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Why DOS shouldn't be forgotten

Just like that, I felt like I had transformed into someone born in 1795. I didn’t have a cane handy, but if I had, I’m sure I would have started waving it at my co-workers and screaming at them to get off my lawn. (Or, more likely given where I work, my WLAN.)

After a few minutes, my bewildered rage disappeared and I managed to think a bit more clearly. It occurred to me that, on some level, Sarah’s reaction shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. DOS, after all, in its traditionally understood form at any rate, hasn’t been a part of most computer users’ lives since well before we plunged into the 2000s, and it had been heavily on the wane since the release of Windows 95 pounded the final nail in the coffin of mainstream command line interfaces.

But just as I expect all people to have a working knowledge of their own country’s history, I also think it’s vital for those who are serious about technology to have a strong understanding of where we’ve come from. So if Sarah’s response was justified from her perspective, my exasperated incredulity was from mine as well.

I remain convinced that a strong background in the tools and techniques you needed to use in the DOS days is still relevant today, in our GUI-driven culture. Aside from obvious things, like using the command prompt to get extensive directory listings or deal with detailed network settings in reasonable ways, it’s still important not to be afraid to edit (or at least look at) system files, tweak settings, and compile and edit batch files.

A solid majority of users can get along without these skills, true, but if you remember the days when they were your sole interaction with the computer, your perspective on all they can offer you is very different. And, to me, richer. Because it means you own your computer at the deepest possible level. You’re in full control of it – you’re not at its mercy – and that’s exactly the way things should be.

The importance of Pi

This also reinforces what I believe is the necessary role of systems like the Raspberry Pi: Computers have evolved to such a point that even people who should know better secretly think they might screw them up. When I had to shove my way through my colleagues gaping at the Raspberry Pi setup I’d thrown together, I couldn’t help but notice the dumbstruck looks on their faces – many of them had either never been faced with a command line before, or had forgotten the power it bestows upon the user. As amazed as they were by this ancient interface on a ruthlessly modern £30 no-frills computer, none of them was able (or, if I give them the benefit of the doubt, willing) to use it. To my mind, that’s not progress.

I take a lot of heat around here for being old-fashioned, and as I’ve mentioned before a lot of my office friends scoff at my love for system building and other DIY pursuits as being out of touch with the modern computing world. I’m constantly having to explain my passion for all this stuff and the way I approach the pursuit of it, when 15 years ago my level of knowledge and interest would have been par for the course – and a language all practitioners immediately understood.

To be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone their opinions about this stuff. Curmudgeonly as I may be, I ultimately think that the only thing that really matters is that people surround themselves with what works best for them. But, for the most part, people aren’t really aware what that is because they don’t have a full perspective. Who’s really missing the point: The one who looks at the full span of technological achievement, and suggests that maybe a certain hack from 30 years ago works better than the equivalent one today, but still uses modern products for other things for which they’re better suited? Or the one who lives so entirely in the now that there’s no good product, better product, or best product, just the next product – whatever it may be?

Fun with Autoexec.bat

I’ve made my choice, and I’m happy with it, but I’d love it if others – especially those who claim to be enthusiastic about technology – would be willing to rethink their own presumptions about where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what we’ve accomplished along the way. No, DOS will never make a comeback, and in the grand scheme of things that’s probably for the best.

But knowing what it was and how it worked, and growing to not worry about tackling the most vexing problems, because you used to slave for hours over CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files to elicit the most performance out of your bleeding-edge games – that can still help you today. The specific skills may be useless in this day and age, but the problem solving and mental engagement they encouraged are timeless, and of use in endeavours far beyond computers.

Because, once upon a time, developers didn’t see tools as brain-dead devices, but as electronic extensions of the human mind that made anything possible to those who knew the tricks and had the guts to use them. I, for one, am in favour of everyone being as connected as possible to each other by the products, big and small, that surround us. But if the population becomes a gibbering ball of helplessness whenever a graphical OS crashes or Linux systems suddenly become integral to our lives (and don’t think they won’t as soon as Windows 8 comes out), we haven’t gained anything.

Rather than Sarah asking, “What’s DOS?” she should be asking, “What can I learn from it that will still be useful today?”

My plan is to do everything I can to teach her the answer to that question. Maybe a copy of The Windows Command Line Beginner’s Guide will do the trick. Or maybe I need to sit her down in front of the Raspberry Pi and run through the basics of “apt-get.” I haven’t yet figured out the best course of action, but something must be done – and soon. Hopefully my efforts will inspire her, and perhaps even others, to realise that, though they’re frequently difficult to see in 2012, the lessons of DOS are far from DOA.