Contemporary Non-Fiction: Machine Beauty, by David Gelernter.

Back when consumer internet was fledgling and Google didn’t even exist, David Gelernter wrote about the future of computing – which he saw as a gradual release from the constraints of physical metaphors such as desktops and folders, and the rise of web-based storage and computing. He predicted that speedy internet would soon be in every household, and that the likeliest candidates for its delivery would be either phone or cable TV companies – or some combination of both. He described a world in which all your files would be stored in the “cloud” (a term he coined two years later in a piece for edge.org) and would be available to you on any machine connected to the internet. He described a device that would allow you to rewind your TV and watch any previously broadcast program. He even described what Apple would eventually release as “Time Machine” – the ability to save and revert to previous states of your computer.   Except he called it “Time Travel.”

These and other predictions are almost incidental to a book on the importance of beautiful design in computers. The book was widely read at Apple, of course, inasmuch as Gelernter applauds Apple’s design approach in contrast to Microsoft’s. He does point out that Apple still has basic problems – most of all their continued reliance on the file-cabinet metaphor and their failure to design exteriors for their computers as attractive and elegant as their software. (Remember, this predates the iMac.)

A good design must be beautiful – the Hoover Dam, the Cesca Chair, Dreyfuss’ telephone and Loewy’s Studebakers are all in here as examples. A beautiful design beats an ugly one.

So why then, the reader may ask, is Microsoft beating Apple? Hard to say, Gelernter writes, though a general market resistance to new ideas is partly responsible, together with Apple’s advertising, which makes them appear too “cute” and not serious enough for businesses. But Apple will win in the end, because ultimately beauty always does.

Of course the book feels dated in some respects – principally because the author needs to explain a number of things which today are commonplace or universal. But one cannot help but be staggered by the vivacious vividity of Gelernter’s imagination. And yet his conclusions were roundly disputed at the time. His doctoral student Eric Freeman, the co-inventor of Lifestreams, came close to failing his dissertation defense because computer scientists thought there would never be enough storage or computing power to make it possible to search all your files (and not have to throw old ones in the trash). It was ludicrous to believe that such resources would ever be available to average people. Gelernter’s then is the traditional prophetic prerogative: not to be believed. Just to be able to say, “I told you so.”

Machine Beauty, by David Gelernter.  1998, Basic Books, an imprint of the Perseus Books Group. 166 pages.

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