In The Beginning… Was The Command Line, Neal Stephenson

Avon, 1999, 151 pages, C$14.95 tpb, ISBN 0-380-81593-1

Now here’s another odd book. Originally conceived as a Wired article, then re-purposed for promotional purposes in time for Cyptonomicon‘s release and put up free on the web, In the Beginning… Was the Command Line is an opinion piece on Operating Systems that somehow found its way in book form, in libraries, available to all. It’s a technical piece and yet not a technical piece, a fantastic read by someone lucky enough to know an esoteric subject in depth, yet still be able to write about it for everyone else.

In a room full of geeks, Neal Stephenson needs no introduction. Lucking out on the fading edge of the cyberpunk craze, his breezy Snow Crash wowed plenty of Science Fiction fans and (later) earned enough good will to net Stephenson a Hugo Award for The Diamond Age. Later books have not been so explicitly Science-Fictional (Heck, his latest trilogy is a work of historical fiction set at the dawn of our modern world) but no matter… for in the meantime, Stephenson had become enough of a nerd demigod that his audience is now willing to follow him wherever he goes.

In the Beginning… Was The Command Line is a chatty essay about the very strange business of operating systems. Those pieces of software mediating the transactions between users and machines, applications and files. That business didn’t exist fifty years ago; now it’s worth multi-billion dollars, most of which are flowing straight into Microsoft’s business account.

In this essay, Stephenson describes his own experiences with OSs, as a student, as a coder and as a writer. He grabs on to just about any socio-technical tangent he can find and tries to find the place of Operating Systems in today’s world. Are they (bad) metaphors? Are they essential? Which audiences do they target?

It doesn’t amount to much in terms of a structured argument. Perhaps it’s best described as a lengthy rant fuelled by considerable intellect. Stephenson fans already know that the man can’t write a decent ending, and it’s a bit of a comfort to find out that he can’t manage to do so here either. But through the whole book, there are fascinating nuggets of hard ideas. The broad distinction of users between Morlocks and Elois isn’t a bad metaphor, reaching deep into something technical help-desk workers have known for a looong time. The parallels between operating systems and Disneyworld touch upon the vast layers of abstraction that have been layered, for centuries, over our society.

Naturally, this book is written for a certain tech-aware crowd, and it often plays shamelessly to the crowd’s favour. There is an amusing segment describing Linux that will resonate with most hackers. (“It’s a tank! And we’re giving it away!”) Stephenson is both conversant in technological trends and gifted enough to write about them; this make In the Beginning. Was the Command Line an interesting artifact, halfway between the literary and the computer field. It’s interesting to note that even though it’s now pushing five years (a lifetime in technological contexts), the book hasn’t aged much: References to the obsolete BeOS system now have be seen in a historical context (a recent interview with Stephenson confirms that he has since become an unabashed fan of Apple’s OSX) but overall, the market dynamics and socio-technical reflexions haven’t changed a bit despite Linux’s growing acceptance and the introduction of Windows XP.

Fascinating from start to finish, In The Beginning… Was the Command Line should provide geeks and technologically-friendly readers with a good read, plenty of minor revelations and maybe even a new look at the tools they’re using on a nearly-daily basis. Best of all, you don’t even have to buy it in a bookstore: it’s all available on-line.

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