Computer Crawler

The command line mesmerizes me.

I never thought it'd come to that. That single blinking cursor intimidated me more than lines of code ever could. How did the command line grab a hold of me? Let's just say it might have involved some magic.

Before my essay I'd like to refer to a piece that helped me better articulate my fascination (as good writing often does) — Zach Mandeville & Angelica Blevins' rhapsodic introduction to the command line:

Beneath the visual surface of your computer is an old and powerful magic, a silent but quick stream of energy that the computer draws from for power. This magic is hidden but always present, like the sacred well held in the base of a cathedral.

This hidden place has many names: Shell, Terminal, Bash, Zsh, The Command Line. All of these names are correct, but incomplete; accurate to a part, but unable to describe the whole. Like all magical things, there are aspects of the command line always beyond our articulation.

Too, Like so many magical things, the secular world will always try to deform and defang it. Modern tech culture will describe the command line as an obscure productivity tool; something you learn only to impress other tech folk (a meaningless activity) or to become a “power user” (a meaningless phrase). Conventional tech wisdom will tell you that the command line is an intimidating, obscure, imposing place — impossible to learn and dangerous to use. This is only an attempt to hide its true nature: the command line is a place made entirely of our first occult technology, the word.

The command line is pure language, and to exist in it is to practice all the reality-shifting and world manifesting power of metaphor and dialogue. This is a place of empowerment, tangible creativity, and mystic bewilderment. While it can be dangerous, it’s also exceedingly helpful if you know how to listen.

Source: The Map is the Territory

Zach & Angelica get at the intimacy I find in the command line. You type in words and the computer responds in kind. Such a tight feedback loop begins an improvisatory jam session, each musician responding to what the other does. It starts to feel nothing like programming.

And that get's at the other aspect of Zach & Angelica's introduction — the command line's magic of pure language. You never think about how magical the command line is until you realize the things you can do with a couple words — start a server, connect to another computer, scan for open connections in your network, write to a file. The fluff of HTML, CSS, & JavaScript is removed. Publishing a blog post from the command line is more like an incantation than pressing a “Publish” button ever could be.

When paired with the ability to navigate, the command line turns the computer into a mysterious labyrinth. It's no surprise that early, text-based RPG's resemble the command line more than modern day RPG's. The first dungeon crawler was the command line. What's more, this is a dungeon you not only explore but construct yourself, adding new alley ways along with more knowledge of the magic latent within the machine. And that labyrinth can be interconnected with other labyrinths, until you get to a tangled, Borgesian beast — something like the Internet.

All of this isn't to gamify the experience of the command line. The more you use it, this talk starts to feel less like a metaphor and more like a reality. That is why I love the earnestness of Zach & Angelica's writing. The command line is a place of empowerment, tangible creativity, and mystic bewilderment. It reminds me of one of Arthur C. Clarke's Three Laws — a highly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The command line will continue to enthrall me for that reason.