Rhodri Marsden: Believe it or not, the author of Game of Thrones likes to keep it simple
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Wednesday 21 May 2014
I'm typing this on a blank screen. If we disregard the pigeon outside my window and the movement of my fingers on the keyboard, there are no other visual distractions. No menus, no toolbars, no bouncing alerts, no wavy lines to help with my speling (sic) or opportunities to change the way that the words look. It's got to be that way.
My capacity for distraction eclipses my capacity for knuckling down; thankfully, the software I use recognises this and I thank the developers for it, otherwise I'd be typing this at 8pm rather than 3pm. I'm barely using five per cent of the features of the software, and less than one per cent of the computer's processor power, but I have to forget about that unused capacity. It's like using an industrial-strength hydraulic plate compactor to crack a nut, but I have to pretend otherwise.
Some solidarity on this issue comes in the formidable shape of George R R Martin, writer of the novels that were adapted into the TV series Game Of Thrones. A few days ago, he explained on an American chat show that he does all his writing on a DOS-based PC running WordStar 4.1, a word processor that's more than 20 years old and that was probably deemed obsolete until he casually mentioned that it's the power behind a publishing phenomenon. Martin's gripe was the same as mine; if the technology you're using is more powerful than the technology you need to get the job done, the resulting gap inevitably gets filled with activities that have nothing to do with that job – making things look nice, reorganising filing systems and, worst of all, idly looking for videos of feats of strength on YouTube.
Phrases such as "feature creep" and "bloatware" are commonly used to describe the way applications become heftier, rapidly growing in size and eventually busting their zip. Whether it's software manufacturers desperately trying to satisfy the insatiable hunger of ever-larger processors, or simply trying to give their developers something to do every day, applications can become grotesque distortions of their earlier, simpler iterations.
I remember the horror that greeted the release of the monstrous version 6.0 of Microsoft Word in the mid 1990s; it was enough to prompt the company to offer customers a free downgrade back to the simpler, more straightforward version 5.1. Word processors don't need to be complicated, and yet... if you fancy a laugh, try opening all the toolbars in Microsoft Word at once and see if you have any room on the screen for a document. As Martin said in the interview, "I don't want any help". He just wants to write.
The audience laughed at Martin's revelation, and the reaction online was also one of condescending amusement, a kind of "no no, George, give it here... you should really have asked my advice before you started". It's perfectly possible that if Martin had said that he'd used quill and parchment, there would have been nods of admiration – but it really doesn't matter; creativity sometimes has only a tangential relationship to the tools that enable it, and they'd never have known what he'd been using if he hadn't told them.
Wordstar 4.1, on an computer with no internet access? Are you mad, George? Where's your backup strategy? Why don't you get a brand new Chromebook? Are you aware of its astonishing power? George is aware, of course. He knows that computers are great enablers. Problem is, they sometimes enable the wrong things.
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