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This is a book about Unix programming, but in it we're going to toss around the words ‘culture’, ‘art’, and ‘philosophy’ a lot. If you are not a programmer, or you are a programmer who has had little contact with the Unix world, this may seem strange. But Unix has a culture; it has a distinctive art of programming; and it carries with it a powerful design philosophy. Understanding these traditions will help you build better software, even if you're developing for a non-Unix platform.
Every branch of engineering and design has technical cultures. In most kinds of engineering, the unwritten traditions of the field are parts of a working practitioner's education as important as (and, as experience grows, often more important than) the official handbooks and textbooks. Senior engineers develop huge bodies of implicit knowledge, which they pass to their juniors by (as Zen Buddhists put it) “a special transmission, outside the scriptures”.
Software engineering is generally an exception to this rule; technology has changed so rapidly, software environments have come and gone so quickly, that technical cultures have been weak and ephemeral. There are, however, exceptions to this exception. A very few software technologies have proved durable enough to evolve strong technical cultures, distinctive arts, and an associated design philosophy transmitted across generations of engineers.
The Unix culture is one of these. The Internet culture is another — or, in the twenty-first century, arguably the same one. The two have grown increasingly difficult to separate since the early 1980s, and in this book we won't try particularly hard.