It’s a particular project which steals my time and saps my will to write here; a project now reaching its climax, after which I hope to be free of it: sell the copyright to a single buyer perhaps, and withdraw to a hermit’s hovel on a lake island:
I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
If I never get paid anything for the project, at least I can look back on a 45-year career in the software industry that wasn’t entirely abortive, for I finished it off with my best work, and proved I can concentrate for months at a time on a project; fuelled by nothing more than obsessive perfectionism, vision, obstinacy—and hate. You see, the career never quite suited me. I hate advanced technology, not for what it is but for its refusal to stop advancing. Is there no chance it can be stopped in its tracks? If it were a door-to-door salesman, I’d tell it firmly but politely (or politely but firmly), “No thank you. I already have all the advanced technology I need. Technology has peaked. It can only go downhill now.”
Some time in the Seventies the notion of “user-friendly” was invented. In 1977 I bought a book by Tom Gilb & Gerry Weinberg (they’re both still around) called Humanized Input. It’s written to solve problems which don’t exist any more, so much has computer technology advanced. It starts like this:
“To the thousands of keypunch ‘girls’, who have saved so many awful designs by the tips of their fingers, we offer this work.”
The thesis it pursues is straightforward: design computer systems intelligently for human users, and error rates will go down; that is error rates in punching the slots in 80-column cards. To me it remains fun to read and even instructive, if you transpose its advice to the issues of 2010. People still read the Holy Bible, though it too is hopelessly out of date: I mean, where today will you find death by stoning still adopted as a popular way of showing community disapproval? This doesn’t stop the devout from discovering in that book the Word of God, just as the demise of punched cards doesn’t stop me from discovering something, if only nostalgia, in Humanized Input. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. This one introduces the chapter on “Default Messages”:
He had forty-two boxes, all carefully packed,
With his name painted clearly on each:
But, since he omitted to mention the fact,
They were all left behind on the beach.
The loss of his clothes hardly mattered, because
He had seven coats on when he came,
With three pairs of boots---but the worst of it was,
He had wholly forgotten his name.
What I do hate is the crassness of technology: its love-affair with novelty, its “look at me” puerility, its desire that we should love it for its own sake. Actually it ought to be “transparent to the user”, that is to say invisible. A software package, a keyboard, a computer, should disappear from our consciousness so that “our sons and daughters will prophesy, our old men will dream dreams, our young men will see visions”. Let me spend years with the same user interface, so that I don’t see it any more. My computer should be (and to some extent is) like a paintbrush of Vincent van Gogh—the extension of my hand, eye and inspiration.
Recently a character in a book I was reading (Amis’ Money? Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet?) preferred hate to love; on the grounds that hate needs more energy than love and so doesn’t last. It wears itself out, and perhaps turns into a tolerant friendship. Love on the other hand is sticky, and so arrogant; you can’t get rid of the stuff. Either of those authors is misanthropic enough to say it, but I can’t be bothered finding the passage in question. Perhaps neither of them wrote it. Perhaps I made it up myself.
If I was being reasonably paid to write this software, I would have done the best I could in the time being paid for; and it would have been a botched job, with corners cut everywhere; a joyless ugly thing that the users would get used to like everything else, over time. But since I am hardly being paid at all for it (perhaps for a hundredth of the effort I’ve put in), there is no brake pedal to stop me. I’ve written documentation to a literary standard, designed desktop icons worthy of an art gallery, made it as user-friendly and transparent as longevity has had time to teach me to do. All this, in a vast disorganised argumentative team of one; and frequently in the quiet hours when everyone is asleep, hours which I like to think are reserved for me to finalize the posts you see here on this site.
If I could be as dedicated to writing as I have been with this programming swan-song of my career, then who knows? I might be able to do something with it. Perhaps I’ve now discovered the catalyst to focus my scattered thoughts into a sharp weapon: hate. Then like Michelangelo, I will see the pure form within the white marble of my silence, and devote myself—with malice—to chipping away the crassness, revealing an agile beauty within.