Weekly column published on Saturday October 27, 2007 in The Guardian “Welcome to dork talk” – The Guardian headline
He owns the second ever Macintosh computer sold in Europe, and has never met a smartphone he hasn’t bought. To introduce his new column, Stephen Fry explains why he’s deeply dippy for all things digital
Digital devices rock my world. This might be looked on by some as a tragic admission. Not ballet, opera, the natural world, Stephen? Not literature, theatre or global politics? Even sport would be less mournfully inward and dismally unsociable.
Well, people can be dippy about all things digital and still read books, they can go to the opera and watch a cricket match and apply for Led Zeppelin tickets without splitting themselves asunder. Very little is as mutually exclusive as we seem to find it convenient to imagine. In our culture we are becoming more and more fixated with an “it’s one thing or the other” mentality. You like Thai food? But what’s wrong with Italian? Woah, there… calm down. I like both. Yes. It can be done. I can like rugby football and the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. High Victorian Gothic and the installations of Damien Hirst. Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass and the piano works of Hindemith. English hymns and Richard Dawkins. First editions of Norman Douglas and iPods. Snooker, darts and ballet. Such a list isn’t a boast, it doesn’t make one an all-rounder to rival Michelangelo, it’s how humans are constructed. Adaptable, varied, versatile. So, believe me, a love of gizmos doesn’t make me averse to paper, leather and wood, old-fashioned Christmases, Preston Sturges films and country walks. Nor does it automatically mean I read Terry Pratchett, breathe only through my mouth and bring my head slightly too close to the bowl when I eat soup. (None of the above, I grant you, excuses a 50-year-old for saying that anything “rocks his world”; that’s just too horrid and must stop.)
I blogged on my (this) website a few weeks ago explaining my long-standing passion for all kinds of gizmos. I have never met a smartphone I haven’t bought, I wrote. And so now, all juiced up by that experience, I am to bring to you every week in this paper a technology column of sorts, in which I will attempt to share my passion for the new; to review, rave over and ramble on about the latest arrivals in the field of digiware, and occasionally to stand back and survey the field.
When WH Auden produced his collection of critical writings, The Dyer’s Hand, he first laid out a list of his preferences and predispositions, believing it right that the reader should know what sort of person they were encountering and be able thereby to form a judgment of his opinions in the light of his prejudices. I ought to do the same.
It is true that I have a great admiration, sometimes only just short of reverence, for the elegances and brilliances that have emerged from my favourite address in the world: 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, California, the home of Apple Computers. I am lucky enough to count their chief designer, boy genius Jonathan Ive, as a friend. I bought the second Macintosh sold in Europe back in 1984 (Douglas Adams bought the first). I currently have about 10 on the go. But I also have more than one PC. I could not pursue my love of the digital without those, too. And it certainly would not be fair or right for me to expatiate on technology without a proper understanding of the operating system employed by more than 90% of all users. I run Windows XP and Vista. Linux, too, in different distributions, including Mark Shuttleworth’s increasingly popular Ubuntu, although I also take Red Hat’s Fedora and Yellow Dog out for a run from time to time. It is very important to me that you believe that I will be as impartial as I can be in the great schism that has riven computing since the mid-80s. You might be amused by Umberto Eco’s writing on this subject if you don’t already know it: simongrant.org/web/eco.html.
What do I think is the point of a digital device? Is it all about function? Or am I a “style over substance” kind of a guy? Well, that last question will get my hackles up every time. As if style and substance are at war! As if a device can function if it has no style. As if a device can be called stylish that does not function superbly. Don’t get me started …
I welcomed the Macintosh in 1984 because it functioned better than any personal computer around at the time. It took Bill Gates an incredibly long time to come round to Windows, Icons, Mice and Pulldown menus, but come round he did. Believe me, when we championed that WIMPs user interface back in the mid-80s, we were regularly accused of, yes, championing style over substance, of being pretentious and arty about machines that were just supposed to “function”. So you can guess that I certainly do think design is important. But it doesn’t have to come from Apple. In fact, I wish to goodness it came from everywhere. I hope you’ll believe I’m not an unthinking slave to Cupertino. Apple gets plenty of small things wrong, but one big thing it gets right: when you use a device every day, you cannot help, as a human being, but have an emotional relationship with it. It’s true of cars and cookers, and it’s true of computers. It’s true of office blocks and houses, and it’s true of mobiles and satnavs. A grey box is not good enough, clunky and ugly is not good enough. Sick building syndrome exists, and so does sick hand-held device syndrome. Fiddly buttons, blocky icons, sickeningly stupid nested menus – these are the enemy. They waste time, militate against function and lower the spirits. They make the user feel frustrated and (quite wrongly) dense. Mechanisms so devilishly, stunningly, jaw-dropping clever as the kind our world can now furnish us with are No Good Whatsoever if they don’t also bring a smile to our face, if they don’t make us want to stroke, touch, fondle, fiddle, gurgle, purr and coo. Interacting with a digital device should be like interacting with a baby.
So, yes, beauty matters. Boy, does it matter. It is not surface, it is not an extra, it is the thing itself. Le style, c’est le truc, as De Buffon would have written today.
If you are an IT or telecoms professional, you will probably find me lax, obvious and distressingly untechnical. If you are new and nervous in the field, you may think the opposite: indeed, the talk of red hats and yellow dogs may already have you all of a doodah. I want to reassure you on this head. I have no intention of littering my copy with unexplained acronyms, references to protocols, coding language or other recondite arcana. While I love jargon as much as any proud techie dweeb, I think it right to avoid that sort of talk when chatting to those who don’t share my passion. None the less, I am going to assume that anyone reading my column has access to an online computer and can therefore, if so minded, check up on what I mean by “le style, c’est le truc” or “De Buffon” by undertaking a little search. And there’s a subject I might write about one day. How to use a search engine. You’d be amazed (well, you wouldn’t, because you’re an intelligent Guardian reader, but some people would) by how often friends of mine say they can’t find something on the net, simply because they haven’t stopped and thought about how to frame or phrase input search terms. Hold that thought …
Anyway, what kind of devices might I be discussing over the coming weeks? Including, but not confined to: mobile phones, smartphones, music players, media players, cameras, electronic books, satnavs, computers, peripherals, TVs, games machines and any digital device or grown-up toy that may take my fancy. And not necessarily all that grown-up, either.
I won’t be writing about hand-helds and hardware only, however. I have to confess that while gaming as such is not my first interest, and I don’t spend much time in World of Warcraft, Halo or Manhunt, I do have a Second Life existence (you’ll never find me, so don’t look. Lord, there’s a thought: “celebrity avatars exposed” – fair chills the blood). I have a secret presence on Facebook and a public one, too, which I don’t have the time to pay much attention to. So, yes, I’ll undoubtedly have a look at Web 2.0, social networking and other contentious and contemporary digital issues. If I had a grain of rice for every minute I have spent watching a progress bar over the years, I would be able to make you all a bowl of kedgeree. As it is, I shall cook you all up a weekly article instead. I do hope you’ll be able to join me. See you next Saturday.