Sunday, January 15, 2017

Books I'm Reading: Machine Beauty

I've just read David Gelernter's Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology (Basic Books, 1998). I don't remember when or how I acquired the book. It was among those long unread on my bookshelves. It's quite out of date now in some respects, but not uninteresting because of that.

Gelernter makes one central point in his thin volume: that beauty is the essence of good design and good science. He defines beauty as the combination of simplicity and power. He has a lot to say about what is beautiful in computer software and about Apple Computer and the beauty of the Macintosh user interface—for example, arguing that Microsoft's theft of many of the Macintosh's features for Windows is proof of the superiority of the Macintosh interface. The book was written when Windows was comparatively new, when all computers were grey or beige plastic, and people made fun of the Macintosh because it was cute. This last irks Gelernter in particular, but we have made progress: Machine Beauty seems outdated precisely because much of the thinking he laments has receded. Today, few people think it strange that their phone is a slim, pretty slab of electronics with an attractive, intuitive, icon-based user interface. At least in the realm of computers and mobile devices, good design has largely prevailed.

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