Worth a re-read, still relevant: Neal Stephenson’s “In the Beginning was the Command Line”

Pre-OSX, Pre-iPod, pre George W. Bush presidency, way back when.

First, A quote about Apple and Boomerdom:

Apple has always insisted on having a hardware monopoly, except for a brief period in the mid-1990s when they allowed clone-makers to compete with them, before subsequently putting them out of business. Macintosh hardware was, consequently, expensive. You didn’t open it up and fool around with it because doing so would void the warranty. In fact the first Mac was specifically designed to be difficult to open–you needed a kit of exotic tools, which you could buy through little ads that began to appear in the back pages of magazines a few months after the Mac came out on the market. These ads always had a certain disreputable air about them, like pitches for lock-picking tools in the backs of lurid detective magazines.

This monopolistic policy can be explained in at least three different ways.

THE CHARITABLE EXPLANATION is that the hardware monopoly policy reflected a drive on Apple’s part to provide a seamless, unified blending of hardware, operating system, and software. There is something to this. It is hard enough to make an OS that works well on one specific piece of hardware, designed and tested by engineers who work down the hallway from you, in the same company. Making an OS to work on arbitrary pieces of hardware, cranked out by rabidly entrepeneurial clonemakers on the other side of the International Date Line, is very difficult, and accounts for much of the troubles people have using Windows.

THE FINANCIAL EXPLANATION is that Apple, unlike Microsoft, is and always has been a hardware company. It simply depends on revenue from selling hardware, and cannot exist without it.

THE NOT-SO-CHARITABLE EXPLANATION has to do with Apple’s corporate culture, which is rooted in Bay Area Baby Boomdom.

Now, since I’m going to talk for a moment about culture, full disclosure is probably in order, to protect myself against allegations of conflict of interest and ethical turpitude: (1) Geographically I am a Seattleite, of a Saturnine temperament, and inclined to take a sour view of the Dionysian Bay Area, just as they tend to be annoyed and appalled by us. (2) Chronologically I am a post-Baby Boomer. I feel that way, at least, because I never experienced the fun and exciting parts of the whole Boomer scene–just spent a lot of time dutifully chuckling at Boomers’ maddeningly pointless anecdotes about just how stoned they got on various occasions, and politely fielding their assertions about how great their music was. But even from this remove it was possible to glean certain patterns, and one that recurred as regularly as an urban legend was the one about how someone would move into a commune populated by sandal-wearing, peace-sign flashing flower children, and eventually discover that, underneath this facade, the guys who ran it were actually control freaks; and that, as living in a commune, where much lip service was paid to ideals of peace, love and harmony, had deprived them of normal, socially approved outlets for their control-freakdom, it tended to come out in other, invariably more sinister, ways.

Applying this to the case of Apple Computer will be left as an exercise for the reader, and not a very difficult exercise.

On Disney, Apple/Microsoft, and mediated reality:

If I can risk a broad generalization, most of the people who go to Disney World have zero interest in absorbing new ideas from books. Which sounds snide, but listen: they have no qualms about being presented with ideas in other forms. Disney World is stuffed with environmental messages now, and the guides at Animal Kingdom can talk your ear off about biology.

If you followed those tourists home, you might find art, but it would be the sort of unsigned folk art that’s for sale in Disney World’s African- and Asian-themed stores. In general they only seem comfortable with media that have been ratified by great age, massive popular acceptance, or both.

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.

Disney World works the same way. If you are an intellectual type, a reader or writer of books, the nicest thing you can say about this is that the execution is superb. But it’s easy to find the whole environment a little creepy, because something is missing: the translation of all its content into clear explicit written words, the attribution of the ideas to specific people. You can’t argue with it. It seems as if a hell of a lot might be being glossed over, as if Disney World might be putting one over on us, and possibly getting away with all kinds of buried assumptions and muddled thinking.

But this is precisely the same as what is lost in the transition from the command-line interface to the GUI.

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. It can be applied to anything in the world, real or imagined, albeit at staggering expense.

Why are we rejecting explicit word-based interfaces, and embracing graphical or sensorial ones–a trend that accounts for the success of both Microsoft and Disney?

Part of it is simply that the world is very complicated now–much more complicated than the hunter-gatherer world that our brains evolved to cope with–and we simply can’t handle all of the details. We have to delegate. We have no choice but to trust some nameless artist at Disney or programmer at Apple or Microsoft to make a few choices for us, close off some options, and give us a conveniently packaged executive summary.

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.

On Linux, Writing Software, and Emacs:

The triad of editor, compiler, and linker, taken together, form the core of a software development system. Now, it is possible to spend a lot of money on shrink-wrapped development systems with lovely graphical user interfaces and various ergonomic enhancements. In some cases it might even be a good and reasonable way to spend money. But on this side of the road, as it were, the very best software is usually the free stuff. Editor, compiler and linker are to hackers what ponies, stirrups, and archery sets were to the Mongols. Hackers live in the saddle, and hack on their own tools even while they are using them to create new applications. It is quite inconceivable that superior hacking tools could have been created from a blank sheet of paper by product engineers. Even if they are the brightest engineers in the world they are simply outnumbered.

In the GNU/Linux world there are two major text editing programs: the minimalist vi (known in some implementations as elvis) and the maximalist emacs. I use emacs, which might be thought of as a thermonuclear word processor. It was created by Richard Stallman; enough said. It is written in Lisp, which is the only computer language that is beautiful. It is colossal, and yet it only edits straight ASCII text files, which is to say, no fonts, no boldface, no underlining. In other words, the engineer-hours that, in the case of Microsoft Word, were devoted to features like mail merge, and the ability to embed feature-length motion pictures in corporate memoranda, were, in the case of emacs, focused with maniacal intensity on the deceptively simple-seeming problem of editing text. If you are a professional writer–i.e., if someone else is getting paid to worry about how your words are formatted and printed–emacs outshines all other editing software in approximately the same way that the noonday sun does the stars. It is not just bigger and brighter; it simply makes everything else vanish. For page layout and printing you can use TeX: a vast corpus of typesetting lore written in C and also available on the Net for free.

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