Eryk Banatt's Reviews > In the Beginning...Was the Command Line

In the Beginning...Was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson
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A 1999 essay on the history of operating systems.

I thought this work was very readable, and a great example of Stephenson's particular style of writing; it's no mystery to me, after reading this, that he is so popular among academics.

I was able to appreciate this work for what it was - a 1999 perspective on the OS wars between Microsoft, Apple, and the conglomerate of hackers that comprised Linux. Quite a lot of this book is now rather dated (as it was a contemporary take 19 years ago), and modern readers might find themselves frequently grappling with pop culture references they don't appreciate, or subject matter that stops before Ubuntu even existed. To penalize this essay for this would be silly, but it does deserve at least some mention.

Most of this book runs with certain analogies comparing the operating system world to other things, the most prominent of which is his "Car dealership" analogy. To Stephenson, Microsoft is a huge station wagon dealership, Apple sells sexy-yet-immutable euro-sedans, BeOS sells batmobiles, and Linux is just a huge row of Tanks that are being given away for free. Stephenson rants about these things for about a hundred pages, pulling anecdotes from all over the place to make his points. He speaks a great deal on culture, and while a lot of it no longer reflects the current political climate ("we've evolved a popular culture that [renders people] unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands") I found his bits on Disney to be of particular interest.

I think a lot of this book ended up sounding strangely elitist, despite deliberately going out of their way to assure the reader that they are not, in fact, being elitist. Of particular note is his analogy to the absurdly powerful "Hole Hawg" drills, which are more powerful than any drill any normal person has in their shed. He compares this to being a Linux user, saying "Now I view [normal drills] all with such contempt that I do not even consider them to be real drills - merely scaled-up toys... [they] seem disgustingly flimsy and cheap to me, and I am ashamed that I was ever bamboozled into buying such knicknacks" which is so ridiculous that it sounds like a bit (no pun intended). Not every drill needs to be as powerful as the gargantuan Hole Hawg, and indeed using a Hole Hawg to drill a hole in your new IKEA bedframe is laughably overkill, much in the same way providing a CLI to a typical musician would benefit them exactly 0 utils.

But if you look past the weird tech-enthusiast elitism, Stephenson's knack for analogy shines brightly on almost every page. One of my favorite examples is the comparison between Microsoft and communism, where the Bourgeois was hated by the Proletariat for having all the money, and from the intelligentsia, for spending it on lawn ornaments. Likewise, according to Stephenson, Microsoft's two big critical groups were people who found Microsoft to be either Tacky or too powerful. The essay is chock-full of these seemingly ridiculous comparisons that all make just enough sense, and it's worth reading for this alone.

The wonder, I think, is that this essay exists at all, and that Stephenson manages to capture something seemingly mundane and write about it so engagingly that it's worth reading 19 years later. I think this work is emblematic of a lot of what I believe good writing is all about - the ability to make things interesting. I remain unsure if I would ever recommend this essay to someone else, but it's certainly one that will stick with me if only for what I view to be strong command over the otherwise uninteresting.

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Reading Progress

April 5, 2017 – Shelved
April 5, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
February 17, 2018 – Started Reading
February 18, 2018 – Finished Reading

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