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'Machine Beauty' is in the eye of the beholder

By David Auerbach

David Gelernter writes books to be read, no doubt about it. Machine Beauty and its immediate predecessor, Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber, both weigh in at around 150 pages and offer the same breezy, colloquial style, heavy on anecdote and light on rigor. Gelernter is less concerned with massive exegesis than with telling it like it is, and to that end, his tactics are those of accessibility and simile rather than technical detail and relentless argument. I say this because Machine Beauty is a book about aesthetics, and Gelernter's points make a lot more sense when you know what his aesthetic is.


Machine Beauty is about the beauty of technology and its underlying principles--in other words, the ideal merger of form and function. If the book has a central polemic (it could have many), it is that designers--particularly, software designers--don't spend enough time considering the issues of elegance and "beautiful" design, resulting in bulky, feature-crowded software. Gelernter singles out the Macintosh's graphical user interface (GUI) as an ingenious approach to simplifying the clutter of the home computer, and Microsoft Word as an aesthete's anathema. The criterion for machine beauty is the same as that for pornography: Gelernter knows it when he sees it.

The broadness of Gelernter's concept sends the book into a bewildering number of fields. In the first chapter alone, he veers from architectural beauty to Alan Sokal's attacks on postmodernism to why the western canon is a good thing. While he doesn't try to fit these topics into a contrived conceptual framework à la Hofstadter, addressing the entire book becomes difficult. For my part, I'll focus on the computer issues and leave the art, "lit crit," and furniture design sections to the reader.

Gelernter loves elegance and simplicity in interfaces: a clock without a time-zone display is better than one with. Likewise, he says that the best computer interfaces present abstractions that avoid unnecessary details while providing accessible frameworks. (Here, Gelernter's writing echoes that of Edward Tufte's books on information presentation.) The average person can grasp a computer's file structure much more easily with MacOS than MS-DOS, if for no other reason than that pictures of folders and smiling computers are a lot more inviting than a solitary, cryptic "C:\>" prompt. But I see no reason why Mac's are any more beautiful than DOS machines. Easier to learn, yes, but limiting, ostentatious, and slow.

Operating systems professor Andrew Tanenbaum shuns all graphics for a stripped down Unix derivative, with no actual loss in functionality, and bully for him. It's all the more puzzling that Gelernter extols parts of Unix for elegance when, stripped of a GUI (or even with one), it is as perplexing and confusing to the novitiate as that old "C:\>" prompt. If there is an aesthetic difference between the interfaces of MS-DOS and Unix shells, Gelernter regrettably doesn't clarify what it is.

One parameter Gelernter seems to have missed completely is accessibility. The same type of beauty may encompass the Macintosh GUI and particle physics, but damned if I don't find one facile and the other incomprehensible. Anyone with eyes can intuitively grasp the elegance of the Cesca chair; the elegance of the Quicksort sorting algorithm, and the Simula 67 programming language, however, requires a bit more thought. The Emacs text editor does as clean and flexible a job of encapsulating a million billion features as any program is likely to do, but its learning curve is undeniably higher than that of Microsoft Word. Rather than going hand in hand, elegance and power are at each other's throats; achieving a satisfactory balance between the two is a high-wire act. It's easy to produce a beautiful car amongst ugly ones, but producing a beautiful global information system will be near-impossible in a free-market world of heterogeneous software.

But as a self-styled visionary, Gelernter has the right to gravitate towards aesthetics while skimming over the practical issues--it's his job. And your appreciation of Machine Beauty boils down to your affinity for generally unique opinions that range from incontrovertible to dubious, fired at you with the speed of a pitching machine. The justifications of those opinions, like those of John Gardner's On Moral Fiction and Allan Bloom's works, are in the author's credentials. It's impossible to agree with the whole book, yet just as impossible to disagree with all of it. But conservative posturing aside, the man has something new to say, which is less common than you would think.

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