In The Beginning Was The Command Line

An essay by NealStephenson. It discusses many things: Operating systems and the metaphors thereof; popular culture's preference for mediated experience over actual experience; life, the universe, and everything. There's a section in there about drills, too.

Some people may be offended by his attitudes toward MicrosoftCorporation.

Other people may be offended by MicrosoftCorporation itself...

You can read it at (links to downloadable archive) (Now available in book form: ISBN 0380815931 )

In it he says "...Lisp, which is the only computer language that is beautiful"

I think it's a rant, and not worth reading. But that's just my personal opinion; you're free to differ. -- JeffGrigg

It is a rant. It is a rant against the OSes of both Microsoft and Apple, both culpable of being

  1. commercial (i.e. at a cost)
  2. limiting, although easy to use

Linux, on the contrary, is

  1. free
  2. empowering, although difficult to use

I am not criticizing this attitude per se. Unfortunately, while saying this NealStephenson also vehemently and irritatingly defends difficulty of use for the sake of it. The command line (he supports) is not the necessary evil we have to suffer in order to use a powerful and free operating system (i.e., Linux) but it is the best interface of the world, because it is powerful and dangerous. The command line requires users to be concentrated at all times, to perform at their best, and, basically, it separates real men from the crowd of winers that go on using WimpInterfaces all day long.

But, then, this wiki is not devoid of enthusiasts of command line interfaces: see WimpIsBroken. -- FabioVitali

It is a great article! It is not about the history of computers; the part at the beginning about history is really just setting the stage for the rest of the paper, and its historical inaccuracies are irrelevant. It is really about the trade-off between control and ignoring details.

I loved his analogy between operating systems and cars. --RalphJohnson

Maybe you are right but I remember when I was reading the book feeling that the analogy seemed incorrect. I definitely remember feeling that some of the historical data was inaccurate and slanted towards the Apple -- though he was very nice to BeOs! I dunno, maybe I should read just the article, maybe the book goes on too long. -- RobertDiFalco

The book and the article are the same. You're right, there are a few historical inaccuracies, it's written from the point of view of a longtime Mac guy, and the analogies (like any analogies) break down when taken too far. But for the points he's trying to make, I think those problems are all irrelevant. --GlennVanderburg
People who think Stephenson sides with Apple/Mac didn't read very closely (or perhaps didn't read it all); he clearly expresses his unhappiness with Macs, primarily based on his PowerBook crashing and completely wiping his work in progress. I don't think he is totally enamored of any single OS; he discusses pros and cons of each.

Of course it is very subjective. I still enjoyed it quite much even though I don't agree with everything Stephenson said. In my opinion it is too harsh to call it a waste of paper, but then again I find this term too insulting for most things. --MarkoSchulz

Not a waste of paper if you read it online. And maybe it's OK to have a GUI if you do it right...:) --BillSeitz

Well Bill, that excludes both Windows and the Mac!

Personal opinion, of course, but one did not take it as a rant, just a viewpoint to which many long-time Windows users might take offense.

Of course, one might argue that they are taking their OS Wars too seriously.

(By the way, don't assume that this one is a Anything-but-Microsoft zealot; this one has used Windows off-and-on since the windows didn't overlap.)

Hmmm.. Why do you think of long-time Windows users?! It seemed historically inaccurate from other points of view as well -- even from a Xerox-PARC perspective. Actually, it seems Apple-centric to the exclusion of everything else, not just Windows. Actually, no one even mentioned OS Wars before you! ;)

See FirstCommandLineInterface

Most of the history, analogies, and specific pros and cons of each operating system are beside Stephenson's primary point: we are starting to rely too much on graphical metaphors and mediated experiences, and losing sight of the fact that sometimes the underlying things/tasks/data that we use technology for are complicated, or messy, or ambiguous, or otherwise not best glossed over with a cute, animated icon. Regardless of your preferences and opinions about various OSs and other computing tools and methodologies, I don't think any of us in the software world can afford to forget that we are building and using simplified models and views of a very ugly, unforgiving real world.

Please note that I am describing my interpretation of what InTheBeginningWasTheCommandLine is about. (It would be very cool to see NealStephenson himself pop on here and clarify/amplify.) Also, please note that I am not suggesting that we stop using GUIs; just that we never forget that there are many levels of detail underneath (and TheDevilIsInTheDetails). -- AndyMoore

I suspect many of the people commenting here didn't actually read the essay, or were offended because one of Stephenson's well-presented analogies didn't treat their OS of choice in the best possible light. The essay actually addresses in a very amusing format the various benefits between a CommandLineInterface and a GraphicalUserInterface. In the end, NealStephenson decides that he is going to stay with BeOs. At the time this was written, BeOs was a very good choice for a user with his requirements (and for users with many other kinds of requirements).

Most of Stephenson's arguments for BeOs are directly applicable to MacOsx, and I suspect that if he were to rewrite the essay today, he would make similar arguments, simply substituting in modern equivalents. -- DaveFayram

As a matter of fact on his website says he uses MacOsx himself, and that he regets several of the things he wrote, though I think his overall point is still relevant, if not some of the technical details.

Could you give us a reference on this, please? I'd like to read it.

Does anyone detect in the article, that he is referring to the success of Linux is due mainly to free cost, not free speech.

If he is, he'd be correct

CategoryBook, CategoryUserInterface, CategoryCommandLine

View edit of August 31, 2012 or FindPage with title or text search