Monthly Archives: October 2013

This piece in the Guardian looks like a version of Jonathan Franzen’s preface to his translation of a selection of essays by Karl Kraus. Franzen draws an analogy between Kraus’s critique of Viennese slickness a century ago and the glossiness of Apple’s products, as opposed to their main rival; just as Germanic plainness is preferable to superficial French chic, more honest, less diabolical, so PC clunkiness is more appealing than the sulphurous smoke and mirrors of the ergonomically superior Mac. Kraus is not being jingoistic because really, he has nothing against Gallic sophistication — just what passes for it in his own cultural sphere.

The waters are now muddied because although Microsoft can never catch up nor entirely shed its basic charmlessness, it has followed the same path towards a better-greased ride for the user. To see what Franzen is getting at — why he would knowingly choose a worse tool with which to exercise his craft — it helps to see Apple’s anti-PC advertising campaign. The following from his novel Freedom is tangentially indicative, too. Richard is on a train:

[…] his non-Apple MP3 player was loaded with a track of pink noise — white noise frequency-shifted towards the bass end and capable of neutralising every ambient sound the world could throw at him — and by donning big-cushioned headphones and angling himself toward the window and holding a Bernhard novel close to his face, he was able to achieve complete privacy until the train stopped in Philly. Here a white couple in their early twenties, wearing white T-shirts and eating white ice cream from waxed-paper cups, settled into the newly vacated seats in front of him. The extreme white of their T-shirts seemed to him the color of the Bush regime. The chick immediately reclined her seat into his space, and when she finished her ice cream, a few minutes later, she tossed the cup and spoon back under her seat, where his feet were. (p. 371)

The passage is all about the colours.

Franzen’s choice omits the third contender, Linux. It too can now be pretty slick, and needs many fewer hardware bucks to achieve that bang. But as I said, the waters have become muddied: Linux is the original Cinderella or Cordelia of the OS family tree. The dominance of computers and other electronic gadgetry over human life and culture is so recent that some historical background may be in order. When I first saw the point-and-click interface in the early nineties (it was an early Mac) I was convinced the gimmick would never catch on. Those ‘folders’ and ‘icons’ are merely a visual representation of what is still the underlying structure where files (whether data or programs) are organised in a hierarchy of directories (PC: folder). The concept is recursive: a directory may contain files or yet more directories, and so on. It is much more efficient to navigate up and down them with text and keyboard than with a mouse, but that black screen has no immediate visual appeal at all. It is ├╝ber-clunky. The genius of the mouse is that it is easy to grasp; the learning curve is short and shallow, all thorns tastefully removed, as enticing as the road to hell. There is even an element of manual satisfaction about it, like a video joystick. It’s child’s play, though it’s telling that the appeal only tends to take hold as the latency phase draws to a close.

This graphical interface truly facilitates some tasks, above all those that would be inconceivable without it (such as architectural design), but it has opened the way to ease of use in the sense of being able to do something (“make a home movie”) as easily as falling off a log, without understanding the process, which is given as little salience as possible: easy, that is, as in facile, with very limited control over the result, like the difference between an SLR camera and point-and-snap, where whatever is least out of the ordinary is unobtrusively, silently preferred; creative alternatives (such as depth of field) are kept in the box, making it harder to master the true range of possibilities. On the other hand, function creep leads to the accumulation of clutter, like a cheap stereo with a pointless graphical equaliser, so that a word processor tries and fails to do DTP, offering features far beyond the needs of someone writing a letter or a report for the office, but without the precise control of layout and the disposition of elements across the page that would make them meaningful. Such fool’s gold doesn’t just obfuscate, it corrupts, drawing our eye away from whatever we might usefully be doing. Whether the computer offers too little or too much, it enfeebles.

Though Linux too is now clothed in a graphical layer of some sophistication, this is done (for the most part) more transparently, and the substance beneath is easily accessible. Indeed, in the case of Windows from Vista on, that substance (DOS) doesn’t even really exist any more; there’s Faustian pacts for you. The same is true of the iPhone (so I am reliably informed by an app developer from Palo Alto). In sum, Jonathan Franzen, you should use Linux because it works better than Mac and is more honest than PC: your cake and eat it. It is not an unrelated point that Linux is fully open, it does not keep its workings hidden away (though they are likely to keep turning over quite well unattended and unremarked); indeed it invites scrutiny. I will resist the urge to step up onto the open source evangelical soapbox — it is a reasonable enough starting point to want the machine to “just work” — but the affinity between ergonomics, feel and ideology is elective, that is, no coincidence. If the user is infantilised and encouraged to be passive, click and consume, a shadow is cast over the soul. After all, that’s why one might prefer the hair shirt of worse over better, seen purely in terms of effectiveness as a tool. If slick smells of sulphur, follow your nose before the enchantment dulls your senses.