In the Beginning …

May 25, 2009

I have just been re-reading Neal Stephenson’s extended essay, In the Beginning was the Command Line; it was first published in book form in 1999 [Perennial, 2003, ISBN 0-380-81593-1], so it’s ten years old this year.  In it, Stephenson discusses the evolution of personal computing from the very early days of timesharing to the then relatively new era of the graphical user interface [GUI].

Stephenson talks about the side effects of this evolution, and of the adoption of computing in the mass market.  One aspect of this is the current tendency to adopt at  least a quasi-GUI interface for lots of different products (like the system of menus on our cable TV box).  In part, he says this is a reaction to the increasing complexity of the world we live in:

Part of it is simply that the world is very complicated now — much more complicated than the hunter-gatherer world our brains evolved to cope with — and we simply can’t handle all the details.

While the objective, of making technology more accessible to more people, is laudable, it can have some unintended side effects:

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.

One doesn’t have to look very far to find examples of this: the financial neophyte who has not become good at accounting just because he’s installed QuickBooks™, or the person who finds that getting a desktop publishing program does not make her a graphic artist.

Stephenson also talks about some of  the contrasts between the proprietary software world and open source software.  One of the side effects of open-source development is a much more realistic attitude toward software bugs, which in turn leads to more usable software that has fewer bugs.  When bugs are discovered, they can be openly discussed, and fixed by anyone with the necessary technical savvy, in contrast to the proprietary software world:

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.

Now, Stephenson does not by any means get everything right; his expeectations for the BeOS, for example, were pretty far off the mark.  But he’s a good writer, and it’s an interesting and thought-provoking read.

A copy of In the Beginning was the Command Line is also available online as a ZIP’d text file from Stephenson’s  Web site.   Stephenson is the author of several novels, including Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, and Zodiac.  His newest novel is Anathem.

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