The One of the most important novellas in the formation of my technical philosophy was actually written by a science fiction author Neal Stephenson. “In the Beginning there was the Command Line” should be taught in every history of computer science course. Go download it now for free and enjoy 70 pages of riffing on the utopian possibilities of open systems, the accessibility of closed systems and who is the ultimate winners of computing becoming a closed system (surprise it’s Disney).
The premise of the essay is simple. There are two core tensions in how computing has been distributed: open versus closed. The basic manifestations of which philosophy you pick have significant impact on what your users can build but also how accessible your machine or application will be to users. Stephenson focuses on the GUI or graphical user interface, perfected by the closed Apple computer universe, and how it has made computing infinitely more accessible to the masses while also taking away some of the power and flexibility of the original command line interface of prior generations.
In the battle for powerful and hard versus easy but more limited, Americans chose easy and the rise of the GUI began. Dicking around with your computer, let alone your phone, almost isn’t possible without graphical representations of computer programs. Even though said programs are ultimately manipulated several systems down on a command line (you know the “hello world” text interface you might have seen on some NCIS dad cop procedural hacker show) most of us have thoroughly bought into the desktop metaphor of the original Apple GUI. And yes this is old news. This problem of the GUI got won in the eighties. But the basic problem of open versus closed still rages on with us.
The current debate is most vivid on in the financial world with crypto, Bitcoin and decentralized finance as we all yammer on about DAOs and NFTs. But you see it in social media as creators become locked into closed platforms from which export of their content is almost not an option as without distribution and audience access their work means nothing. Creator economy businesses can make money from individual closed platforms but struggle to build businesses as they are too tied to one type of revenue stream. If they are big on say YouTube or TikTok but can’t take their audience elsewhere that’s an issue. Imagine a world where they could take their business with them not be locked into one revenue stream for a platform they cannot change.
What I’ve written here is more like an appetizer course for the philosophy debate and not an argument. I have an opinion in the debate which is that open ecosystems are better for more types of people but I’m also writing this on an iPhone. But I’m writing using WordPress on my own domain rather than choosing a closed platform like Substack. So it’s not exactly a simple binary outcome for anyone ever. Which is all the more reason to go read the novella now.