"Why do we put up with it?" asks David Gelernter, Professor of Computer Science at Yale, in his new book The Aesthetics of Computing (Weidenfeld, pounds 12.99). "It" is software that is stuffed with unnecessary features, a pain to learn and use, and loaded into the ugly grey boxes that squat like toads on almost every desktop in the developed world.
Not everybody does put up with it, for the very good reasons that Gelernter notes, and they forego the benefits as a result. Very occasionally they react even more strongly. One person decided to conduct a terrorist campaign of resistance against the digital world, and became notorious as the "Unabomber". Among his targets was David Gelernter, to whom he sent a letter bomb. Like the Unabomber, Gelernter has issued a manifesto, but it's a considerably lighter read (and only part of it is on the Web, unlike the Unabomber Manifesto, which is posted in full). Unconcerned with the pathological fringes of technophobia, Gelernter's own mission statement is upbeat, funny and all about making computers making our lives easier rather than harder.
The key to this, he argues, is beauty. He is patently a man of taste: his principal exhibit in the pantheon of computer beauty is the Apple desktop, the most important design of the late 20th century, and he thinks that Crayola's sea green is "the greatest crayon colour ever invented". I'm partial to Ocean Green and Seaweed myself, but as it happens I have never actually seen crayons in these colours. The current version of the Macintosh operating system includes a colour selection facility in the form of an image of a set of crayons, among which you can spend many a happy half-hour, clicking until you find just the right tone for your text or images. This would seem to be a glaring example of exactly the kind of unnecessary feature that Gelernter has in his sights, especially since there are three other colour pickers. Yet it is very easy to use; it provides alternatives to primary colours, which can become tiresome on the screen-adapted eye; and it allows you to re-use colours without recording the arcane statistics of hue angle, saturation and lightness. My only regret is that Seaweed doesn't show up very well on the Technofile home pages (motto: "Minimum Code for a Faster Download").
Similarly, I'm still enjoying my honeymoon with Word 98, and its extra features are a large part of the reason. I like the way that it anticipates what I'm doing when I begin to type my name, for example, and that when I put the mouse over a footnote marker, a little box appears containing the footnote text. For most users, the first trick will probably be welcome, and the second completely useless. Either way, these are not earth-shattering innovations. But they lower the stress loading upon a small proportion of the myriad moments that make up the working day, and the cumulative effect makes a real difference. Maybe this is the acceptable face of baroque software design, in which a package becomes stuffed with so many features that you end up with some you actually want. If so, there's hope for digital TV, though I suspect we may need a lot more than 200 channels before there's something worth watching at any given time.
Yet the head as well as the heart say that Gelernter must be right. He may also have a point when he suggests that many professionals looked askance at beautiful systems such as the Apple desktop because they wanted software that looked as though it had been "designed for men by men". When it first appeared, the Apple interface was widely regarded as too cute to be a serious business tool. Fifteen years later, in its Windows incarnation, it is ubiquitous. Even a few years ago, though, you'd still encounter guys who regarded graphical interfaces as sissy gimmicks. They had much in common with those grizzled and oilstained bikers who insisted that British motorbikes, built by men for men, were superior to their Japanese competitors.
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`I don't want to save bits of paper any more, nor computer disks nor videotapes, nor do I wish to care about whether my home computer is compatible with my office computer - or lug a laptop computer with me on trips, or be out of touch anywhere I go. Nor do I want to organize my computer documents into "files", nor be obliged to make up silly names every time I create documents - I want my life to be perfectly organized, and I want to spend no time whatsoever organizing it. In short, I want a "lifestream"'
David Gelernter, in the 1994 `Washington Post' article that launched the Lifestreams big idea
`When computer designers get drunk and go crazy, they dream up wild colors like pale dove gray and bleached oatmeal and intermediate eggshell and then pass out from the sheer creative exertion'
When David Gelernter gets his crayons out, however, he dreams up computers like these
LIFE IS BUT A STREAM
David Gelernter and his colleagues at Mirror Worlds Technologies are working on a commercial version of a system they call Lifestreams, which they hope may one day replace desktops and windows on computer screens. Their vision is of a stream of documents, starting with our birth certificates, measuring out our lives. None of these will be filed in the conventional sense, nor need they be named, so we won't have to remember what we called them or where we put them. Instead, documents will be selected and organised each time we make a request: "get me my e-mail"; "pay my bills", "find anything about watercolours", "let me see my home videos from 1998". The idea is to maximise power by maximising simplicity. "Our guidelines in designing this system," declares Gelernter, "...were exclusively aesthetic."