Review: In the Beginning

I read Neal Stephenon’s 1999 essay bundle In the Beginning… Was the Command Line this weekend. It’s flawed but good. It’s about operating systems and their relationship with users, developers, business, and society – ambitious for such a short book.

First its flaw: anytime it veers into talk of “culture” it gets weaker – the chapter “The Interface Culture”, for example, is a trainwreck. Its analysis of society and history is – and, to be fair, half-admits to being – condescending and painted with too broad a brush. (I haven’t read enough of Stephenson’s current work to know how his perspective has evolved since.)

The second half of the book, mostly about the world of Linux OS’s, is much better than the first. In fact, despite its age, there are chapters I would consider required reading for new tech geeks. I know when I was learning Linux a few years ago it would have solved a lot of mysteries at once.

The book does suffer from its own success: much of its message can be picked up from snippets of blog posts, tweets, and podcasts in the geek Internet today. With several years of basic coding and systems administration experience, I didn’t learn much that was new to me from it. Still, it’s handy to find it all in one place – and being such a major influencer as to become a part of tech’s very bloodstream is hardly a criticism.

And, definitely in spite of myself, I was really delighted by the last chapter.

ITBWTCL is uneven and its cultural commentary doesn’t hold up well, but on net it’s good. I appreciate this book for what it is. New geeks should read the second half for sure.

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