Avon Books, 1999151 pp., softcoverISBN: 0-380-81593-1Price: $8.00 at fatbrain.com .
Neal Stephenson has been called “the hacker Hemingway” and is best known as a fiction writer; his novel Cryptonomicon was a New York Times bestseller. But he turned his talents to nonfiction to write In the Beginning...Was the Command Line, a 151-page essay on our computer-centric culture. Stephenson’s book evolved from a shorter version posted on Slashdot.org.
The publisher of the book describes the work as “a thoughtful, irreverent, hilarious treatise on the cyber-culture past and present; on operating system tyrannies and downloaded popular revolutions; on the Internet, Disney World, Big Bangs, not to mention the meaning of life itself.”
For the most part, the book lives up to that description. Stephenson points out that GUIs have created a user-friendly but limiting interface to the computer in much the same way that Disney has imposed a user-friendly but limiting interface on reality. “Disney and Apple/Microsoft are in the same business: short-circuiting laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed interfaces,” Stephenson writes.
From operating systems to autos
The author also compares the producers of operating systems to competing auto dealerships. Microsoft offers “colossal station wagons.” Apple sells “sleek Euro-styled sedans.” Across the street, Be, Inc. offers “fully operational Batmobiles (the BeOS).”
The Linux dealership “is not a business at all. It’s a bunch of RVs, yurts, tepees, and geodesic domes set up in a field and organized by consensus. The people who live there are making tanks.”
Stephenson notes that these tanks have been “modified in such a way that they never, ever break down, are light and maneuverable enough to use on ordinary streets, and use no more fuel than a subcompact car. These tanks are being cranked out, on the spot, at a terrific pace, and a vast number of them are lined up along the edge of the road with keys in the ignition. Anyone who wants can simply climb into one and drive it away for free.”
The failure of intellectualism
So why do most people still buy station wagons? “Why are we rejecting explicit word-based interfaces, and embracing graphical or sensorial ones—a trend that accounts for the success of both Microsoft and Disney?”
Stephenson believes it’s partly because the digital world and the real one have become extremely complex and partly because of the worldwide failure of intellectualism. Instead of reading books, most people “seem much more comfortable with propagating...values to future generations nonverbally, through a process of being steeped in media.”
This leads to a global monoculture that produces purposeless or ineffective individuals. Stephenson says, “Anyone who grows up watching TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on network TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie to outdo each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human being.”
Some of In the Beginning...Was the Command Line will not be news to IT professionals (the explanations of the ways various operating systems evolved, for example). But Stephenson’s analogies are insightful, and his thoughts on our culture—a culture that insists on dumbing-down and putting a happy face on everything—are worthy of either weekend or weekday reading.
Thomas Pack is a freelance technology writer.