Command Line Therapy

Things have been moving pretty fast and chaotic lately, so I took a few days vacation after the holiday last week. With the extra free time, I set up a private server for myself, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for months but never found the time for. For the first time in a long time, it felt like I was playing with computers again.

Now, my website is running on my own private server, and its so exciting. I was able to publish something by writing a few lines into a dark terminal, hitting enter, and letting it fly. It felt like casting spells. Now I have my own private space, a little treehouse to pass time with, seclude myself within, and make my very own.

There’s a therapeutic effect to this kind of work: surrounded by craziness, this is a space that I can control. That’s comforting.

I saw a similar thought expressed (definitely more eloquently) in an issue of Craig Mod’s newsletter, in an excerpt he pulled from an unfinished essay on the therapy of server work. The way he puts it:

It’s a meaty task, a task for grunts, thankless, and one that requires strong focus. Most everything happens in the terminal, on the command line. Every action is key-precise. It can make a person weak in the knees to think about how much of the world’s smooth operation is contingent on typing (or clicking, as we’ve seen) accuracy. But it is, and when you move through the guts of your Linux flavor, you can’t help but stare gape-mouthed at the absurdity and beauty of the crisscross threads that keep the web and most of our digital (and by proxy, physical) infrastructure afloat.

Therein lies part of the attraction: moving through that jumble — with all of its language of grep and vi and git and apache and .ini — and doing so with talent, with a kind of fingers-floating-across-the-keyboard balletic grace, is downright exhilarating. It feels like you’re getting away with goddamn alchemy. And you are. You are typing esoteric words — words that can feel like an affront to nature in their nonsensicalness — into a line-by-line command interface, like an old Infocom game, except instead of finding Excalibur you’ve just scaffolded a publishing platform that can be accessed by a vast percentage of humans worldwide.

Server work provides a feeling of control, power, and autonomy—of freedom—that’s relatively easy and inexpensive to achieve. It’s not a financial or political freedom, just one that’s easily accessible. I don’t know if that’s good or bad—it’s probably both, and neither. But having explored this newfound freedom, I now have a better sense of what’s possible—and increased my ability to read the magic spells that everybody around me is conjuring into other products and businesses I find myself relying on day to day. I now find myself imaging replacements for the daily services and tools I use daily—email servers, music streaming, file storage—that makes self-reliance seem more feasible, even in an age when everything is interdependent.

Right now, my server is my therapy. And I’m kinda excited about that.