Thursday, December 17, 2009

Neal Stephenson's "In the Beginning...was the Command Line"

Tonight, I read Neal Stephenson’s book-length essay, In the Beginning…was the Command Line, which on one level is a meditation on computer operating systems, but which also contains some pretty brilliant discussion about the way that technology forces us toward mediated meta-involvements with our environment that ultimately take away as much power as they give. It’s printed as a book, but you can also find the full text available on the internet here.

As an example of the commentary contained therein, I offer up this short passage:

A few years ago I walked into a grocery store somewhere and was presented with the following tableau vivant : near the entrance a young couple were standing in front of a large cosmetics display. The man was stolidly holding a shopping basket between his hands while his mate raked blister-packs of makeup off the display and piled them in. Since then I've always thought of that man as the personification of an interesting human tendency: not only are we not offended to be dazzled by manufactured images, but we like it. We practically insist on it. We are eager to be complicit in our own dazzlement: to pay money for a theme park ride, vote for a guy who's obviously lying to us, or stand there holding the basket as it's filled up with cosmetics.

That sort of thing comprises the first ½ of the essay, whereupon it delves into the truly hard-core geekery (i.e., he actually discusses his personal history with operating systems, culminating with what amounts to a long, concentrated advert for Linux). Actually, I thought that this, too, was fascinating. But if you’re not of the persuasion that finds the nitty-gritty so very interesting, then maybe it’s best to stop reading as soon as he starts relating his spoilt love affair with Apple Corp.

In case this warning puts you off from reading any more than the first half, then I would be remiss not to give a taste of the essay’s bizarre ending. Maybe this sort of thing can be expected from a (literary) sci-fi writer:

I think that the message [of Lee Smolin’s book The Live of the Cosmos] is very clear here: somewhere outside of and beyond our universe is an operating system, coded up over incalculable spans of time by some kind of hacker-demiurge. The cosmic operating system uses a command-line interface. It runs on something like a teletype, with lots of noise and heat; punched-out bits flutter down into its hopper like drifting stars. The demiurge sits at his teletype, pounding out one command line after another, specifying the values of fundamental constants of physics:
universe -G 6.672e-11 -e 1.602e-19 -h 6.626e-34 -protonmass 1.673e-27....
and when he's finished typing out the command line, his right pinky hesitates above the ENTER key for an aeon or two, wondering what's going to happen; then down it comes--and the WHACK you hear is another Big Bang.

If one time through the essay leaves you hungry for more, here is an authorized version of the text that's heavily commented upon by a working computer coder.

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