Review: In The Beginning. . . Was The Command Line

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 (, 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 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 “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.

3 thoughts on “Review: In The Beginning. . . Was The Command Line

  1. The essay is indeed worth reading many times. The author of the essay
    has “moved on”. In an interview on slashdot he says:

    You guessed right: I embraced OS X as soon as it was available and
    have never looked back. So a lot of “In the beginning was the command
    line” is now obsolete. I keep meaning to update it, but if I’m honest
    with myself, I have to say this is unlikely.

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