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the Complete Review
the complete review - computers

In the Beginning ...
was the Command Line

Neal Stephenson

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To purchase In the Beginning ... was the Command Line

Title: In the Beginning ... was the Command Line
Author: Neal Stephenson
Genre: Computers
Written: 1999
Length: 151 pages
Availability: In the Beginning ... was the Command Line - US
In the Beginning ... was the Command Line - UK
In the Beginning ... was the Command Line - Canada
In the Beginning ... was the Command Line - India
Die Diktatur des schönen Scheins - Deutschland
En el principio ... fue la linea decomandos - España
  • In the Beginning ... was the Command Line is available online in its entirety (at this and many other sites)

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Our Assessment:

A- : clever, thought-provoking (if somewhat odd) text

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Fantasy & Science Fiction . 6/2000 Charles De Lint
The Washington Post . 8/3/2000 Walter Effross

  From the Reviews:
  • "Does the book sound dry, or only for computer geeks? Hardly. While it's certainly informative, and even eye-opening in places, In the Beginning... also had me laughing out loud at some of its analogies." - Charles De Lint, Fantasy & Science Fiction

  • "In the Beginning . . . Was the Command Line requires little familiarity with its nominal subject, which it uses as a springboard to larger cultural issues. (...) (A)s sleek, specialized and stripped-down a product as some of the software he admires." - Walter Effross, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In the Beginning ... was the Command Line is an unusual text. Neal Stephenson admits that it is "a subjective essay, more review than research paper". And its subject is one whose appeal might not seem immediately apparent to most readers (leaving the computer-obsessed aside): computer operating systems.
       Stephenson offers a history of a variety of operating systems -- notably those offered by the dominant two, Apple and Microsoft, as well as alternatives Linux and BeOS. In the Beginning ... was the Command Line is a very personal take, with Stephenson discussing his own experiences (in some detail). Stephenson also ranges a bit beyond merely comparative OS-reviewing, arguing that this is not simply a small technical issue, but rather that it has much larger implications -- one of the more interesting aspects of the piece.
       To get a computer to work one used to have to go directly to the command line, and type in whatever one wanted the computer to do. The most popular commercial operating systems -- Microsoft-products (predominately the Windows-line) and those from Apple -- separated computer users from this nitty gritty. Fancy GUIs (graphical user interfaces -- those fun icons and other stuff you simply click on when you want to do a particular thing) make for a completely different relationship with your computer and the work you do on it.
       Stephenson is very concerned about GUIs. Consumers like them -- but they come at a cost, one people might not be aware of. Stephenson makes a good argument here. He is a big fan of the written word -- "a digital medium that humans can, nonetheless, easily read and write". All other media are analog -- and digital has many clear advantages over analog. As he states: "the digital nature of the written word confers upon it exceptional stability", while analog is much more messy. By doing everything with GUIs rather than simply words Stephenson finds we are also limiting ourselves. GUIs are pervasive now in many technical products, but none more obviously so than in operating systems. And Stephenson believes that when we are buying a GUI-focussed operating system:

What we're really buying is a system of metaphors. And -- much more important -- what we're buying into is the underlying assumption that metaphors are a good way to deal with the world.
       Stephenson, of course, does not think they are.
       Working at command line level -- working with words -- is completely different from working with GUIs, and Stephenson is concerned with what is lost in the transition. But it is not only a cultural argument (which he sets out nicely), but also a technical one. GUIs are now well-integrated into operating systems like Windows; indeed, they are inseparable from them. But operating systems become unwieldy and messy as new features are added with updated version, pieced on to what came before. This works for a while, but eventually gets out of hand (the incredibly complex behemoth that is Windows -- filled with every conceivable feature (which most people never have a reason to use) -- is only the most obvious example). Old programs are no longer supported -- particularly (and rightly) disconcerting to Stephenson -- and the operating systems themselves become slow, clunky, awkward to use. Eventually they are worthless, superseded by the next operating system.
       Stephenson compares the differing approaches taken by those responsible for the four operating systems he focusses on. He believes, for example, that Microsoft has its priorities all wrong, and writes amusingly (and fairly convincingly) about this. Apple, too, has gone down several wrong roads. The cases that interest him most are the open and largely free Linux, as well as the innovative BeOS -- very different approaches to how operating systems work and reach the public.
       It is an interesting discussion, with many entertaining asides (although almost four pages of Linux-printout were perhaps a bit more than was necessary). Stephenson knows what he is talking about, and he express it clearly and engagingly. There is little here to confuse the layperson -- and much that s/he should be aware of.
       An entertaining little book -- but one that should be taken seriously. Certainly recommended.

       (Note: The entire text of In the Beginning ... was the Command Line is available online, at the Cryptonomicon site and at many others.)

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In the Beginning ... was the Command Line: Reviews: Neal Stephenson: Operating Systems/Companies: Other Books by Neal Stephenson under Review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Neal Stephenson was born in 1959. After his novel about academia, The Big U, he wrote "the Eco-thriller" Zodiac and then began writing true science fiction, with which he has had great success.

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