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A few things I learnt about the GUI and the command line.

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This post was inspired by the following Unix koan:

Master Foo Discourses on the Graphical User Interface

With the GUI, we’re trying to use a graphical metaphor to describe to the computer what we want it to do. This graphical metaphor – a series of actons depicted on the screen – is translated into commands that the computer can understand, after which the commands are executed and the computer is deemed to have done what we’ve asked.

With the command line, we tell the computer directly, in commands that it understands (or closer to what it’s able to execute), and it executes them directly. There is still a layer of abstraction and translation between the text-based interface and what the computer executes, but it’s certainly closer than the GUI.

Aside from the speed of execution (which isn’t really noticeable these days), there’s a conceptual delay as well. In the command line, we learn to speak the computer’s language and tell it what to do. In the GUI, we’re trying to show the computer what we want it to do via graphical metaphor, and we ourselves must learn these graphical metaphors. The metaphors are supposed to mimic the actions we take in real life, but we describe them not by performing these actions as we normally do (e.g. throwing a document into a trash bin), but through the use of a mouse and moving graphical elements around a screen (e.g. moving a mouse on the table, which moves a small arrow on the screen onto an image of a piece of paper representing a document titled “my_document.doc”, clicking the mouse button, holding it down and moving the mouse again, which drags the image of the piece of paper towards the corner of the screen, and releasing the mouse button when the image of the piece of paper lies on top of the image of a trash bin, representing the act of deleting the document.*)

What a roundabout way of deleting a file, as compared to typing ‘rm my_document.doc’ in the command line.

That said, it’s understandable that the graphical metaphor may be easier to learn (through demonstration and remembering a series of actions) than text-based commands. So we trade off brevity (both in mental concept and physical execution) for ease of learning.

* The above description still doesn’t actually delete the file. You’ll still need to right-click on the mouse with the mouse pointer on the trash icon and select “Empty trash” from the pop-up menu in order to properly delete the file. That’s when you fall off the edge of the graphical metaphor and still have to issue some kind of text-based instruction (albeit selected from a menu) to the computer. Something isn’t right here.


Written by tokyotribe

May 30, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Posted in Tech

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