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Neal Stephenson is second only to William Gibson on the cyberpunk scene.  His books, like Snow Crash and Diamond Age, have helped to construct the imaginative parameters of the genre of  computer dominated, virtual reality science fiction.  But this book is not another technohipster novel, instead it is an extended, somewhat digressive, essay on computer operating systems--their history, purpose and possible future.  Written at a level that a layman can follow, but obviously geared towards a more technical audience, he essentially argues that the current popular metaphors through which we use computers--the desktop, the icon, the browser, etc.--place unacceptable limits on user power and create an unacceptable level of conformity.  He favors command line driven operating systems, the various permutations of UNIX like Linux, BeOS, etc.  Much of what he says I disagree with, but it is all pretty interesting.

As a threshold issue, the understanding that the most popular operating systems are metaphorical is central to any discussion of the issue he raises.  When he says "in the beginning...was the command line", Stephenson is talking about the fact that all early computers and most of those used today by the computer literate, operate by typing specific codes into a command line.  But the great majority of us casual users give commands by clicking on icons and using pull down menus.  We don't really have a feel for the underlying code that say makes Word open a document when we click on a tiny button with a sheet of paper on it.  Stephenson argues that we would be more empowered if we did comprehend these basic codes.  This is undoubtedly true.  We'd also be better off if we understood our car engines and didn't have to listen to crooked mechanics or had assimilated jurisprudence and didn't have to hire shyster lawyers or understood medicine and didn't have to go see quack doctors, but are any of these pursuits really effective uses of our time and energy and are they necessary?  I may not really believe my car needed $400 worth of work, but if it's fixed and gets me to work, I'm relatively happy.  Similarly, there may be things I wish my Mac would do, even things that I know must be reasonably easy to program it to do, but as long as I can use it as a word processor and access the Web, I'm willing to settle for less than perfect.

I actually found a couple of the sidelights more compelling than this central argument.  First, Stephenson casts a pleasingly jaundiced glance at both MicroSoft and Apple and presents a full and fascinating discussion of their strengths and weaknesses.  Second, there is a brief section where he presents a concise and cogent defense of Western culture, which while it seemed kind of out of place, was nonetheless welcome:

      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 abattoir. 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. Apparently this actually works to some degree, for police in many lands are
      now complaining that local arrestees are insisting on having their Miranda rights read
      to them, just like perps in American TV cop shows. When it's explained to them that
      they are in a different country, where those rights do not exist, they become
      outraged. Starsky and Hutch reruns, dubbed into diverse languages, may turn out, in
      the long run, to be a greater force for human rights than the Declaration of
      Independence.

      A huge, rich, nuclear-tipped culture that propagates its core values through media
      steepage seems like a bad idea. There is an obvious risk of running astray here.
      Words are the only immutable medium we have, which is why they are the vehicle of
      choice for extremely important concepts like the Ten Commandments, the Koran,
      and the Bill of Rights. Unless the messages conveyed by our media are somehow
      pegged to a fixed, written set of precepts, they can wander all over the place and
      possibly dump loads of crap into people's minds.

      Orlando used to have a military installation called McCoy Air Force Base, with long
      runways from which B-52s could take off and reach Cuba, or just about anywhere
      else, with loads of nukes. But now McCoy has been scrapped and repurposed. It has
      been absorbed into Orlando's civilian airport. The long runways are being used to
      land 747-loads of tourists from Brazil, Italy, Russia and Japan, so that they can come
      to Disney World and steep in our media for a while.

      To traditional cultures, especially word-based ones such as Islam, this is infinitely
      more threatening than the B-52s ever were. It is obvious, to everyone outside of the
      United States, that our arch-buzzwords, multiculturalism and diversity, are false
      fronts that are being used (in many cases unwittingly) to conceal a global trend to
      eradicate cultural differences. The basic tenet of multiculturalism (or "honoring
      diversity" or whatever you want to call it) is that people need to stop judging each
      other-to stop asserting (and, eventually, to stop believing) that this is right and
      that is wrong, this true and that false, one thing ugly and another thing
      beautiful, that God exists and has this or that set of qualities.

      The lesson most people are taking home from the Twentieth Century is that, in order
      for a large number of different cultures to coexist peacefully on the globe (or even in
      a neighborhood) it is necessary for people to suspend judgment in this way. Hence (I
      would argue) our suspicion of, and hostility towards, all authority figures in modern
      culture. As David Foster Wallace has explained in his essay "E Unibus Pluram," this is
      the fundamental message of television; it is the message that people take home,
      anyway, after they have steeped in our media long enough. It's not expressed in
      these highfalutin terms, of course. It comes through as the presumption that all
      authority figures--teachers, generals, cops, ministers, politicians--are hypocritical
      buffoons, and that hip jaded coolness is the only way to be.

      The problem is that once you have done away with the ability to make judgments as
      to right and wrong, true and false, etc., there's no real culture left. All that remains
      is clog dancing and macrame. The ability to make judgments, to believe things, is
      the entire it point of having a culture. I think this is why guys with machine guns
      sometimes pop up in places like Luxor, and begin pumping bullets into Westerners.
      They perfectly understand the lesson of McCoy Air Force Base. When their sons
      come home wearing Chicago Bulls caps with the bills turned sideways, the dads go
      out of their minds.

      The global anti-culture that has been conveyed into every cranny of the world by
      television is a culture unto itself, and by the standards of great and ancient cultures
      like Islam and France, it seems grossly inferior, at least at first. The only good thing
      you can say about it is that it makes world wars and Holocausts less likely--and that
      is actually a pretty good thing!

      The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than this global
      monoculture, is completely screwed. Anyone who grows up watching TV, never sees
      any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of moral relativism, learns
      about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on network TV news, and attends a
      university where postmodernists vie to outdo each other in demolishing traditional
      notions of truth and quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty
      feckless human being. And--again--perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless
      so we won't nuke each other.

      On the other hand, if you are raised within some specific culture, you end up with a
      basic set of tools that you can use to think about and understand the world. You
      might use those tools to reject the culture you were raised in, but at least you've got
      some tools.

That is simply good stuff there--it calls to mind The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis, which is high praise indeed.

The whole thing is short enough that you can probably read one of the online versions and it is interesting enough that I would recommend that you give it a try.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Nonfiction
Science
Neal Stephenson Links:
Books & Culture's Book of the Week: Back to the Future: A sprawling new novel by the author of Snowcrash and Cryptonomicon goes to the 17th century to investigate the birth of the modern world. (You won't be surprised to learn that the Puritans are among the Bad Guys.) (Albert Louis Zambone, 10/13/2003, Christianity Today)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Cryptonomicron (Author's Site)
    -ETEXT: In the Beginning was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson (Cryptonomicron)
    -ESSAY ARCHIVE: Archive | Neal Stephenson (Wired)
    -ESSAY: Year 2000 (Neal Stephenson, author, Seattle Times)
    -INTERVIEW: A Conversation With Neal Stephenson (Catherine Asaro, SF Site)
    -INTERVIEW: Breaking The Code With Neal Stephenson (Michael Goldberg )
    -INTERVIEW: An Interview with Neal Stephenson (scifi.com)
    -INTERVIEW: In Conversation with Neal Stephenson (Shift)
    -Mark Hughes' Snow Crash site
    -Authors : S : Neal Stephenson (Steampunk)
    -ESSAY: Snow Crash - Neal Stephenson's Personal Virus (Chris Chase)
    -ESSAY: CYNTHIA ROSE - REAL TIME HOT TIPS "CYBERLEBRITY" PENS NEW NOVEL (State 51)
    -LINKS: Neal Stephenson Links (LIT-SF)
    -REVIEW: (Peter D. Tillman, Under the Covers)
    -REVIEW: of CRYPTONOMICON By Neal Stephenson (Dwight Garner, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Cryptonomicon  The First True Cypherpunk Novel (Declan McCullagh, Wired)
    -REVIEW: of Cryptonomicon Stephenson weaves 50-year tale of intrigue (Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW: of Cryptonomicon Neal Stephenson (Kim Fawcett, SF Site)
    -REVIEW: Stephenson, Neal. Cryptonomicon (ALA Booklist)
    -REVIEW: of Diamond Age (Steven H Silver, SF Site)
    -REVIEW: of Snow Crash (NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Snow Crash (Mostly Fiction)

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