Unix as Literature

John M. Klassa (klassa@aur.alcatel.com)
Thu, 08 Oct 1998 15:21:25 -0400

Brief excerpt:

> Working on the command line, hands poised over the keys uninterrupted
> by frequent reaches for the mouse, is a posture familiar to wordsmiths
> (especially the really old guys who once worked on teletypes or
> electric typewriters). It makes some of the same demands as writing an
> essay. Both require composition skills. Both demand a thorough knowledge
> of grammar and syntax. Both reward mastery with powerful, compact
> expression.

Summary: Unix is about words. Certain kinds of people are drawn to
using words over other forms of interaction. Words rule. :-)

[ Reproduced, without permission, from:
http://www.performancecomputing.com/features/9809of1.shtml ]

Unix Review / Performance Computing / Features / September, 1998

The Elements Of Style: UNIX As Literature

If there's nothing different about UNIX people, how come so many were
liberal-arts majors? It's the love of words that makes UNIX stand out.

by Thomas Scoville

In the late 1980s, I worked in the advanced R&D arm of the Silicon
Valley's regional telephone company. My lab was populated mostly by
Ph.D.s and gifted hackers. It was, as you might expect, an all-UNIX

The manager of the group was an exception: no advanced degree, no
technical credentials. He seemed pointedly self-conscious about it. We
suspected he felt (wrongly, we agreed) underconfident of his education
and intellect. One day, a story circulated through the group that
confirmed our suspicions: the manager had confided he was indeed
intimidated by the intelligence of the group, and was taking steps to
remedy the situation. His prescription, though, was unanticipated: "I
need to become more of an intellectual," he said. "I'm going to learn

Needless to say, we made more than a little fun out of this. I mean,
come on: as if UNIX could transform him into a mastermind, like the
supplicating scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz." I uncharitably imagined a
variation on the old Charles Atlas ads: "Those senior engineers will
never kick sand in my face again."

But part of me was sympathetic: "The boss isn't entirely wrong, is
he? There is something different about UNIX people, isn't there?" In
the years since, I've come to recognize what my old manager was getting
at. I still think he was misguided, but in retrospect I think his belief
was more accurate than I recognized at the time.

To be sure, the UNIX community has its own measure of technical
parochialism and nerdy tunnel vision, but in my experience there
seemed to be a suspicious overrepresentation of polyglots and
liberal-arts folks in UNIX shops. I'll admit my evidence is sketchy
and anecdotal. For instance, while banging out a line of shell, with a
fellow engineer peering over my shoulder, I might make an intentionally
obscure literary reference:

if test -z `ps -fe | grep whom` then echo ^G fi # Let's see for whom
the bell tolls.

UNIX colleagues were much more likely to recognize and play in a way
I'd never expect in the VMS shops, IBM's big-iron data centers, or DOS
ghettos on my consulting beat.

Being a liberal-arts type myself (though I cleverly concealed this
in my resume), I wondered why this should be true. My original
explanation--UNIX's historical association with university computing
environments, like UC Berkeley's--didn't hold up over the years; many
of the UNIX-philiacs I met came from schools with small or absent
computer science departments. There had to be a connection, but I had no
plausible hypothesis.

It wasn't until I started regularly asking UNIX refuseniks what they
didn't like about UNIX that better explanations emerged.

Some of the prevailing dislike had a distinctly populist flavor--people
caught a whiff of snobbery about UNIX and regarded it with the same
proletarian resentment usually reserved for highbrow institutions like
opera or ballet. They had a point: until recently, UNIX was the lingua
franca of computing's upper crust. The more harried, practical, and
underprivileged of the computing world seemed to object to this aura of
privilege. UNIX adepts historically have been a coddled bunch, and tend
to be proud of their hard-won knowledge. But these class differences
are fading fast in modern computing environments. Now UNIX engineers
are more common, and low- or no-cost UNIX variations run on inexpensive
hardware. Certainly UNIX folks aren't as coddled in the age of NT.

There was a standard litany of more specific criticisms: UNIX is
difficult and time-consuming to learn. There are too many things to
remember. It's arcane and needlessly complex.

But the most recurrent complaint was that it was too
text-oriented. People really hated the command line, with all the
utilities, obscure flags, and arguments they had to memorize. They
hated all the typing. One mislaid character and you had to start
over. Interestingly, this complaint came most often from users of the
GUI-laden Macintosh or Windows platforms. People who had slaved away
on DOS batch scripts or spent their days on character-based terminals
of multiuser non-UNIX machines were less likely to express the same

Though I understood how people might be put off by having to remember
such willfully obscure utility names like cat and grep, I continued to
be puzzled at why they resented typing. Then I realized I could connect
the complaint with the scores of "intellectual elite" (as my manager
described them) in UNIX shops. The common thread was wordsmithing;
a suspiciously high proportion of my UNIX colleagues had already
developed, in some prior career, a comfort and fluency with text and
printed words. They were adept readers and writers, and UNIX played
handily to those strengths. UNIX was, in some sense, literature to
them. Suddenly the overrepresentation of polyglots, liberal-arts types,
and voracious readers in the UNIX community didn't seem so mysterious,
and pointed the way to a deeper issue: in a world increasingly dominated
by image culture (TV, movies, .jpg files), UNIX remains rooted in the
culture of the word.

UNIX programmers express themselves in a rich vocabulary of system
utilities and command-line arguments, along with a flexible, varied
grammar and syntax. For UNIX enthusiasts, the language becomes second
nature. Once, I overheard a conversation in a Palo Alto restaurant:
"there used to be a shrimp-and-pasta plate here under ten bucks. Let me
see...cat menu | grep shrimp | test -lt $10..." though not syntactically
correct (and less-than-scintillating conversation), a diner from an NT
shop probably couldn't have expressed himself as casually.

With UNIX, text--on the command line, STDIN, STDOUT, STDERR--is the
primary interface mechanism: UNIX system utilities are a sort of Lego
construction set for word-smiths. Pipes and filters connect one utility
to the next, text flows invisibly between. Working with a shell, awk/lex
derivatives, or the utility set is literally a word dance.

Working on the command line, hands poised over the keys uninterrupted
by frequent reaches for the mouse, is a posture familiar to wordsmiths
(especially the really old guys who once worked on teletypes or
electric typewriters). It makes some of the same demands as writing an
essay. Both require composition skills. Both demand a thorough knowledge
of grammar and syntax. Both reward mastery with powerful, compact

At the risk of alienating both techies and writers alike, I also suggest
that UNIX offers something else prized in literature: a coherence, a
consistent style, something writers call a voice. It doesn't take much
exposure to UNIX before you realize that the UNIX core was the creation
of a very few well-synchronized minds. I've never met Dennis Ritchie,
Brian Kernighan, or Ken Thompson, but after a decade and a half on UNIX
I imagine I might greet them as friends, knowing something of the shape
of their thoughts.

You might argue that UNIX is as visually oriented as other OSs. Modern
UNIX offerings certainly have their fair share of GUI-based OS
interfaces. In practice though, the UNIX core subverts them; they end up
serving UNIX's tradition of word culture, not replacing it. Take a look
at the console of most UNIX workstations: half the windows you see are
terminal emulators with command-line prompts or vi jobs running within.

Nowhere is this word/image culture tension better represented than in
the contrast between UNIX and NT. When the much-vaunted UNIX-killer
arrived a few years ago, backed by the full faith and credit of
the Redmond juggernaut, I approached it with an open mind. But NT
left me cold. There was something deeply unsatisfying about it. I
had that ineffable feeling (apologies to Gertrude Stein) there
was no there there. Granted, I already knew the major themes of
system and network administration from my UNIX days, and I will
admit that registry hacking did vex me for a few days, but after my
short scramble up the learning curve I looked back at UNIX with the
feeling I'd been demoted from a backhoe to a leaf-blower. NT just
didn't offer room to move. The one-size-fits-all, point-and-click,
we've-already-anticipated-all-your-needs world of NT had me yearning
for those obscure command-line flags and man -k. I wanted to craft my
own solutions from my own toolbox, not have my ideas slammed into the
visually homogenous, prepackaged, Soviet world of Microsoft Foundation

NT was definitely much too close to image culture for my comfort:
endless point-and-click graphical dialog boxes, hunting around the
screen with the mouse, pop-up after pop-up demanding my attention. The
experience was almost exclusively reactive. Every task demanded a
GUI-based utility front-end loaded with insidious assumptions about how
to visualize (and thus conceptualize) the operation. I couldn't think
"outside the box" because everything literally was a box. There was no
opportunity for ad hoc consideration of how a task might alternately be

I will admit NT made my life easier in some respects. I found myself
doing less remembering (names of utilities, command arguments, syntax)
and more recognizing (solution components associated with check boxes,
radio buttons, and pull-downs). I spent much less time typing. Certainly
my right hand spent much more time herding the mouse around the
desktop. But after a few months I started to get a tired, desolate
feeling, akin to the fatigue I feel after too much channel surfing or
videogaming: too much time spent reacting, not enough spent in active
analysis and expression. In short, image-culture burnout.

The one ray of light that illuminated my tenure in NT environments was
the burgeoning popularity of Perl. Perl seemed to find its way into
NT shops as a CGI solution for Web development, but people quickly
recognized its power and adopted it for uses far outside the scope of
Web development: system administration, revision control, remote file
distribution, network administration. The irony is that Perl itself is
a subset of UNIX features condensed into a quick-and-dirty scripting
language. In a literary light, if UNIX is the Great Novel, Perl is the
Cliffs Notes.

Mastery of UNIX, like mastery of language, offers real freedom. The
price of freedom is always dear, but there's no substitute. Personally,
I'd rather pay for my freedom than live in a bitmapped, pop-up-happy
dungeon like NT. I'm hoping that as IT folks become more seasoned
and less impressed by superficial convenience at the expense of real
freedom, they will yearn for the kind of freedom and responsibility UNIX
allows. When they do, UNIX will be there to fill the need.

(Thomas Scoville has been wrestling with UNIX since 1983. He currently
works at Expert Support Inc. in Mountain View, CA.)

John Klassa / Alcatel / Raleigh, NC, USA / $perl_monger{Raleigh}[0] / <><