The culture of simplification

I just finished reading a most excellent book: Neal Stephenson’s In the Beginning… Was the Command Line.

The title might seem to indicate that this is a very nerdy book, directed at very geeky people that are interested in the history of computer interfaces. But it is no such thing. It is, in fact, a highly entertaining and thought-provoking essay about the dangerous tendency that the so-called modern western culture has to over-simplify things.

Semi-random quote here:

Disney and Apple/Microsoft are in the same business: short-circuiting laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed interfaces. Disney is a sort of user interface unto itself - and more than just graphical. Let’s call it a Sensorial Interface. It can be applied to anything in the world, real or imagined, albeit at staggering expense.

Why are we rejecting explicit word-based interfaces and embracing graphical or sensorial ones - a trend that accounts for the success of both Microsoft and Disney?

Of course, in this book Stephenson talks also about the history of OSes so far (well, that far, because the book was written in 1999, so according to this book Apple is still on the brink of bankruptcy), the fickle nature of users and their irrational behaviour, and why selling OSes is a bad business idea. But that is not what really caught my attention.

What interested me most were the bits about how we (i.e. citizens of the ‘civilized western world’) are increasingly giving up our ability to make choices and judgements in favor of easier-to-digest, simplified versions of life, the universe and everything. It almost made me feel guilty not only for owning an Apple machine, but also for actually using the sexy OS it came with. Luckily, in my old age I am becoming less and less dogmatic about OSes, life, the universe and everything, and even editors (!), so I am now using whatever system suits best my current mood and needs (in that order).

But I am babbling. I just meant to say that it is a cool book, and you should read it if (a) you are interested in computers, or (b) you are interested in modern culture, or © you enjoy easy-flowing, witty writing. (NOTE: the ORs in the previous sentence are inclusive ORs, not XORs.)