RE: In the Beginning was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson

Jim Whitehead (
Thu, 10 Jun 1999 10:03:11 -0700

> Even those few who actually
> understood what a computer operating system was were apt to think of it as
> a fantastically arcane engineering prodigy, like a breeder
> reactor or a U-2
> spy plane, and not something that could ever be (in the parlance of
> high-tech) "productized."

In a similar vein, I'm going to highly recommend "The Social Construction of
Technological Systems", a collection of essays edited by Wiebe E. Bijker,
Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch

The essays provide a compelling case that technological artifacts are
socially constructed (much as the creation of the operating system as a
separate product was socially constructed, although giving Microsoft all the
credit for this isn't fair, since IBM started the trend with separate
marketing of OS/360, creating an identity for the OS separate from the

One of the best essays is "Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts",
which explores the evolution of the bicycle from the early, big-front-wheel,
small-back-wheel ("Penny Farthing") models to today's bike which has two
equal size wheels. Since the bicycle began as a piece of sporting
equipment, for the use of young men to careen around the countryside, there
was little concern over this bike's propensity for tossing the rider over
the front wheel if a rock or brick were hit. This was inherent to the
design which placed the rider so high up on such a large wheel.

For sporting use, this aspect of the design was a plus, since it increased
the thrill factor, and made the bike more macho. But, as women and older
people startedusing the bike, this aspect was considered a safety problem.
Thus the *same* artifact was capable of *different* interpretation by user
populations. The concern over safety led to smaller, and eventually equal
sized wheels, and today's bicycle is a result of this safety bicycle
movement. But, simultaneous with the development of the safety bicycle,
there was continued development of sport models.

The same social construction applies to technological artifacts, perhaps
even more strongly, since they're not as wedded to the physical world. In
my view, one of the key success factors for the Web was that the media hyped
(and hence helped to socially construct) the Web as a *business* tool, in
addition to its educational and entertainment uses. In contrast, Gopher was
constructed much more as an educational tool, no doubt due to its initial
goal of creating a Campus Wide Information System (CWIS).

- Jim