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Give me a Transparent Computer
Mar 25, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

Sherry Turkle is the academic of the moment. Her new book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet has landed her on the cover of Wired, in the halls of c|net's digerati, and in the vacuum tube of the Sucksters.

I picked up the book, and am about 100 pages into it. It's good reading, especially if you've had at least a marginal dose of French literary theory. (You see, I spent a couple of years entertaining the notion of an M.A. in English Lit, and accordingly stocked up on my Derrida, Eco, Eagleton and Foucault.) If you're not keen on deconstructing, well, you're just going to have to trust Turkle's assertion that the Internet's "story of constructing identity in the culture of simulation" is really part of a larger context, that of "the eroding boundary between the unitary and the multiple self."


Anyway, it's the first chapter of the book, "A Tale of Two Aesthetics" that's got me thinking. In it, Turkle frames the age-old debate of IBM vs. Macintosh in terms of "transparent" vs. "opaque" computing. As she puts it, the big blue DOS way of the world is "transparent," where you can directly interact with the file system, the command structure, the allocation tables. It is transparent in that there is no barrier between the user and the machine itself. The IBM PC was the modernist's dream -- everything reducible to its component parts.

The Macintosh, on the other hand, introduced "opaqueness," where the workings of the machine are hidden behind an iconic interface, and tinkerers be damned. The Mac is all about the desktop, the surface, simulation, post-modernism.

Turkle acknowledges that this characterization of the IBM vs. Mac debate is anachronistic, given the overwhelming popularity of Microsoft's Windows. And she also recognizes that the transparent vs. opaque debate has been flipped on its ear as more and more people have come to the computer not as boys in love with their toys (as they did in the 1980s), but as "users" looking to their machines as tools for work, thought and connectivity.

When the computer is a tool and not a toy, transparency and opacity necessarily have to change places.

Transparency used to mean not having the user interface get in the way of dealing with the computer. But now it means not letting the UI (or any other part of the machine) get in the way of getting my work done. A transparent machine lets me work on my work, not work on my machine.

I want transparent computing. Lately I think that's a dream.

In January, my hard drive crashed. Read all about it. I thought I had exorcised my computing demons for a while. Well, I booted up my laptop this afternoon, and after wading through the Win95 promotional logo, was greeted with a disk error message. I rebooted, and it didn't appear again. So, I backed up, and started through the Microsoft cycle of disk scanning and defragmenting. I've been through five cycles so far, and not a successful one yet. So, I type tenuously, worrying that at any moment the drive could go south. And with it my capacity to get things done.

The machine is getting in the way. And this is frustrating, because a good tool should not get in the way. A good tool should be transparent to its user. I want a machine that boots quickly, operates flawlessly. That connects to the network -- any network, from any location -- seamlessly. That doesn't ask me to scan and defragment and scan and defragment and scan and defragment...

I live in Turkle's "culture of simulation," where the surface is what matters. I want to live on the surface of my machine, without bothering with what's underneath.

Is that too much to ask?



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