Man Fingers and the Joys of Command-line Computing

October 18, 2011

Stephen Ramsey has written a series of articles about the advantages of typed interfaces, that is those programs which you use from the command line by typing instructions rather than clicking on ‘buttons’ with a mouse.

His argument is that it’s a lot more convoluted to click, click, click, click, drag, click than to simply type (for example)

'play song.mp3'

While I don’t necessarily agree that it’s easier to remember the correct commands than it is to fumble through different menus and shortcuts, he does make a good point about the modern antithesis of the command line: Apple products.

Apple products ‘just’ work. Plug them in, press the button, and music appears on your iPod; films appear on your iPad.

But, if it breaks, good luck trying to fix it. Yes, you can take your Macbook apart, or give your iPod to a shop in the hope they can replace the screen. But there are so many other things that – as thousands of people have surely found out – are impossible to diagnose, let alone fix. In those cases you’re going to have to get another.

This is bad for your pocket, bad for the environment, and bad for computing.

Know Thy Gadget

In Ye Goode Olde Dayse repairing the lawnmower or the TV was not just a matter of saving money, it was a matter of course. They were simpler objects, admittedly, but thinking that your computer or gadget is a black box from which no knowledge shall escape is exactly what the companies who seal these things together want you to think.

One of the benefits of learning to use the command line is that you know a lot more about your computer and how it works. You get used to where different parts of the system live, where programs store their configuration and what you need to back up to preserve it.

You build an appreciation of exactly what your computer is. And you can find out what’s gone wrong.

One of the assumptions people make with command lines is that they’re for power users. They’re for people who want to do complicated things. But the truth is that command line tasks are very basic: list the contents of the folder, copy, paste, move, edit a file. The beauty is that you can then put these building blocks together to build whatever you want. Just because you don’t know how to built a decent wall doesn’t mean a brick is complicated.

So where does this fit in with the ‘unconvenient’ thesis? Well, it’s probably plainly obvious to most people that the command line is ‘unconvenient’, but as with other things to be covered by this site there are many advantages to getting your hands dirty, doing it yourself, and knowing how things work:

  • Become able to diagnose problems;
  • Free yourself from the apron strings of the manufacturer;
  • Recover your data from the system when the graphics don’t work properly, or when the computer won’t boot (read all about the beauty of live CDs);
  • Show off to your geeky mates.

I’m sure there are others – feel free to share in the comments!