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Unix - Love it or hate it?

© December 1998 Tony Lawrence
December 1998

Thomas Scoville wrote an interesting piece in Performance Computing's September 1998 issue: www.performance-computing.com/features/9809of1.shtml (link dead, sorry)

Just in case the link is down or moved, I'll quote just two paragraphs here:

Link is long gone - good thing I pulled these:

       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 grievance. 

       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.

Suppose he's right? I think you could argue that his argument has some holes in it, but on the other hand, it has some strong points, too. Is he is right?

Well, one thing you might expect is a different style of writing in the Windows newsgroups vs. the Unix groups. I've looked at some Windows newsgroups recently, and I think I can see a difference, but that might be prejudiced by predisposition to see what I expect to see. If you have never read a Windows newsgroup, take a look. You might not agree with me, but then again you just might.

So, I'm at least partially convinced that there is something to this. If there is, then we need to pay very close attention to what happens next:

Verbal Computing

Computers you talk to. We all know that the reality of this is not very far away. Sure, there will always be keyboards, and there will always be written text, but speech is going to play a real role in the computing of the next century.


Well, if there's any meat to Thomas Scoville's assertion, then controlling computers with the spoken word will be a skill that some of us find pleasant and satisfying, while others wiill struggle with it and find it clumsy and awkward.

Realize I'm not talking about the primitive "Open file contacts.doc" type of speech control. That's no different than clicking on an icon (except perhaps that you don't have to find the icon!). What I'm envisioning is the same sort of control we have now when we create pipelines or shell scripts. That's a different level of interaction, a different level of control. Just as doing that now requires a certain type of communication skill, a certain understanding of syntax, so will the verbal computer require certain skills.

Who has those skills? Who will be "good" at this? And what about the computer model itself? Will it be the small tools philosophy of Unix or the big tool philosophy of Windows? Which works better with natural language computing? Or will it be something entirely different?

Is my statement that there "will always be keyboards" true, or does it just represent the limits of my imagination? Is there a difference between those adept with the written word and those who are skilled at verbal communication?

If there is such a difference (and I think that there is ), what kind of operational semantics might the verbal computer support? With Unix, we tie together pipelines and program with certain paradigms. Those paradigms shifted slightly with GUI's, shifted more with Objects; how much more do they shift with voice?

Interesting things to think about. But don't plan on thinking too long: this stuff will be here before we know it.

See also https://unix.oreilly.com/news/unix_love_0199.html

Got something to add? Send me email.

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