Is the command line still essential?
Was Stephenson right about his Linux
It’s been a while since I read Stephenson’s essay on Linux. It’s one of those pieces that’s so well written, we need to go back to it now & then.
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This quote caught my eye right away.
“…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.”
Anyone who has read about Steve Jobs will chuckle at this one.
1. The Hole Hawg of the internet
When Stephenson wrote this it was 1999. Linux adoption was growing at internet startups, where cost was everything, and risks could be taken. Remember this was before the two biggest data center companies even existed, namely Google & Amazon. Without Linux, neither would be here today!
Linux was and is today more like a Hole Hawg for the internet, powerful, but dangerous in the wrong hands.
“The Hole Hawg is like the genie of the ancient fairy tales, who carries out his masters instructions literally and precisely and with unlimited power, often with disasterous unforseen consequences.”
2. Unix as oral history, our Gilgamesh
“Unix, by contrast is not so much a product as it is a painstakingly compiled oral history of the hacker subculture. It is our Gilgamesh. What made old epics like Gilgamesh so powerful and so long-lived was that they were living bodies of narrative that many people knew by heart, and told over and over again — making their own personal embellishments whenever it struck their fancy.”
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3. The bizarre Trinity Torvalds, Stallman & Gates
“In trying to understand the Linux phenomenon, then, we have to look not to a single innovator but to a sort of bizarre Trinity, Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman and Bill Gates. Take away any of these three & Linux would not exist.”
And indeed we must thank all three of these characters for where the internet stands today. The cloud is possible because of Linux & cheap intel hardware. And the GNU free software to go along with it.
4. On the meaning of “Open Source”
“Source files are useless to your computer, and of little interest to most users, but they are of gigantic cultural & political significance, because Microsoft & Apple keep them secret, while Linux makes them public. They are the family Jewels. They are the sort of thing that in Hollywood thrillers is used as a McGuffin: the plutonium bomb core, the top-secret blueprints, the suitcase of bearer bonds, the reel of microfilm.
5. What about Apple today?
“The ideal OS for me would be one that had a well-designed GUI that was easy to set up and use, but that included terminal windows where I could revert to the command line interface and run GNU software when it made sense.”
Stephenson wrote this before Apple has rebuilt their OS to sit on top of Unix. And that’s where we are today with Mac OS X!