building the better mousepad:
david gelernter and the beige box

Machine Beauty
David Gelernter
(Basic Books, 160 pages)
machine beauty cover
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One reason to doubt the sanity of Ted Kaczinski - The Unabomber - is his choice of David Gelernter as recipient of one of his letterbombs.

Gelernter, a Yale-based computer scientist, is hardly the fiendish geek or cold technologist that Kaczinski railed against in his Manifesto. If anything, Gelernter posesses a deep unease with the directions technology is taking us, and a profound nostalgia for the past that makes Kaczinski look all the more the wild-eyed utopian. 

Since losing the use of a hand and an eye to Kaczinski’s hand-made bomb, Gelernter has emerged as an anomaly amongst the “digital elite” - a true social conservative who has taken time out from his scientific work to write essays and editorials bemoaning the break-up of the family and - no surprise - to advocate the death penalty. These convictions only glancingly emerge in Machine Beauty, a slim book that positions Gelernter in the same relation to computers that Prince Charles bears to architecture.

On the one hand, imagine a transcription of a fascinating monologue by the most interesting person at a dinner party, complete with napkin scribbles.  Gelernter is first and foremost a man well-suited to his occupation, and Machine Beauty is propelled by the intense ruminations of a committed craftsman. Gelernter sees beauty as the organizing principle of both art and science, and he desparately wants us to see the beauty of everything from the well-designed computer interface to the elegant line of code that runs that program.

In his fervor, Gelernter blithely digresses into passages of sheer technical abstraction, and is hardly afraid to trumpet his own work as a paradigm of “beautiful science”. Still, he has the appeal of a true idealist, and makes the reader almost enraged that we have settled for anything less than Olympian perfection in technology, revealing the second-rate geek nabobs and their corporate overlords as nothing less than agents of a tyrannical mediocrity. He makes us long for a world where Bill Gates wakes up one morning possessed by the spirit of William Morris.

On the other hand, he presents us with his own sketches of computers as “beautiful technology”, which unfortunately have all the grace and elegance of discarded machine-shop projects. Much as we might wish otherwise, a computer cannot look like a bakelite telephone or an art-deco radio. Like most conservatives, Gelernter assumes the problems of the present can be solved merely by consulting the patterns of the past. The virtues of the world we live in are as unique as the failings, and any solution to these problems will have to be unique by necessity. The ultimate failing of Machine Beauty is a lack, not of passion or conviction, but of imagination.

©1998, 2002 Rick McGinnis