Working on a recent column, I remembered Neal Stephenson's short book In the Beginning was the Command Line and wanted to reference it, but I couldn't find my copy. Lucky for me (and all of you), there is a downloadable ZIP file of it.
There is so, so much in this long essay (published in 1999) — it's a must-read. There's very little writing out there that maintains technical authority while addressing larger cultural / intellectual / social / philosophical issues, but Stephenson's essay does all that and more. Here's a small excerpt that hints at what you can find in the larger work:
Though Linux works for me and many other users, its sheer power and generality is its Achilles' heel. If you know what you are doing, you can buy a cheap PC from any computer store, throw away the Windows discs that come with it, turn it into a Linux system of mind-boggling complexity and power. You can hook it up to twelve other Linux boxes and make it into part of a parallel computer. You can configure it so that a hundred different people can be logged onto it at once over the Internet, via as many modem lines, Ethernet cards, TCP/IP sockets, and packet radio links. You can hang half a dozen different monitors off of it and play DOOM with someone in Australia while tracking communications satellites in orbit and controlling your house's lights and thermostats and streaming live video from your web-cam and surfing the Net and designing circuit boards on the other screens. But the sheer power and complexity of the system–the qualities that make it so vastly technically superior to other OSes–sometimes make it seem too formidable for routine day-to-day use.
Sometimes, in other words, I just want to go to Disneyland.
The ideal OS for me would be one that had a well-designed GUI that was easy to set up and use, but that included terminal windows where I could revert to the command line interface, and run GNU software, when it made sense. A few years ago, Be Inc. invented exactly that OS. It is called the BeOS.
(Now that's a flashback — remember BeOS? Even now, they're not totally out of the news. When I read that last paragraph sitting here in present-day 2003, I was thinking Mac OS X. )
If you like Stephenson's essay, you should read the following as well:
- Salon's Andrew Leonard (full disclosure: also a close personal friend) has written many definitive pieces on open source culture, including the Free Software Project and dozens of other pieces absolutely worth reading.
- Ellen Ullman (also in Salon): here and here.
- Thomas Scoville's Unix as Literature essay.
If anyone out there knows of any more writing in this tradition, let me know. [Chad Dickerson]