Neal Stephenson, “In the Beginning… was the Command Line”

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Speculative Fiction author Neal Stephenson embarks, in this 1999 non-fiction essay, on an exploration of open source by way of the GUI and a comparison of four operating systems: Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Linux, and BeOS. Ultimately, he considers each of these OSs in relation to its use of the Graphical User Interface, or GUI. Ultimately, his essay is about text versus image, action versus passivity, in our culture at large.

In an extended automotive sales analogy, Stephenson compares Microsoft with a massive, dominant station wagon dealership. The station wagon—Windows—is a functional, clunky, economical, well-understood machine; it breaks down a lot, but repair stations are everywhere. The Mac is a classy Euro-sedan, far over-priced and appealing to a small, snobby subsection of consumers. Linux is like a space-age, ulta-light, incredibly fast tank: it never breaks down, can do almost anything, and is being given away for free, and yet very few consumers are swayed to drive one off the lot because they’re afraid. Who knows how to maintain a tank? And besides, everyone else is buying station wagons… Finally, BeOS is like the batmobile: wildly novel, immensely powerful, and yet so exotic that it appeals to even fewer people than does Linux. While this will end up being Stephenson’s favorite OS, its company would be sold to Palm and it would be discontinued just two years later (2001). Regardless, BeOS is a bit of a digression for Stephenson, and plays an insignificant role in the elucidation of his greater points about interface. His automotive analogy, then, reveals two things: first, that Apple and Microsoft are each selling something that the Linux community is giving away for free, and inferior versions at that; and second, that their differences have entirely to do with an image, or idea: Microsoft is essentially selling a utilitarian, Everyman image, and Apple is selling a hip, creative image. Customers are buying these images, not the software, or they would all be driving those free tanks home.

Central to this essay is the distinction between language and image. The written word, for Stephenson, constitutes not only a body of knowledge but a way of accessing it, an elite cultural form that involves thinking about things, accessing them directly, making informed decisions. Book readers, intellectuals, make use of the written word. The rest of us consume images, mediated experiences. Disneyland is Stephenson’s key example: everything is simplified, copied, rendered harmless, so spectators can get a since of ancient Hindu ruins or Mt. Kilimanjaro without having to go there, without having to risk any discomfort, or even learn about them extensively. The result is that these people become hooked on their mediation, on television; the result is to make them docile, which he notes is not a bad thing at all!His point is merely that such mediation has a passifying effect, a neutering effect. And this is exactly the effect of Windows and MacOS: they are the Disneylands of the computer world. They translate all of the text, or code, of the operating system into simplified, cute, mediating images and metaphors: the desktop, the GUI.

What is the GUI hiding? The command line. The code that actually makes the system run. Of course, there is a great need to hide this sort of thing. The problem, for Stephenson, is that it is covered over so thoroughly by Apple and Microsoft, that no direct access is any longer possible for the user. And no access to code means no control over the interface: the user is locked out, completely at the mercy of the corporate giants who dictate the design of the GUI. The GUI is also, he notes, a sort of meta-interface, grafted on to every conceivable mechanism and product. It’s purpose is not to provide the optimal interface for operating that product, like specially-tailored interfaces used to be (the steering wheel and clutch for cars, for example), but rather to give the user access, however limited, to a bewildering array of “features,” which are the only selling points anymore for products from toasters to operating systems:

“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.”

This, then, is the real significance of the GUI, reflected in the operating systems that we purchase. And, as Stephenson makes clear, this is the only thing we purchase when we buy from operating systems (as opposed to applications) from Apple or Microsoft: the software is intangible, just bits. And because operating systems are just libraries of code that speed up various processes, avoid duplication of code and effort when we run our applications, there is an inherent conflict between this function and secrecy. Closed source operating systems, by keeping their inner workings invisible (from programmers via inaccessible source code and users via an overdetermined GUI) are actually ineffective pieces of software, hindering more than they help. That is, in selling the GUI illusion, they are forced to compromise themselves, from not admitting their faults (I.e., inaccessible bug tracking and useless technical support) to actually eliminating useful features that would put user in control of their own software.

This is where open source software comes in. Stephenson is not an open source evangelical, but rather a pragmatist: open source operating systems, at the very least, make far more sense than closed source ones because they avoid this illusion and put the user back in control. While not an abandonment of the GUI (for certainly Linux makes use of a very sophisticated GUI, or rather, a number of different competing GUIs), Linux allows its users to access the command line when desired. Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, a metaphor for gaining control over one’s interface. Why accept that everything complicated can and should be dumbed down, made simple, reduced, spoon fed? Yes, this reduction is immensely useful, even necessary, (Stephenson notes that even command-line-only operating systems rely upon all sorts of mediating interfaces; otherwise users would have to type in commands that could take half an hour or more) but he is essentially arguing that choosing to accept the GUI myth as spoon fed by Apple or Microsoft forecloses any possibility of taking control of our tools, and consequently, our lives. Open source, then, is a philosophy as much as a methodology: it provides a conceptual toolbox for building interfaces that are less reductive. Open source makes sense as a development model in the construction of interfaces because it is those interfaces that determine how we see and understand everything around us. It doesn’t make sense to seek out the reductive comfort peddled by proprietary vendors rather than open, transparent development that will result in interfaces that enhance rather than occlude our access to the underlying mechanisms of our tools.

-ZH

Download the essay here or buy the physical book on Amazon.com

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