In the Beginning...was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson


The author you know and love from his sci-fi novels like Cryptonomicon and Snowcrash pontificates on his love of linux and the command line. This is a short book. It’s actually like a really long essay. He goes into many different topics from GUIs, metaphors used in computing, linux, and operating systems.

It’s worth reading for the earlier chapters. He explains the Mac, Windows, and Linux ecosystem in the very early days with fun metaphors. The later sections have not aged well. He was writing this in the time when Apple was close to bankruptcy and had yet ‘invented’ the iPhone. He uses the metaphor Eloi and Morlocks a lot which is apparently a reference to something in H.G. Wells - The Time Machine. He makes some great observations on a lot of things but also seems to be ranting at times.

A snippet on people trying to choose an operating system:

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

PROSPECTIVE STATION WAGON (windows) 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! These are the kind of fun metaphors you can expect in the first few chapters. After that, it goes off the rails.

On why the command line is perfect for computers…

Humans are conversant in many media (music, dance, painting), but all of them are analog except for the written word, which is naturally expressed in the digital form (i.e. it is a series of discrete symbols - every letter in every book is a member of a certain character set, every “a” is the same as every other “a”, and so on). …digital signals are better to work with than analog ones because they are easily copied, transmitted, and error-checked. Unlike analog signals, they are not doomed to degradation over time and distance.


The OS has (therefore) become a sort of intellectual labor-saving device that tries to translate humans’ vaguely expressed intention into bits.

This is why I dislike Windows. I love and appreciate GUIs, but sometimes you want to go into the command line and automate something, or check something is set to a certain value without making 20 mouse clicks. Often, some settings in Windows are not even possible to change via the command line. The GUI has abstracted computing so much that any idiot can use a computer. This is both positive and negative. It is the same way that any dummy can drive a car even if they don’t know how to change the oil. I guess I’m just a hacker and a tinkerer because I endevaour to undrestand how the machines and tech I use work. I am fascinated by it and want to have a deep understanding of it. Others just look at computers like a hammer, it’s a useful thing to do a task and nothing more.

He discusses the metaphors underlying most modern operating systems.

Consider only one word: “document.” When we document something in the real world, we make fixed permanent, immutable records of it. But computer documents are volatile, ephemeral constellations of data.

By using GUIs all the time we have insensibly bought into a premise that few people would have accepted if it were presented to them bluntly: namely, that hard things can be made easy, and complicated things simple, by putting the right interface on them.

Rating: ★★★

Book #88 in my 2022 Reading Challenge

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