Brad Feld

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Book Review: Machine Beauty

Apr 08, 2007
Category Books

Machine Beauty by David Gelernter was phenomenal.  I love the notion that a book written in 1998 should be classified as “a classic”, but given the premise of the book and the evolution of technology during the last decade, it fits this categorization perfectly.

Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale.  Machine Beauty is his treatise on the “elegance at the heart of technology.”  The first third of the book is his philosophical setup; the last third is his future vision – including a description of Linda and Lifestreams.  These are both fun and interesting.

The “classic” is his middle section detailing his view of the evolution of the aesthetics of computers, most notably the desktop metaphor and user-interface.  It’s not “just another history” – Gelernter is a clever and engaging writer and even though the history is now 10 years old, it holds up nicely.

I’ve been spending some time lately working on a theme called human computer interaction (HCI).  I’ve seen some amazing stuff in the past year around HCI, the radical success of Guitar Hero prompted me to think harder about different ways of interacting with computers, and the Nintendo Wii reinforced this. I’ve concluded that the world is ready for a new HCI model; while WIMP will be around for a long time, in many ways it has reached the same types of limitations that the text-based interaction model reached before the Xerox Alto appeared.

Gelernter anticipates a lot of this in Machine Beauty.  I don’t like his particular implementations (although if I manage to put my brain into 1998 context, they are pretty impressive), but his paradigms are thought provoking.  His narrative reminds us to remember that the huge breakthroughs are fundamentally elegant and successful implementations tend to build on these.  This appeals deeply to my inner architect / art lover which – of course – is part of the point.