The demographics of early UNIX users


code tech unix

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.

The Elements of Style: UNIX as Literature, Thomas Scoville