“In the Beginning Was the Command Line”

Neal Stephenson

My coworker mentioned this to me as we were discussing Snow Crash and Diamond Age, and did a great job of selling it with the summary “Microsoft and Apple are competing car dealerships on opposite corners, and then over on the other side of the street there’s a hippie commune giving away tanks for free.” Which, yes, really is an extended metaphor in this essay, and it really does make sense in Stephenson’s telling of it.

I’ll warn you right now that the word “essay” is rather underselling it — even with the scroll bar over there to warn me, it took me far too long to realize quite how big a chunk of writing this piece is. It’s novella-length.1

And in that span, it covers a whole lot of ground. It’s the history of computation, dating from before “a computer” was a machine at all, all the way back to the electromechanical teletype machines connected to the telegraph system. It’s a discussion of the psychology and business of selling operating systems. It’s an exploration of human nature, and choice, and culture. And it contains some truly wonderful lines, though my favorite standout quote has to be:

I use emacs, which might be thought of as a thermonuclear word processor.

There are parts of this essay which are certainly dated. There are parts that seem utterly incorrect, in retrospect. There are also things that feel eerily prescient. Stephenson has always been that kind of wonderful science fiction writer, able to pull things together like that.

So hey, take an afternoon, and go read about the command line. Stanford has helpfully provided it online.

  1. Specifically, 36,329 words. How did I check that? With the wc command-line tool that Stephenson mentions — that is, in fact, the exact part of the essay where I went “I wonder how long this whole thing is?”

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