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Machine Beauty: Elegance And The Heart Of Technology

Machine Beauty: Elegance And The Heart Of Technology

by David Gelernter, Gelernter

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When something works well, you can feel it; there is a sense of rightness to it. We call that rightness beauty, and it ought to be the single most important component of design.This recognition is at the heart of David Gelernter's witty argued essay, Machine Beauty, which defines beauty as an inspired mating of simplicity and power. You can see it in a Bauhaus


When something works well, you can feel it; there is a sense of rightness to it. We call that rightness beauty, and it ought to be the single most important component of design.This recognition is at the heart of David Gelernter's witty argued essay, Machine Beauty, which defines beauty as an inspired mating of simplicity and power. You can see it in a Bauhaus chair, the Hoover Dam, or an Emerson radio circa 1930. In contrast, too many contemporary technologists run out of ideas and resort to gimmicks and features; they are rarely capable of real, structural ingenuity.Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of computers. You don't have to look far to see how oblivious most computer technologists are to the idea of beauty. Just look at how ugly your computer cabinet is, how unwieldy and out of sync it feels with the manner and speed with which you process thought.The best designers, however, are obsessed with beauty. Both hardware and software should afford us the greatest opportunity to achieve deep beauty, the kind of beauty that happens when many types of loveliness reinforce one another, when design expresses an underlying technology, a machine logic. Program software ought to be transparent; it should engage what Gelernter calls ”a thought-amplifying feedback loop,” a creative symbiosis with its user. These principles, beautiful in themselves, will set the stage for the next technological revolution, in which the pursuit of elegance will lead to extraordinary innovations.Machine Beauty will delight Gelernter's growing audience, fans of his provocative and biting journalism. Anyone who manufactures, designs, or uses computers will be galvanized by his cogent arguments and tantalizing glimpse of a bright future, where beautiful technology abounds.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Although based on a solid thesisthat great design is the marriage of simplicity and powerGelernter's chronicle of beauty's role in the "rise of the desktop" often amounts to little more than a rehash of the rise of the Macintosh through the lens of aesthetics, plus some promotion for his own software. A Yale technologist who survived a 1993 Unabomber attack (described in his Drawing Life, 1996), Gelernter begins by demonstrating the affinity between the good design of computer hardware and software and the form-driven innovations of the Bauhaus. Soon, however, he is explaining Microsoft's triumph over Apple as at least partly due to the fact that "elegance gives everyone the creeps." A later chapter tells the story of the shift from time-sharing computing to the personal computer, and of the creation of a window-based operating system at a Xerox think tankwhich Apple then co-opted. In the name of demonstrating alternatives to current modes of Web surfing and multimedia computing, Gelernter introduces his own computer programming language, "Linda," and "Lifestreams," a system for navigating the Web's info-glut. Gelernter envisions everyone having a personal Lifestream by 2010a Web site where you receive personalized culls from the Web and conduct all personal business. While Gelernter's observations on how ideas get promulgated in the highly competitive world of computer futurism ring true, his paeans to his favorite products serve to obfuscate rather than illuminate his otherwise intriguing discussion of how design works in the realm of computer science and industry. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Gelernter, a computer science professor at Yale and recipient of one of the Unabomber's letter bombs, explains how beauty and elegance characterize the most important developments in computational history. He argues further that the lack of such elegance characterizes too much of our current technological output, which is often overburdened with unnecessary or useless features. Gelernter provides many examples of beauty in technology, from elegant mathematical solutions to the Apple Computer concept of the "desktop." Here he makes a strong argument for a different approach to teaching computer science and recommends that all science programs require classes in art history and appreciation to develop an understanding of what constitutes beauty and elegance. The author concludes that we have the potential and capacity to create "machine beauty." A well-written and thought-provoking book. [See also Gelernter's Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber, reviewed on p. 202.Ed.]Hilary Burton, Lawrence Livermore National Lab., Livermore, Cal.
Gelernter (computer science, Yale U.) wittily argues for the critical role of beauty, elegance, and aesthetics in computer technology and asserts that the pursuit of beauty will lead to extraordinary new developments. It's ideas like these that made Gelernter a target of the Unabomber. Includes b&w drawings. For general readers as well as computer programmers, designers, and manufacturers. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.

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What People are Saying About This

William Aspray
"Does beauty matter in the inherent quality of a computer? In its functionality? In its marketability? Gelernter argues persuasively that it does. His choice of the computers on our desks as his examples, plus his great skill at making technical details understandable, make this an engaging read for anyone who uses a computer. But Gelernter has a special message for those in the computer industry -- one they may not be so happy to hear. I spent one of my most pleasant evenings in memory reading this irreverent and witty book."
Stephen Doheny Farina
"Gelernter gives us a unique and powerful lens--the aesthetics of computing--through which we can view the impacts of technology on our lives. And what's best, he has crafted this lens with the same clarity and elegance that he finds in the designs of the very best machines."
Michael Dertouzos
"Even though beauty and computers seldom appear in the same sentence, Gelernter masterfully shows us in this rich, informative and delightful book that they are intimately intertwined."

Meet the Author

David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale University. His books include The Muse in the Machine, Mirror Worlds, and 1939. His ideas on computers and technology nearly cost him his life when he was letterbombed by the Unabomber.

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