Ergonomic aesthetics

The personal computer is a sorry tool. A tool should lie easy in the hand, though it may take years to master. The great trick with computers is the interface, and to some extent it must conceal what’s going on inside: we don’t want to be bothered with that, we want to write, administer, communicate, gather information or be entertained. But the cost lies in the ugliness of the tools blissful indifference demands. There are two aspects to this. The software often tries to do too much, for instance, bringing together editing and graphical design seems like a benefit, but the tasks would probably be done better separately; both also require skills that the computer itself cannot teach. Secondly, when things don’t work there’s often no way to fix them, and error messages are confusing because they don’t offer real choices. Knowledge means learning whether “OK” or “Cancel” will make the irritating boxes go away sooner. The alternative to putting up with this lumbering, clunky thing is to fix your own bike — Linux. That means encountering ballbearings, and other unattractive, greasy things, sooner or later. But people don’t usually go back. Enthusiasts justify their preference because of freedom, control and efficiency. I’d say this freedom relates to aesthetics in two ways. First, design isn’t corrupted by marketing, so applications aren’t overloaded with features or tied to something else. Secondly, fixing things reveals the spare beauty of what’s under the bonnet. Seeing it brings intrinsic satisfactions as well as greater control. Everything is interface till you reach the microprocessor at the heart of the onion, which is just a box to crunch bits and bytes. The onion is a human creation like any other, as ugly as bad taste allows, as fine as art can make it. Perhaps like the classics, it’s not for everyone, but it’s important some pursue this knowledge. The result is the Linux desktop probably now passes the “granny test” and the main commercial alternative doesn’t, though in both cases there’s bound to be a need for occasional support. sapere aude!

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