sale in the parks, but if/when you do come across them, the original books seem weird & like bad knockoffs of the Disney version. I'll agree with the "weirder" - esp in the case of Alice & Peter Pan... but knockoffs?

"Disney and Apple/Microsoft are in the same business: short-circuiting laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed interfaces [...:] Disney does mediated experiences better than anyone. If they understood what OSes are and why people use them., they could crush Microsoft in a year or two."

"To traditional cultures, especially word-based ones, such as Islam, this [Disney specifically & multiculturalism in general:] is infinitely more threatening than the B-52's ever were. [...:] The ability to make judgements, to believe things, is the entire point of having a culture."
Profile Image for Bill Coffin.
1,280 reviews7 followers
September 22, 2013
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 Beginning...Was the Command Line" is a wandering manifesto from a guy who disdains Windows, had his heart broken by Mac (after a disastrous hard drive crash) and fell in love with Unix so hard that you kind of wonder why he doesn't just marry it.

The worst part is that throughout this book< Stepehenson shows himself not as a knowledgeable tech guy with the inside track on a great alternative to the two big OSs on the market. Rather, he comes off as a guy who is merely pining for the good old days when computers were arcane, required guys who were both wizards and mechanics to make them run properly, and who enjoyed a goodly deal of power from all that. And if not power, at least the smug self-satisfaction in knowing that the whole world ran on machines that needed nerds like him to keep in proper order.

And you get that maybe Stephenson senses what is coming, and this is his last, spasmic love letter to a tradition wherein the only real way to use your computer, the only way that is respectable, the only way that doesn't just reduce you to some kind of simpering prole, is to know how to write code from the ground up. And since Windows and Mac doesn't really allow you to do that as openly as a guy like Stephenson might want, Unix in general, and Linux in particular, has become the One True Way.

Too bad the rest of you confused children just don't see it yet, his book seems to say, and it both pats us on the head for not getting the message while simultaneously spitting in our Starbucks for being too stupid to care. After a while, you get the feeling that if you're going to endure this level of sly condescension, you might as well hang out at a comic shop or something.

What Stephenson seems to miss is that for a lot of people, computers have simply become another retail product that we use on the terms dictated by the manufacturer. And why? Because we mostly need computers to do six to eight things for us. We don't really care how it all works under the hood. We just need out office/internet/YouTube/game/music machines to work in a way that makes us feel comfortable. And all the eye-rolling comparisons to the vapid, fake authenticity to DisneyWorld won't do a damned thing to change that.
Profile Image for Courtney.
223 reviews13 followers
May 25, 2009
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 believes that written commands are inherently superior to visual control of the computer - and fails to realize that unless you're using 1s and 0s to tell the computer what to do, you're pretty much communicating in metaphors anyways.

Instead of these frustrating and flawed graphical user interfaces, the author argues, we should all get turned on to Linux, the free and powerful operating system designed by masses of volunteers. Great idea, except that - as Stephenson himself acknowledges - Linux is HARD to figure out, especially for the novice. The average novice wants to check e-mail, write in a word processor, surf the Web, and delegate the intense stuff to someone else.

Even Stephenson admits that Linux is a bit of a bear to use if you're, say, a writer and not a coder. So after gradually building the case for this operating system, he changes allegiances to BeOS. Ironically, Be had already largely been abandoned by its developers by the time this book came out. It was completely dropped in 2001.

When I call this book anachronistic or dated, it's because of Stephenson's advocacy for computer systems that were already waning as he wrote, and because of his naive - though still, in some circles, widely held - belief that Linux has any chance of taking hold in the real world.

Yet many of his complaints about the failings of Windows and Macs are the same complaints that I have with the operating systems today. And they're underpinned by a clever assessment of the business models that drive Microsoft and Apple down similar yet different paths. You could take much of the content of the first third of this book today, and transpose it into the competing "I'm a Mac"/"I'm a PC" commercials. Ten years later, the same arguments fly back and forth and still neither dominant competitor really has a computer system that meets all of our needs.
Profile Image for James.
585 reviews113 followers
October 27, 2015
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 removal of the GUI and a complete return to the command line. He believes that the GUI is a useful metaphor for some people and some applications. However, for a power user, the GUI is a broken and mixed metaphor that hasn't lived up to it's promise.

The two major problems though, are firstly, complaining about a metaphor using another metaphor to do so, while ignoring the fact that the command line interface is also a metaphor (just an older one that is potentially less mixed and broken, but no less a metaphor) is just too many metaphors too many. And secondly, that the essay has no real audience. Either readers are 'trapped' in their GUI mediated experience but are unlikely to read this, understand it, or care. Or readers are already convinced that the command line can be a more elegant solution to many problems but still aren't quite sure what the point of the essay actually is.

That said, and I fall quite definitely in the second camp of readers, I did enjoy reading it. It's dated and flawed, but for a certain group of readers worth reading. Just don't really expect to learn anything. I think if this appeals to you it'll be because you've pretty much thought it all through yourself already though...
Author 1 book3 followers
September 10, 2021
An insightful look into os culture and history (lol since i wasnt born when this came out). Would love to see an update

Edit: after reading other reviews im kinda annoyed so im gonna add this: THIS IS NOT AN """"CURRENT"""" INSIGHT ON OS CULTURE!!!! This essay was written in 1999! Before Y2K! If you're looking for something current this is not it! Stop complaining about that omg obviously this isn't current. A book on tech that came out last week probably isn't current! By 'would love to see an update' i didn't mean what yall do apparantly, but rather I would love to see Stephenson's reflection on how things have changed considering his original thesis (and the fact this his prefered OS no longer exists and hasn't for a while) considering how much of this is still relevant.
This book is at most a glimpse into past OS culture and a good historical record. Don't go in expecting pre-cog level predictions of how computer culture will develop. It doesn't have that.

Edit, edit: ok i ate something and now i feel better. Tantrum over.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
801 reviews2,502 followers
March 16, 2012
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 curve, before one can become a true "power user".

Profile Image for Vicki.
470 reviews189 followers
March 25, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Natasha.
105 reviews1 follower
July 26, 2021
This was very much the kind of book my dad (a software engineer who nerds out over old technologies) would like. I clearly found it tough to get through, evidenced by the fact that I started reading it back in March.

It is a convoluted and meandering and earnest love letter to Linux. Stephenson goes a bit overboard in comparing operating systems to the hand of God, and he goes on a lot of tangents that I found hard to follow BUT I do have a newfound appreciation for Emacs, so I guess that's something. My COMP11 teacher would be proud.
Profile Image for Nichelle Crocker.
34 reviews3 followers
June 3, 2014
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, angular basement of command line programming where it's real, and no-one puts sugar in their coffee, but you wouldn't (and probably couldn't) understand it. Because you're an Eloi.

Yeah, I read about 30 reviews of this book. Can you tell?

I disagree, although I did think several times, "but all I want from my computer is to use it as a sort of enhanced entertainment system." Considering how most people use their computers, it may not be worth it to tackle a more demanding interface.

Either way, it's worth thinking about the things that filter our experiences, even if some of the specific examples in this book are outdated. I hadn't ever considered my home operating system at all, or that I may be giving up control or flexibility in order to have things laid out in such a tidy way.

To quote Stephenson. "What we're really buying is a system of metaphors. And --much more important-- what we're buying into is the underlying assumption that metaphors are a good way to deal with the world."

In 1997 or so, I worked for Amazon.com answering customer emails in the call center. We had to learn UNIX commands because Amazon had not yet developed their GUI. It was incredibly flexible and efficient. When they finally rolled out the GUI, none of us wanted to use it.

Of course now everything is touch screen, and I sometimes feel like a toddler pointing to what I want. "Ungh!" I say in my caveman grunt, stabbing at the screen with my finger. Poke, poke, poke. I wonder what he thinks of that.

Anyway, if you're trying to decide whether or not to read it, I say go for it if you're a hardcore Stephenson fan or computer geek. The tasty bits are worth sifting to find.
Profile Image for Xan.
Author 3 books83 followers
October 10, 2013
Siempre he querido ser un hacker, un nerd de la informática, uno de esos seres privilegiados que son capaces de entender que se oculta tras las lineas de código de un programa. Lamentablemente mi razonamiento lógico es incompatible con la lógica matemática y con la programación. Soy un espectador que juega con los botones del ordenador tratando de sintonizar un canal que emita lo que busco en ese momento.
Con el primer ordenador que tuve en mis manos, un Spectrum, descubrí que programar era lento, aburrido y que te obligaba a estudiar un montón de libros esotéricos que no estaban a mi alcance (literalmente: ni sabía donde conseguirlos ni tenía dinero para comprarlos). Con el segundo disfruté aprendiendo a usar los comandos de MS-DOS, que al menos me permiten imaginar la importancia de la línea de comandos. Con los que siguieron descubrí la comodidad de Windows a cambio de sus cuelgues y reinicios, hasta que tras un fallo desastroso hace unos meses me pasé a Linux.
¿Qué tiene que ver con el libro? Mucho, porque "En el principio fue...la línea de comandos" es la historia de la informática de usuario desde los setenta hasta el año 2000 contada por un programador. Es un libro sencillo, la jerga informática es mínima y solo funciona como ejemplo. Los argumentos que expone son claros y asequibles a cualquiera que sepa encender y apagar un ordenador.
Profile Image for Snail in Danger (Sid) Nicolaides.
2,081 reviews76 followers
May 11, 2011
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 finding a copy on the web suggests to me that either I am wrong or that Stephenson or one of his business associates decided that they'd rather sell e-versions than give them away for free.

I was an undergraduate teaching assistant for a communication course called "Living in the Information Age" when this was first released. I shared it with the other people on the teaching team, and they all loved it. Today I think you may have to be either an extreme geek/nerd to appreciate this, or a technology historian. Operating system and open/closed source wars still matter, but 10 years is a huge amount of time in computer years.

That said, if you care how we got from modems that were phones with rubber cups on top to where we are today, you should read this.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,133 reviews62 followers
January 1, 2015
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 subject.

I normally wouldn’t review a book I hadn’t finished, but as I’m currently 6 books behind schedule on my Goodreads challenge target, I’m claiming it.

**Also posted at Randomly Reading and Ranting**
Profile Image for Daniel Noguchi.
2 reviews8 followers
August 11, 2015
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 time, more specifically, Operating Systems. It is a funny - sometimes a bit silly, and enlightening read. It was a great insight on the point of view of a great writer. If you don't put yourself on the mindset of someone from that time, you might don't like the read, since some of the topics are obsolete technologies of the time.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,810 reviews31 followers
July 7, 2011
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 became such an excellent science fiction writer. And of course, his pithy little quips are worthy of any Linux programmer.

This book is well worth a read for anyone, because I'm assuming if you're here on a web page, you've experienced an operating system at some point.
Profile Image for Laura Jean.
1,009 reviews14 followers
January 5, 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.
Profile Image for Kendra.
Author 12 books90 followers
January 28, 2016
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.
Profile Image for Nacho.
13 reviews2 followers
January 19, 2016
Aunque un poco anticuado (se escribió en 1999), es un libro con gran cantidad de puntos de vista interesantes acerca del mundo de la informática y los sistemas operativos que te arranca más de una carcajada. Recomendable!
Profile Image for Shane.
27 reviews11 followers
July 19, 2010
Read this a goodly time back. Great stuff...
Profile Image for John.
Author 11 books46 followers
May 23, 2009
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 command line.

He starts out the book from some anecdotes from the early 1970s, when he had his first computer class in high school. His school didn't have a computer, but they did have a teletype (the physical kind that used paper) with a modem link to some university's system. But time on that system was so expensive that they couldn't just dial in and run things interactively. The teletype had a paper tape device. You'd type your commands in advance, and it would punch them out on the tape. Then when you dial in, it would replay the tape at "high speed".

Neal liked this because the stuff punched out of the tape were, actually, "bits" in both the literal and the mathematical sense. This, of course, led to a scene at the end of the schoolyear where a classmate dumped the bin of bits on the teacher, and Neal witnessed megabytes falling to the floor.

Although the book was written in 1999, and needs an update in some ways, it still speaks with a strong voice today -- and is now also an interesting look at what computing was like 10 years ago.

He had an analogy of car dealerships to operating systems. Microsoft had the big shiny dealership selling station wagons. Their image was all wrapped up in people feeling good about their purchase -- like they got something for their money. And he said that the Linux folks were selling tanks, illustrated with this exchange:

Hacker with bullhorn: "Save your money! Accept one of our free tanks! It is invulnerable, and can drive across rocks and swamps at ninety miles an hour while getting a hundred miles to the gallon!"

Prospective station wagon buyer: "I know what you say is true...but...er...I don't know how to maintain a tank!"

Bullhorn: "You don't know how to maintain a station wagon either!"

Buyer: "But this dealership has mechanics on staff. If something goes wrong with my station wagon, I can take a day off work, bring it here, and pay them to work on it while I sit in the waiting room for hours, listening to elevator music."

Bullhorn: "But if you accept one of our free tanks we will send volunteers to your house to fix it for free while you sleep!"

Buyer: "Stay away from my house, you freak!"

Bullhorn: "But..."

Buyer: "Can't you see that everyone is buying station wagons?"

That doesn't mean that Stephenson is just a Linux apologetic. He points out that the CLI has its place, and has a true love-hate relationship with the text-based config files (remember XF86Config before the days of automatic modelines? Back when you had to get out a calculator and work some things out with pencil and paper, or else risk burning out your monitor?) He points out that some people want to just have the thing work reasonably well. They don't want control -- in fact, would gladly give it up if offered something reasonably pretty and reasonably functional.

He speaks to running Linux at times:

Sometimes when you finish working with a program and shut it down, you find that it has left behind a series of mild warnings and low-grade error messages in the command-line interface window from which you launched it. As if the software were chatting to you about how it was doing the whole time you were working with it.

Even if the application is imploding like a damaged submarine, it can still usually eke out a little S.O.S. message.

Or about booting Linux the first time, and noticing all sorts of cryptic messages on the console:

This is slightly alarming the first time you see it, but completely harmless.

I use emacs, which might be thought of as a thermonuclear word processor. . .

Microsoft Word, were devoted to features like mail merge, and the ability to embed feature-length motion pictures in corporate memoranda, were, in the case of emacs, focused with maniacal intensity on the deceptively simple-seeming problem of editing text. If you are a professional writer--i.e., if someone else is getting paid to worry about how your words are formatted and printed--emacs outshines all other editing software in approximately the same way that the noonday sun does the stars. It is not just bigger and brighter; it simply makes everything else vanish. For page layout and printing you can use TeX: a vast corpus of typesetting lore written in C and also available on the Net for free.

I love these vivid descriptions: programs secretly chatting with us, TeX being a "corpus of typesetting lore" rather than a program. Or how about this one: "Unix. . . is not so much a product as it is a painstakingly compiled oral history of the hacker subculture. It is our Gilgamesh epic." Yes, my operating system is an oral history project, thankyouverymuch.

The book feels like a weird (but well-executed and well-written) cross between Douglas Adams and Cory Doctorow. Which makes is so indescribably awesome that I can't help but ending this review with a few more quotes.

Because Linux is not commercial--because it is, in fact, free, as well as rather difficult to obtain, install, and operate--it does not have to maintain any pretensions as to its reliability. Consequently, it is much more reliable.

what really sold me on it [Debian:] was its phenomenal bug database (http://www.debian.org/Bugs), which is a sort of interactive Doomsday Book of error, fallibility, and redemption.

It is simplicity itself. When had a problem with Debian in early January of 1997, I sent in a message describing the problem to submit@bugs.debian.org. My problem was promptly assigned a bug report number (#6518) and a severity level (the available choices being critical, grave, important, normal, fixed, and wishlist) and forwarded to mailing lists where Debian people hang out.

That should be our new slogan for bugs.debian.org: "Debian's interactive Doomsday Book of error, fallibility, and redemption."

Unix is hard to learn. The process of learning it is one of multiple small epiphanies. Typically you are just on the verge of inventing some necessary tool or utility when you realize that someone else has already invented it, and built it in, and this explains some odd file or directory or command that you have noticed but never really understood before.

I've been THERE countless times.

Note the obsessive use of abbreviations and avoidance of capital letters; this is a system invented by people to whom repetitive stress disorder is what black lung is to miners. Long names get worn down to three-letter nubbins, like stones smoothed by a river.

It is obvious, to everyone outside of the United States, that our arch-buzzwords, multiculturalism and diversity, are false fronts that are being used (in many cases unwittingly) to conceal a global trend to eradicate cultural differences. The basic tenet of multiculturalism (or "honoring diversity" or whatever you want to call it) is that people need to stop judging each other-to stop asserting (and, eventually, to stop believing ) that this is right and that is wrong, this true and that false, one thing ugly and another thing beautiful, that God exists and has this or that set of qualities.

The stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments carved in immutable stone--the original command-line interface

Apparently this actually works to some degree, for police in many lands are now complaining that local arrestees are insisting on having their Miranda rights read to them, just like perps in American TV cop shows. When it's explained to them that they are in a different country, where those rights do not exist, they become outraged. Starsky and Hutch reruns, dubbed into diverse languages, may turn out, in the long run, to be a greater force for human rights than the Declaration of Independence.

Unix has always lurked provocatively in the background of the operating system wars, like the Russian Army.

Available for free online, or as a 160-page book from Amazon.
37 reviews
April 19, 2021

Yes, it is short. It was off-putting when a book I purchased sight unseen arrived and it was just 150 pages of LARGE print font. Cryptonomicon, same Author, same order, same price, is close to 1000 pages of small font. I can't help but feel that 'In the beginning' was overpriced based solely on word count.

I thoroughly enjoyed all of the hilarious analogies he uses to describe Linux vs Windows or Mac, and ALL of their various shortcomings.

One slightly edited down excerpt:

"Imagine a crossroad where competing auto dealerships are situated. One of them (Microsoft) is much bigger and started out selling three-speed bicycles (MS-DOS); these were not perfect but when they broke down you could easily fix them.
There was a competing bicycle dealership next door (Apple) that one day began selling motorized vehicles - expensive but attractively styled cars with their innards hermetically sealed"...
"The big dealership responded by rushing a moped upgrade kit (the original Windows) onto the market. This was a Rube Goldberg contraption that, when bolted onto a three-speed bicycle, enabled it to keep up, just barely, with Apple-cars" [but the] "user had to wear goggles and were always picking bugs out of their teeth..."
"Eventually the big dealership came out with a full-fledged car: a colossal station wagon (Windows 95)"
"...Linux, which is right next door, and 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 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."

"HACKER WITH BULLHORN: 'Save your money! Accept one of our free tanks! It is invulnerable, and can drive across rocks and swamps at ninety miles an hour while getting a hundred miles to the gallon!'

PROSPECTIVE STATION WAGON BUYER: 'I know what you say is true . . . but . . . er . . . I don't know how to maintain a tank!'

BULLHORN: 'You don't know how to maintain a station wagon either!'"

- Done paraphrasing that chapter.

Down the road there are less whimsical and more enlightening technical examples:

"...when several machines joined the network, mysterious crashes began to occur; sometimes the whole network would just freeze. It was one of those bugs that could not be reproduced easily. Finally they figured out that these network crashes were triggered whenever a user, scanning the menus for a particular item, held down the mouse button for more than a couple of seconds.
Fundamentally, the MacOS could only do one thing at a time. Drawing a menu on the screen is one thing. So when a menu was pulled down, the Macintosh was not capable of doing anything else until that indecisive user released the button."
"...being on a network implies some kind of continual low level interaction with other machines. By failing to respond to the network, the Mac caused a network-wide crash.
In order to work with other computers, and with networks, and with various different types of hardware, an OS must be incomparably more complicated and powerful that either MS-DOS or the original MacOS."..."Not to put too fine a point on it, a Unix machine. Neither MacOS nor MS-DOS was originally built with that in mind, so when the Internet got hot, radical changes had to be made."

In summary, I came away with a handful of fascinating nuggets of tech history and a truckload of funny anecdotes to describe the pros and cons of each OS.

3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Ed Terrell.
375 reviews20 followers
December 24, 2021
This is a very enjoyable read. I am a great fan of Stephenson's complex science-fantasy-fiction. 'Command Line' is however, a non-fiction look at the history of the 'command line' of computer systems before it was co-opted by graphical user interfaces (GUIs) of Windows and Macs. While this may seem like a heavy tome, it is not. It is surprisingly a light read with more of a philosophical bent than anything else. You don't need to know much about computers in order to follow this historical journey from past to present and beyond. I like to think of GUIs as being nothing short of scientific magic. But, the 'command line' puts you on equal footing with the demiurge, as you move about intimately in a realm where you get to create the rules and rewards.
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