In the beginning… was the command line

27 May 2024
27 May 2024
Manhattan, New York
15 mins

Neal Stephenson’s In the Beginning… Was the Command Line is one of the most profound pieces of writing about technology I’ve read. I found myself underscoring and highlighting numerous passages in this essay that reads equally as much like political propaganda, memoir, novella, and journalistic reporting all at once. If you have a couple of hours to spare, I’d recommend this essay only behind Greg Egan’s Diaspora, my favorite piece of science fiction, as a must-read.

This post is a compilation of various snippets from that essay which I quote at length, paired with some minimal commentary. Some of these quotes require the full context of the essay to deliver their message, so I hope you read the essay regardless.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything on this page (though many of the key ideas resonate with me). Inclusion here just means I found it worthwhile to read and ponder. All emphasis is mine.

The business of selling software

On the idea of selling operating system software:

The product itself was a very long string of ones and zeroes that, when properly installed and coddled, gave you the ability to manipulate other very long strings of ones and zeroes. Even those few who actually understood what a computer operating system was were apt to think of it as a fantastically arcane engineering prodigy, like a breeder reactor or a U-2 spy plane, and not something that could ever be (in the parlance of high-tech) “productized.”

On people’s relationship to technology, and the fact that it’s mostly not about technology:

In retrospect, this was telling me two things about people’s relationship to technology. One was that romance and image go a long way towards shaping their opinions. If you doubt it (and if you have a lot of spare time on your hands) just ask anyone who owns a Macintosh and who, on those grounds, imagines him- or herself to be a member of an oppressed minority group.

The other, somewhat subtler point, was that interface is very important. Sure, the MGB was a lousy car in almost every way that counted: balky, unreliable, underpowered. But it was fun to drive. It was responsive. Every pebble on the road was felt in the bones, every nuance in the pavement transmitted instantly to the driver’s hands. He could listen to the engine and tell what was wrong with it. The steering responded immediately to commands from his hands. To us passengers it was a pointless exercise in going nowhere–about as interesting as peering over someone’s shoulder while he punches numbers into a spreadsheet. But to the driver it was an experience. For a short time he was extending his body and his senses into a larger realm, and doing things that he couldn’t do unassisted.

On building platforms vs. building applications and services:

Applications get used by people whose big problem is understanding all of their features, whereas OSes get hacked by coders who are annoyed by their limitations. The OS business has been good to Microsoft only insofar as it has given them the money they needed to launch a really good applications software business and to hire a lot of smart researchers.

Microsoft in the early days of the Web:

Confronted with the Web phenomenon, Microsoft had to develop a really good web browser, and they did. But then they had a choice: they could have made that browser work on many different OSes, which would give Microsoft a strong position in the Internet world no matter what happened to their OS market share. Or they could make the browser one with the OS, gambling that this would make the OS look so modern and sexy that it would help to preserve their dominance in that market.

Memento mori: corporations as vehicles for technological progress

I love Stephenson’s irreverence even to the most ambitious and successful technology ventures of the last century — capitalist behemoths whose collapse seem unfathomable. Technology has existed, and will exist, far beyond the concept of corporations as an organizing force behind its progress.

Companies that sell OSes exist in a sort of technosphere. Underneath is technology that has already become free. Above is technology that has yet to be developed, or that is too crazy and speculative to be productized just yet. Like the Earth’s biosphere, the technosphere is very thin compared to what is above and what is below.

And an expansive analogue of Clay Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma”:

The danger is that in their obsession with staying out of the fossil beds, these companies will forget about what lies above the biosphere: the realm of new technology. In other words, they must hang onto their primitive weapons and crude competitive instincts, but also evolve powerful brains. This appears to be what Microsoft is doing with its research division, which has been hiring smart people right and left.

Stephenson describes Microsoft’s business of selling operating systems as a kind of arbitrage of inventions across time — pulling something that would be free in the future into the present, and selling it at a markup — which I find fascinating.

…today, it is making its money on a kind of temporal arbitrage. “Arbitrage,” in the usual sense, means to make money by taking advantage of differences in the price of something between different markets. It is spatial, in other words, and hinges on the arbitrageur knowing what is going on simultaneously in different places. Microsoft is making money by taking advantage of differences in the price of technology in different times. Temporal arbitrage, if I may coin a phrase, hinges on the arbitrageur knowing what technologies people will pay money for next year, and how soon afterwards those same technologies will become free. What spatial and temporal arbitrage have in common is that both hinge on the arbitrageur’s being extremely well-informed; one about price gradients across space at a given time, and the other about price gradients over time in a given place.

User interfaces, authorship, and social strata of computing

Throughout the piece, Stephenson builds a case for a foil between the command-line, which gives unbridled hackers deep and direct access to complex systems, and the graphical user interface, invented by corporations to package up such complexity in layers of candy-pop intermediation to make it palatable for the general public who could care less than to learn the ways of the command line. My personal views are a little less extreme than these, but I find his analogy so artful that I include some of his best passages here.

In particular, I love the way this passage speaks to the idea of authorship in a software system, which ill-conceived graphical interfaces often dull and disfigure out of recognition in the name of ease of use.

Disney is in the business of putting out a product of seamless illusion – a magic mirror that reflects the world back better than it really is. But a writer is literally talking to his or her readers, not just creating an ambience or presenting them with something to look at; and just as the command-line interface opens a much more direct and explicit channel from user to machine than the GUI, so it is with words, writer, and reader.

Compared to more recent productions like Beauty and the Beast and Mulan, the Disney movies based on these books (particularly Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan) seem deeply bizarre, and not wholly appropriate for children. That stands to reason, because Lewis Carroll and J.M. Barrie were very strange men, and such is the nature of the written word that their personal strangeness shines straight through all the layers of Disneyfication like x-rays through a wall. Probably for this very reason, Disney seems to have stopped buying books altogether, and now finds its themes and characters in folk tales, which have the lapidary, time-worn quality of the ancient bricks in the Maharajah’s ruins.

Blurring and erasing authorship leaves media with a kind of broad, cultural smear of a personality without any pointed sense of identity.

In this world, artists are like the anonymous, illiterate stone carvers who built the great cathedrals of Europe and then faded away into unmarked graves in the churchyard. The cathedral as a whole is awesome and stirring in spite, and possibly because, of the fact that we have no idea who built it. When we walk through it we are communing not with individual stone carvers but with an entire culture.

I also found his long-running allegory between Morlocks and Eloi from H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine poignant.

Back in the days of the command-line interface, users were all Morlocks who had to convert their thoughts into alphanumeric symbols and type them in, a grindingly tedious process that stripped away all ambiguity, laid bare all hidden assumptions, and cruelly punished laziness and imprecision. Then the interface-makers went to work on their GUIs, and introduced a new semiotic layer between people and machines. People who use such systems have abdicated the responsibility, and surrendered the power, of sending bits directly to the chip that’s doing the arithmetic, and handed that responsibility and power over to the OS. This is tempting because giving clear instructions, to anyone or anything, is difficult. We cannot do it without thinking, and depending on the complexity of the situation, we may have to think hard about abstract things, and consider any number of ramifications, in order to do a good job of it. For most of us, this is hard work.

Stephenson directly addresses the topic of graphical user interfaces (GUIs). In his view, GUIs are a drag to software authors, who pay for the explosion in software complexity required, and a drag to end users, who pay in gross intermediation of their interaction with reality that often results in annoying and dangerous confusions.

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.

So we are now asking the GUI to do a lot more than serve as a glorified typewriter. Now we want to become a generalized tool for dealing with reality.

A few lines of computer code can thus be made to substitute for any imaginable mechanical interface. The problem is that in many cases the substitute is a poor one. Driving a car through a GUI would be a miserable experience. Even if the GUI were perfectly bug-free, it would be incredibly dangerous, because menus and buttons simply can’t be as responsive as direct mechanical controls. My friend’s dad, the gentleman who was restoring the MGB, never would have bothered with it if it had been equipped with a GUI. It wouldn’t have been any fun.

GUIs tend to impose a large overhead on every single piece of software, even the smallest, and this overhead completely changes the programming environment. Small utility programs are no longer worth writing. Their functions, instead, tend to get swallowed up into omnibus software packages.

UNIX and open source

I love the way Stephenson writes about open source artifacts, in particular the UNIX lineage of operating systems, as an oral tradition.

Windows 95 and MacOS are products, contrived by engineers in the service of specific companies. Unix, by contrast, is not so much a product as it is a painstakingly compiled oral history of the hacker subculture. It is our Gilgamesh epic.

Commercial OSes have to adopt the same official stance towards errors as Communist countries had towards poverty. For doctrinal reasons it was not possible to admit that poverty was a serious problem in Communist countries, because the whole point of Communism was to eradicate poverty. Likewise, commercial OS companies like Apple and Microsoft can’t go around admitting that their software has bugs and that it crashes all the time, any more than Disney can issue press releases stating that Mickey Mouse is an actor in a suit.


I find his writing here absolutely striking and beautiful in style.

But more importantly, it comes out of the fact that, during this century, intellectualism failed, and everyone knows it. In places like Russia and Germany, the common people agreed to loosen their grip on traditional folkways, mores, and religion, and let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abbatoir. Those wordy intellectuals used to be merely tedious; now they seem kind of dangerous as well.

We Americans are the only ones who didn’t get creamed at some point during all of this. We are free and prosperous because we have inherited political and values systems fabricated by a particular set of eighteenth-century intellectuals who happened to get it right. But we have lost touch with those intellectuals, and with anything like intellectualism, even to the point of not reading books any more, though we are literate. We seem much more comfortable with propagating those values to future generations nonverbally, through a process of being steeped in media.

Orlando used to have a military installation called McCoy Air Force Base, with long runways from which B-52s could take off and reach Cuba, or just about anywhere else, with loads of nukes. But now McCoy has been scrapped and repurposed. It has been absorbed into Orlando’s civilian airport. The long runways are being used to land 747-loads of tourists from Brazil, Italy, Russia and Japan, so that they can come to Disney World and steep in our media for a while.

The right pinky of god

Stephenson concludes with a section which I love so much that I can’t resist quoting it nearly in its entirety:

I think that the message is very clear here: somewhere outside of and beyond our universe is an operating system, coded up over incalculable spans of time by some kind of hacker-demiurge. The cosmic operating system uses a command-line interface. It runs on something like a teletype, with lots of noise and heat; punched-out bits flutter down into its hopper like drifting stars. The demiurge sits at his teletype, pounding out one command line after another, specifying the values of fundamental constants of physics:

universe -G 6.672e-11 -e 1.602e-19 -h 6.626e-34 -protonmass 1.673e-27....

and when he’s finished typing out the command line, his right pinky hesitates above the ENTER key for an aeon or two, wondering what’s going to happen; then down it comes–and the WHACK you hear is another Big Bang.

Now THAT is a cool operating system, and if such a thing were actually made available on the Internet (for free, of course) every hacker in the world would download it right away and then stay up all night long messing with it, spitting out universes right and left. Most of them would be pretty dull universes but some of them would be simply amazing. Because what those hackers would be aiming for would be much more ambitious than a universe that had a few stars and galaxies in it. Any run-of-the-mill hacker would be able to do that. No, the way to gain a towering reputation on the Internet would be to get so good at tweaking your command line that your universes would spontaneously develop life. And once the way to do that became common knowledge, those hackers would move on, trying to make their universes develop the right kind of life, trying to find the one change in the Nth decimal place of some physical constant that would give us an Earth in which, say, Hitler had been accepted into art school after all, and had ended up his days as a street artist with cranky political opinions.

Even if that fantasy came true, though, most users (including myself, on certain days) wouldn’t want to bother learning to use all of those arcane commands, and struggling with all of the failures; a few dud universes can really clutter up your basement. After we’d spent a while pounding out command lines and hitting that ENTER key and spawning dull, failed universes, we would start to long for an OS that would go all the way to the opposite extreme: an OS that had the power to do everything–to live our life for us. In this OS, all of the possible decisions we could ever want to make would have been anticipated by clever programmers, and condensed into a series of dialog boxes. By clicking on radio buttons we could choose from among mutually exclusive choices (HETEROSEXUAL/HOMOSEXUAL). Columns of check boxes would enable us to select the things that we wanted in our life (GET MARRIED/WRITE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL) and for more complicated options we could fill in little text boxes (NUMBER OF DAUGHTERS: NUMBER OF SONS:).

Even this user interface would begin to look awfully complicated after a while, with so many choices, and so many hidden interactions between choices. It could become damn near unmanageable–the blinking twelve problem all over again. The people who brought us this operating system would have to provide templates and wizards, giving us a few default lives that we could use as starting places for designing our own. Chances are that these default lives would actually look pretty damn good to most people, good enough, anyway, that they’d be reluctant to tear them open and mess around with them for fear of making them worse. So after a few releases the software would begin to look even simpler: you would boot it up and it would present you with a dialog box with a single large button in the middle labeled: LIVE. Once you had clicked that button, your life would begin. If anything got out of whack, or failed to meet your expectations, you could complain about it to Microsoft’s Customer Support Department. If you got a flack on the line, he or she would tell you that your life was actually fine, that there was not a thing wrong with it, and in any event it would be a lot better after the next upgrade was rolled out. But if you persisted, and identified yourself as Advanced, you might get through to an actual engineer.

What would the engineer say, after you had explained your problem, and enumerated all of the dissatisfactions in your life? He would probably tell you that life is a very hard and complicated thing; that no interface can change that; that anyone who believes otherwise is a sucker; and that if you don’t like having choices made for you, you should start making your own.

Like rocks, like water

Some applied research problems in machine learning

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