cover image Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology

Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology

David Hillel Gelernter, Gelernter. Basic Books, $21 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-465-04516-7

Although based on a solid thesis--that great design is the marriage of simplicity and power--Gelernter'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 tank--which 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 2010--a 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.)