Friday, November 19, 2004

A new toy

I'm still coping with having been furbished with a new work computer, one of those new Apple Imacs that rests its entirety on a wee gray easel. It's loaded with OS X, which is new to me as well, and it all feels overdesigned and vaguely emasculating. I'm not sure why I should experience subjection to sleek, hyperconscious design as humiliating or effeminating; I wonder if I'm alone in this. At any rate, I don't feel like I should work with this machine; I feel like I should pose with it, or simply marvel at it the way we are expected to marvel at the breakthroughs of industrial design at the Cooper Hewitt. I look around my cubicle for a placard explaining who the artists were and what innovations they are known for.

OS X is especially full of animations and features whose primary purpose seems to be to encourage the user to stop and think, Wow, neat. It's presumed performance enhancements are all cloaked behind these genie effects and Ken Burns-like pan-and-scan screen savers and icons with more animated effects than a anime film, so that rather than be more productive, I've spent most of my time trying to shut these features and effects off. Perhaps I'm perverse in finding no delight in these doodads, but I always feel faintly infantilized whenever an application icon begins to do a little dance, as if I'm in a crib, and my moniitor is a play-mobile.

The design calls so much attention to itself that it begins to impede utility, pre-empt it as the device's main purpose. It seems more important that I'm working on an Imac than that I'm doing whatever work I'm trying to do. Am I right in thinking that design usurps utility, that form and function have become antagonists in a zero-sum game rather than being happy helpmates, complementing each other?

One might defend these machines as bringing more of an atmosphere of play to office work, which is of course notoriously numbing and spirit crushing. But one might also argue that such playfulness strips office work of what little dignity remained in it. The rounded corners and smoothness of the machine are analogous to how its supposed to smoooth out the workday, offering booby-prize consolations for having to be chained to it all day, processing information rather than using it or generating it (or exiting that dataworld altogether for the realm of senses). The user-friendliness eases the way for you to integrate yourself with the machine, to meld with it. Is this what we want? Don't we want the machines to remain alien, a tool, not a part of us, but something that we apply? Is it a good thing to feel more at home in virtual space, which is ultimately a prison in your own head?

Having a new computer was extremely -- and surprisingly -- disorienting. It was unusually stressful, which caught me off guard a bit. So much work time is spent in the virtual space of the computer, that having a new one made me feel as if I had suddenly moved to a new country or bought a new house. Most troubling of all was having to face the fact of how important that virtual space was to me, becoming more important than the physical space I occupy all the time. It makes me feel more and more like a sentient machine already.

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