The Morlock Market

GUI is good, but command-line computing is where it's at.

UNIX is not so much a product as it is a painstakingly complied oral history of the hacker culture. It is our Gilgamesh epic. UNIX is known, loved and understood by so many hackers that it can be re-created from scratch whenever someone needs it. This is very difficult to understand for people who are accustomed to thinking of OSes as things that absolutely have to be created by a company and bought.

I've been reading and rereading In the Beginning Was the Command Line, a small book by Neal Stephenson who is better known as the best-selling author of the novels Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon (the full text is also widely available on the Web). In a general way, IBCL is about the real-world verities of command-line computing: its practical authenticities, its meritocratic culture, its best-tool-for-the-job approach to building and fixing stuff; and how much the GUI-using majority fails to comprehend even the existence of a better, more fundamental way to use (and not just “interact” with) computers.

But it's also about prophesy. There is an arc to Stephenson's story, one that ends where it began, with the command line. Command-line computing is not simple, he says. Nor is fixing a car or building a house. “Life is a very hard and complicated thing,” he concludes. “No interface can change that; and anyone who believes otherwise is a sucker; and if you don't like having choices made for you, you should start making your own.”

For the last fifteen years, the majority of the computing population has chosen to let Microsoft make their choices for them. Personally I believe Microsoft gets far too little credit for the many positive aspects of this. The fact that they turned extremely complicated processes and functions into moderately complicated but extremely appealing products is a marketing triumph of the highest order. Today it is no more possible to do business in the world without touching Microsoft products than it is to find transportation without internal combustion engines.

Worse, these products' frequent failures are legitimized by ubiquitous acquiescence. Jeff Rankin says, “Imagine if every Thursday your shoes exploded if you tied them the usual way. This happens to us all the time with computers, and nobody thinks of complaining.”

Stephenson isolates at least two Faustian reasons for this. One is humanity's fondness for mediated experiences. Witness the success of Disney, which “does mediated experience better than anyone,” Stephenson writes. “If they understand what OSes were, and why people use them, they could crush Microsoft in a year or two.” The other is that “we are way too busy, nowadays, to comprehend everything in detail. And it is better to comprehend it dimly, through an interface, than not at all.”

The key word is “everything”. Personal computing was born with ambitions that far exceeded its abilities. Because it could do just about anything, it should do just about anything. And, amazingly, there was more than sufficient demand for enough of “just about anything” to justify and attract venture funding for software start-ups by the multitude. But in the long run (which, again, hasn't really been very long), only one company seemed to understood exactly how much of everything could practically be handled by a PC, and how to minimize the inherent complications for the largest percentage of everybody. However awful Microsoft may have been in other ways, this comprehension alone is an achievement of Roman dimensions.

The cultural result is what Stephenson calls “a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks and the Eloi in H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, except that it has been turned upside down”. Here is his explanation:

In The Time Machine, the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world it's the other way round. The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how everything works. The much more numerous Eloi learn everything they know from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed and controlled by book-reading Morlocks. So many ignorant people could be dangerous if they got pointed in the wrong direction, and so we've evolved a popular culture that is almost unbelievably infectious and neuters every person who gets infected by it, by rendering them unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands.

Morlocks, who have the energy and intelligence to comprehend details, go out and master complex subjects and produce Disney-like sensorial interfaces so that Eloi can get the gist without having to strain their minds or endure boredom.

To be fair, Stephenson goes on to credit the positive social effects of mediated experience:

The spectra of a policy controlled by the fads and whims of voters who actually believe that there are significant differences between Bud Lite and Miller Lite, and who think that professional wrestling is for real, is naturally alarming to people who don't. But then countries controlled via the command-line interface, as it were, by double-domed intellectuals, be they religious or secular, are generally miserable places to live.

The cultural distinctions are interesting but frankly not important. The real and important division is between makers and users. Let's divide the computing world into three classes and look at how the Morlocks and the Eloi sort out:

The desktop is Eloi territory. Apple conceived it, Microsoft owns it, and most of us populate it. The server is a bit of a mix. It's a Morlock business, but with a lot of Eloi sensibilities. This is why Linux and Windows NT/2K are both growing in absolute numbers and market share (and I want to be sure not to insult the countless Morlocks who hack righteously both on and with various Windows products). The embedded world is all Morlock. It always was, and always will be.

The notion of a device that does everything is ludicrous in the embedded world, which is comprised of nothing but specialties. The embedded world also doesn't need fancy metaphors because nobody wants a button or a dial to do “whatever”, depending on which application is running. There is no “whatever” in the embedded world. If you're dialing a radio or regulating a valve, you're doing it on a device intended to do just that and not much more.

It turns out that Linux, by virtue of its small size, modular form, familiarity and open-source code, is ideal for an infinitude of single purposes. It's also exceedingly practical. This is why the Morlocks will soon be hacking away at everything that can conceivably benefit from Net-connected embedded intelligence. Since this includes a vast amount of stuff, we can expect the Morlock population to quickly grow in number, diversity and power. The result will be a revolution far more profound and important than personal computing.

For the suits among us, the most important question might be, How long before Linux, which manifests as practical specialization, makes personal computing as we know it obsolete? In other words, when will it be easier and faster to hack together (or buy, or both) a point-of-sale system that runs on Linux, rather than cope with a third-party package that has to run on crusty old Windows98? Or an accounting system that does accounting and little more, but connects to the rest of the world over TCP/IP and runs on reliable generic hardware?

Let's put it another way. How long before nobody gets fired for specifying Linux because too many of the suits are Morlocks?

Here's a good place to start: it's already that way at IBM.

Doc Searls (doc@ssc.com) is senior editor of Linux Journal and coauthor of The Cluetrain Manifesto.

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Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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