When I first began to teach I was disdainful of computers. I noticed that students who used word processors often had the clunkiest passages, even though they were beautifully presented. Real writers, I thought, retyped revisions faithfully, even if it meant a simple paste. If a revision worked, the prose flowed. If it didn't, one immediately felt the antibodies that gathered around it.
In addition to the less-than-organic process of cutting and pasting, I knew that computers required a secondary-process language that interrupted the flow of voice. Every few words of prose required a command, pushing the creative process to a static meta-level.
Other people might use computers. But I would type far into the next millenium.
One day I visited a friend who had a Macintosh 512 and saw the trash basket. It bulged when it was full, ((( ))), and tranformed into a slender column when it was emptied, (I I.) I was entranced and didn't even notice that to make changes one didn't need a second-order language. I raced to the Scholars Workstation at UC Berkelley and bought a Mac 512.
"A Mac?" said my husband, who used a PC. "But they're so expensive."
And so the theological schism between Mac users and PC users--a schism that has existed since the two computers began--was started at home. The egalitarian PC is far less expensive and can be used in businesses. Its plans for future models aren't shrouded in secrecy. And its new models aren't full of surprises. The Mac is expensive and can't be used in most businesses. Its plans for future models are kept in the utmost secrecy. And every new model has at least one surprise--something from the old model that one liked may have vanished or something new that one doesn't necessarily like has been added. The new model is always better. But it forces users to deal with change.
I looked at my husband sitting happily in front of his PC and realized there was no way to explain to him that I wanted a Mac simply because it was beautiful. When I looked at this computer I felt that it had been designed with a sense of imagination. Although the worlds of technology and fiction are far apart, in some totally inexplicable way I resonated with an aesthetic sensibility. The design was confident, understated, minimalistic.
The theological dispute at home was never resolved--and will never be resolved among these two different groups. PC users, inveterate warriors of the practical, are so right in so many ways: They value a machine that's inexpensive and democratic. They don't like mystery. They want a direct dial-up. Mac users, on the other hand, tolerate the expense, the papal secrecy that surrounds the next model--and don't care that Macs can't be used in most businesses. They're willing to gain access through an unknown operator. They are acolytes who have glimpsed into the Mysteries.
For a while our son was a Macintosh initiate. Then he built his own PC and told me that Apple was terrible because it had parts that people couldn't order. With a PC, he said, you could stake out land and build your own log cabin. With a Mac, you had to gain entrance into someone else's mansion. I didn't say anything: Religion--especially a conversion experience-- is something that can't be argued.
But when he got into UC Berkeley's computer science program, the two of us spent a long afternoon at the Scholars Workstation debating the virtues of a Mac desktop as opposed to a laptop because he'd concluded--after a lot of careful thought--that the Mac was the best computer around, especially for programmers. He ended up buying a laptop and I breathed a sigh of relief. A defector had returned to the fold.
The trash can's flexible properties have long vanished from the Mac. And that's not the only thing I like that's gone. The Mac presents its decisions with the irritating authority of a monarch or the papacy. At times I have been infuriated with the changes.
Yet I continue to use a Mac because--as I never can fully explain to a PC user--it creates a visual and practical work environment that invites the imagination. Aside from a pear tree outside my window or the shabby purple chairs in my favorite cafe, the Mac is my only office mate. I love the illuminated keys, the silver case, and the way the documents look on my desk top. I love the ease with which it allows me to write and index. And the bold statement of minimalism in design--a statement that says less is more.
It has what Steve Jobs called "taste"--a luxury and sense of aesthetic that conflicts with so much of our practical market-driven age.
Because I've studied Zen, I happen to have known one of the teachers whom Steve Jobs worked with--someone smart, idiosyncratic and at times controversial. Someone like Steve Jobs and the Mac itself. Yet that's just the point. It's wonderful to have something idiosyncratic, smart and at times controversial that also works. It's wonderful to use something practical that lets you know it was designed with imagination.
Recently I took a plane that required two flights, so I had to board twice. As I walked down each aisle, there was at least one person in every row with an iPhone or an iPad, eerily lit up like candles. And it seemed to me that Steve Jobs' vision of elegance--no matter what kind of computer people used--had permeated the world like a song that gets played again and again, only in this case it's permeated technology.
Zen isn't a theistic practice. It doesn't believe in the Mysteries or the Beyond. It's my wish, though--idiosyncratic and totally improbable--that now Steve Jobs has penetrated more deeply into the mystery of less is more. Steve Jobs made a difference. I want to thank him.
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