u_topn picture
rub_wc picture

Previously in Web Citations:

Hey Ho, GIFs Must Go!

Charles C. Mann contemplates Burn All GIFs Day, perhaps the first political protest ever staged because of an algorithm.

A Penny for Your 'pinion

Ben Auburn on what Epinions.com learned from the Weblog, and what Webloggers may be learning about the Web. (Hint: it has something to do with money.)

Heard It Through the Grapevine

Forget Windows, or even Linux. The defining artifact of the Information Age may be the chain e-mail. A testimonial by Nicholas Confessore.

The Addiction Addiction

The perennial hoo-ha over "Internet addiction." By Howard Rheingold

Mirror, Mirror

The Blair Witch Project and the Net's latest exercise in self-flattery. By Josh Ozersky

The Net's Next Vice

Online gambling is set to take off. Enter (who else?) the United States government. By Katie Bacon

The Great Divide

The Silicon Valley rich are very different from you and me. By Wen Stephenson

Sim City

The virtual partition of Jerusalem is a fait accompli. By Eric Manch

Politics Made Simple

A new political site aims for the GenX mind -- and shows us what the world does not need now. By Nicholas Confessore

More Web Citations in Atlantic Unbound.

Revenge of the Wizards
November 24, 1999

In the Beginning Was the Command Line Neal Stephenson's essay "In the Beginning Was the Command Line," which was first published on Slashdot, is now out in paperback in expanded form. Like the author's recent novel, Cryptonomicon, this rumination on the history and significance of computer interfaces is prolix, detailed, taxing, and delightful. For every instance of lingering on a technical detail -- say, the meaning in Unix of "/ usr/ etc/ var/ bin/ proc/ boot/ home/ root/ sbin/ dev/ lib/ tmp" -- Stephenson serves up lines like the following: "Unix ... is not so much a product as it is a painstakingly compiled oral history of the hacker subculture. It is our Gilgamesh epic."

"In the Beginning" is a travelogue of sorts, an explorer's journal. It's about Stephenson's progress from teletype command line to graphical user interface (GUI) to the combination of command line and GUI he finds in BeOS (an operating system discussed in a section titled, in typically Stephensonian fashion, "Etre"). The essay is a kind of vision quest by interface. If, as some say, to design an interface is to make culture and to criticize one is to engage in cultural criticism then, based on "In the Beginning" alone, Stephenson is a cultural critic beyond compare.

Stephenson speaks of the seductions of the GUI and the moral laxity it inevitably engenders: "Disney and Apple/Microsoft are in the same business: short-circuiting laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed interfaces. Disney is a sort of user interface unto itself -- and more than just graphical. Let's call it a 'Sensorial Interface.'" The "Sensorial" interface attacks with so much bandwidth, "you can't argue with it." This bothers Stephenson, a contentious type. And so it is natural that he would eventually gravitate to Linux, an argumentative OS if there ever was one. Like all the step-children of Unix, Linux is built of arguments -- old ones that have been tidily incorporated into the kernel and new ones that remain unresolved. (Where else but among Unix and its brats would you be told, when asking the system for help, that a particular command has such and such a bug? It's troubling and refreshing; it says we're all hackers on this bus; if you find the fix, let us know.)

Tux, the Linux logoStephenson is constitutionally immune to the blandishments of a GUI. He is a sucker not for ease but for complexity. Linux, then, is his tarpit. "Over the years that I've been working with Linux," he writes, "I have filled three and a half notebooks logging my experiences." This is the kind of deep focus that Henry Miller lavished on sex and Sartre on nothingness. Stephenson does, eventually, grab onto the nearest GUI to haul himself out of the Linux mire, but the years and pages he devotes to his dalliance with this OS testify to its grip.

There is a kind of warning here, and at the risk of being banned from all the better quadrants of cyberspace, I want to post it: Linux is the second coming of Unix; it's the revenge of the Unix experts known in the culture as the wizards. The first coming of the wizards was only beaten back by the unexpected advent of the GUI, which shifted everyone's attention from "/ usr/ etc/ var/ bin/ proc/ boot/ home/ root/ sbin/ dev/ lib/ tmp" to icons, clip art, and the mouse. This time around, the wizards are camouflaged by Linux to appear friendly, cooperative, even cuddly (with adorable Finnish accents), rather than only bristly, fiendishly technical, and inanely competitive. But I remember working in a Unix shop sometime before anybody had heard of Jobs and Wozniak. The goal of this company was to come up with a Unix that could dominate the desktop. The hackers who worked there were so low and mean they would sometimes refuse cries of help from the next cubicle, never mind sharing lines of code with the outside world.

That was before the Internet, which has sweetened us and made open sourcers of us all, wanting nothing more than to have our individual bits of code absorbed into the unfolding infrastructure of Linux, an infrastructure that Stephenson describes as organic -- "more like anatomy than physics." Now that Judge Jackson has put a 207-page binding spell on Microsoft, I would ask: do we really want rule by wizards or to be assimilated into their sticky infrastructure? Neal Stephenson, after all, is the exception; he has survived his stay in the belly of this OS and continues to write novels. But the evidence when it comes to Linux is that for the most part the footprints lead in, whereas few, precious few, lead out.

--Harvey Blume

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Harvey Blume, a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a frequent contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search

Click here