Steeling beauty

April 17, 1998

Unabomber victim David Gelernter tells Tim Cornwell how lucky he feels to be alive and about his theory of machine beauty

When Theodore Kaczynski made his first appearance at his bombing trial in Sacramento, David Gelernter was sitting there. Four years previously the Yale computer scientist had opened a book-like package that erupted in his face, one of the Unabomber's murderous missives. As the debate raged over whether Kaczynski, the former Berkeley mathematician, deserved to die following 17 years of bombings that killed three people and injured 29, Gelernter said that he should be executed. Sentence will be passed in May.

Gelernter returned to that theme - on the proper treatment for "unrepentant terrorist murderers" - in a column only last week. The blast nearly blew off his right hand, and severely damaged his right eye and ear. Being "blown up", as he calls it, returned him to his first calling, as humanist lover of literature and art. He refused to cast himself as a victim, but instead as a "very lucky person". But the experience did not leave him with many doubts about the virtues of capital punishment.

Gelernter's subsequent book, Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber, treated the Unabomber as a product of disrespect for authority engendered in the 1960s. "The blast that injured me was a re-enactment of a far bigger one a generation earlier, which destroyed something basic in the society that has yet to be repaired," he wrote. In his latest work, he emerges as something of a curmudgeon about computers. He sets his sights in particular on lazy programmers who have taken machines with power and speed and have, like infant children creating collages from baubles and glue, stuck on everything they possibly can. "Featuritis", he calls this disease, the antithesis of the quality he most admires: "machine beauty".

The Aesthetics of Computing is published in Britain in May. Its American title is Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology, and it attempts to lay down the elusive elegance of industrial design. "Machine beauty", as Gelernter proposes it, lies "in a happy marriage of simplicity and power". You know it when you see it - in an early Macintosh computer program, or the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Gelernter's lament is that though we recognise this beauty - Picasso fondly patted his French Hispano-Suiza car - we often settle for the ugly and cluttered. It is why we end up confounded by setting the timer on a video recorder, or by over-burdened software programs like Windows 95.

It is refreshing to hear a Yale scientist railing against a world where "featuritis" has turned the telephone-answering machine, a blissfully simple idea, into a technological monster that comes with a manual the size of a telephone book. I have the same trouble with mine. It makes his book not just thought-provoking but also mildly irritating. Yale provided, as he notes in his acknowledgements, "as fine a place to ponder computing as any in the country". But the rest of us have to go out, buy the damn things, and figure out how they work.

Gelernter's first calling was as artist rather than scientist, before he concluded that there was a better living in the latter. As a teenager, he caught the Long Island railroad to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where he spent much time drawing and copying the paintings of Degas. The Met has one of the finest Degas collections in the world. From a young age, he was awed by Degas' "uncompromising brilliance as a draftsman," he said, "as a master of the art of drawing, a master of line. His lines are stronger and more brilliant and more beautiful than nearly anyone's going back to the 17th century I. It takes a while to come round to his unhistrionic brilliance, but once it comes around you it stays with you."

An avid amateur painter, he learned to work with his left hand after the bombing attack. The new book is illustrated with his drawings, intended to style it as a literary essay rather than some technological treatise.

David Gelernter - the name means "learned" in Yiddish - took a bachelor's degree in religious studies and a master's in Hebrew literature from Yale. He went on to collect a PhD in computer science from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, but joined Yale as faculty in 1982.

He made a name for himself by developing a computer language named "Linda" (after Linda Lovelace, the reluctant star of the pornographic film Deepthroat) which facilitates parallel processing. His current work in progress is "Lifestreams", his candidate for replacing the conventional computer "desktop", with its bundles of documents and programs. In Lifestreams, now being pushed for commercial production, from an idea he published in 1994, "every document you've ever received stretches before you in a time-ordered stream". New documents are placed at the head of the stream, without the need to separately create and name them. You can go back in time, or forward to diary dates, by running a cursor down the stream. Search inquiries create "substreams". "Your entire life is right in front of you," Gelernter writes. You can tune into your Lifestreams site via the Internet, using a private encryption key; the notion is that it does your electronic housekeeping with minimal time and effort.

Gelernter says he is "unhappy and irritated by the commercial software picture today. The laziness of software programmers is extraordinary. Memory gets cheaper, machines get more powerful, and software developers use that as an excuse to get lazier and lazier". The trick of modern programming, he says, is not to conserve computer power but to squander it effectively, in what he calls a radical "upsidedownification" of the original purpose.

"It is immensely frustrating that all sorts of things run badly," said Gelernter, who is no friend to one of the most hyped and most complained of computer programs in history, Windows 95. "The evolution of the hardware has been amazing, and the potential of the technology is extraordinary, but speaking strictly as a consumer, I don't understand how or why people put up with this garbage."

He has consistently sought to lead readers out of the constraints of conventional software programming. In his first book, Mirror Worlds, he argued that the purpose of computing was to put power into people's hands. In The Muse in the Machine published in 1994, he called for adding "emotions" to computers as "the key to the biggest unsolved intellectual puzzle of our time: how thinking works". It was Mirror Worlds, apparently, that attracted the attention of Kaczynski. After the bombing, a letter attacking the book arrived for Gelernter from the then-mystery Unabomber, who appeared to see scientists as the shock troops of an industrial system he despised. "If you'd had any brains you would have realised that there are a lot of people out there who resent bitterly the way techno-nerds like you are changing the world and you wouldn't have been dumb enough to open an unexpected package from an unknown source," it said. "If there were no computer scientists, there would be no progress in computer science."

Early on, Gelernter's latest book lays the ground work for machine beauty by quoting Oscar Wilde: "There is no country in the world where machinery is so beautiful as in America. I have always wished to believe that the line of strength and the line of beauty are one. That wish was realised when I contemplated American machinery." And then there is the English visitor to the Hoover Dam remarking that "the impression it makes on any sensitive observer is not unlike that made by a massive work of art."

The functional machine beauty of science and engineering, he proposes, when married to the plain old static beauty of lovely lines, as in a painting, yields "deep beauty". His book is illustrated with his own drawings of favourite examples of this deep beauty, as in Marcel Breuer's 1928 Cesca chair, a familiar construct of bent steel tubing with canvas seat and back. "Comfortable, elegant, sturdy, of relatively cheap materials - deep beauty, a textbook example". Then there is the Henry Dreyfuss telephone, by the industrial designer that Gelernter particularly admires. He touts a Dreyfuss-designed 1938 steam locomotive as "one of the finest art works of the 20th century". At home, he has a Dreyfuss water pitcher.

In his role as a cultural observer, Gelernter has since 1996 been art critic for The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine financed by Rupert Murdoch. It has set him apart from what he regards as the dominant, overwhelmingly liberal ethos in US academia.

Some reviewers, however, have taken umbrage at Gelertner's attempt to segue from computer scientist to cultural commentator. The writer Joan Didion, in the New York Review of Books, recently matched Gelertner's book Drawing Life, written around his recovery from the bombing, with the Unabomber's own manifesto. She called his book "a kind of fitful rumination in which Gelertner uses his injury and rehabilitation as a peg on which to hang his many complaints about the error of modern life". Among them, that modern feminism, as preached by "arrogant, preening" working women, is an insult to women who stay in the home, like his grandmothers, his mother, and his wife. Gelertner's conservative posturing, she suggests, is based on "a predictable and useful range of bogus issues", with its attacks on "intellectuals" and "modern art".

Gelernter can be prickly in encounters with the press - which American conservatives also typically see as overwhelmingly left of centre. He has objected in the past to reporters' invasive and distasteful grilling of him over his injuries, a reflection of a world that, from his writings, he tends to regard as ill-mannered and badly dressed.

Gelernter works hard, sometimes too hard, to hold his thesis of machine beauty together. Machine beauty, he pronounces, "is the driving force behind technology and science. It has been crucial to the development of computing; it has been at the core of nearly every major breakthrough in the field; and it is the ultimate guarantee of success with the public." Good scientists are "piano tuners" listening attentively for the sound of exact rightness. But the suspicion lingers that industrial designs can be powerful, simple, and thoroughly unlovely.

He describes software as a virtual machine, brought to life when a computer is running. Beauty in programming, he argues, is the first line of defence against complexity, which makes programs hard to build and use. Unlimited by the usual constraints of engineering - size, or materials - programmers tend to run riot; beauty is the solution. Curiously, though, true beauty in computer programming is almost to be invisible, he states. It begs the question, if "technology's single most important obligation is to get out of the way", how is it beautiful? "Ugly virtual machines waste the underlying computer's power and, vastly more important, the user's time," he writes, "but a beautiful program hovers nearby like an attentive, unobtrusive British butler."

The Aesthetics of Computing, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, Pounds 12.99.

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