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What is the command line?

The command line is a text-based way of interacting with your computer. You may hear it called different names, such as the terminal, the shell, or bash. In practice, you can use these terms interchangeably. (If you're curious, though, you can read more about them in the glossary.) The shell we use (whether terminal, shell, or bash) is a program that accepts commands as text input and converts commands into appropriate operating system functions.

And yes, "the command line" is also laden with masculine and military metaphors, which is reflective of the history of computing and programming. As Wendy Hui Kyong Chun discusses in "On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge" (2004), almost all computers (as in human comput-ers) in the US during World War II were young women. Human computers received commands from analysts--predominantly men with the military--that they then had to interpret and act upon the machine. As Chun argues, "computation depends on 'yes, sir' in response to short declarative sentences and imperatives that are in essence commands ... The command line is a mere operating system (OS) simulation" (page 34). The command line (of computers today) receives these commands as text that is typed in. (Learn more about the politics of computing, among other things, in our ethics workshop.)

What does "text-based" mean?

For those of us comfortable reading and writing, the idea of "text-based" in the context of computers can seem a bit strange. As we start to get comfortable typing commands to the computer, it's important to distinguish "text" from word processed, desktop publishing (think Microsoft Word or Google Docs) in which we use software that displays what we want to produce without showing us the code the computer is reading to render the formatting. Plain text has the advantage of being manipulable in different contexts.

Let's take a quick moment to discuss text and text editors.

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