[Humanist] 24.828 aesthetics of computing?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Mar 30 07:20:39 CEST 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 828.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 30 Mar 2011 06:12:24 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: aesthetics

One development in the history of computing is the aesthetics of 
hardware. This is not new, of course: the Selective Sequence Electronic 
Calculator, put in the front window of IBM's World Headquarters at 
Madison Avenue and 57th Street in 1948, had a jewel-like console. It was 
designed to be seen and admired as an object. (Google for images with 
"ibm ssec".) Some, but not many here, will remember the console of the 
CDC 6600, which was not beautiful, as was the SSEC, but which was the 
product of a visual designer's efforts, I imagine, and had a 
minimalist's sense of plain style about it. One could echo "form follows 
function", but then everything depends on what you think that function 
was -- not just the obvious one, but others, perhaps. The aesthetics of 
the computers that for many years reached our studies increasingly 
followed that plain style, with the exception of the Osborne and Apple 
2, for example, which appealed to the geek in me more than did the IBM PC.

For the last few years hardware manufacturers, esp Apple, have paid 
increasing attention to the aesthetics of their hardware. Consider 
especially the Macbook Air as a physical object, both before and after 
one turns it on (and perhaps turns oneself on thereby). We could say 
that this is a marketing ploy, which is undoubtedly true. But I think we 
have to ask, why does it work so well? What does it mean for our 
computers to become (again) beautiful objects? What are the implications 
of interfaces becoming also in a sense beautiful? What about the 
*feeling* of (shall we call it?) graceful presence, of clearly 
anticipated response to our every move?

I think it's important here not to be dismissive, either of the cunning 
behind the aesthetics or of the actual, very real sense of beauty when 
it is achieved. Would we want to work in an ugly building if we had the 
choice? (I certainly do not.) Would we choose to work at an ugly, poorly 
designed table if a beautiful, well crafted one were available? Perhaps 
it would be more productive to consider the marketing as a means to the 
designer's end rather than the other way around.


Professor Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King's
College London; Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western
Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.isr-journal.org);
Editor, Humanist (www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/

More information about the Humanist mailing list