“Welcome to dork talk”

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 …

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This blog was posted in Guardian column

87 comments on ““Welcome to dork talk””

  1. jonecc says:

    Eco says that DOS (and therefore Windows) is Protestant. I think he may have it the wrong way round.

    The last Windows incarnation but one was called XP. If the letters XP were read as Greek, they would say Chi Ro, the first two letters in Christ. Therefore, Windows XP must surely stand for Windows for Jesus. By the standards of the religious, I have just proved this.

    VISTA, though, quite clearly stands for Vatican International Software Trading Authority, pointing to the opposite allegiance.

  2. callum says:

    Thank you Stephen for your stimulating writing – I am looking forward to reading about your thoughts on Second Life – an apt quote perhaps from Black Adder Goes Forth – “Like private parts to the Gods are we; they play with us for their sport!”

    Full disclosure: I work for Linden Lab, the people who make SL.

  3. tim says:

    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.

    Money quote. I am an IT/Telecom professional but specialize in security (which makes me a bigger geek.) Most of my peers spend too much time focusing on the technical details on not enough time on “does it work?” When I bought the iPhone – the comments were on “have I hacked it yet” or “have i figured out the vulnerabilities yet” instead of what I was truly interested in which was:

    “was it usable?”
    “if so why?”
    “why is this different? is it different?”
    “does this change things? if not, why?”

    I cared about the usability not about the mundane details. So – I look forward to someone who loves technology, distressingly technical, and can write passionately about it.

  4. clarknova says:

    I´m sitting in my girlfriends apartment in Oslo reading your entries on my macbook. Sweet wi-fi fills the room…

    I certainly share your passion, Mr Fry, and I do not try (or have to try) to conceal my extreme favoritism towards 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino. I now have your blesseys feed set up in the new Leopard Mail, and look forward to more blue dots next to new entries.

    Keep on keeping on
    Rudi

  5. wg says:

    stephen fry r0x my w0rld! ^^

  6. Julian Calaby says:

    Thanks for posting this here, Guardian doesn’t have any useful RSS feeds =)

  7. chris m. says:

    And here I was just listening to an ancient essay by Donald Trefusis!

  8. AxmxZ says:

    So… reading Pratchett is on par with… mouth-breathing and autistic table manners?..

    o_0

  9. Ramone47 says:

    Stephen you sexy beast, time for you to get on the old Podcast scene & finally rule all the mediums! World domination will shortly follow softly i promise!

  10. RRobert says:

    I find myself in the very depths of hell, living for a time in a city where a mac is something one may use against the torrential tropical rains of this place, and the only Apple products on offer are iPods and the very curious and unappealing Apple TV. Surely this grey box encasing a hard-drive is Apple’s Foleo. What are your impressions Mr Fry?

    I trust a certain Infinite Loop in Cupertino is on your itinerary during your travels?

  11. RubyCosmos says:

    Thanks so much for making these accessible to readers online. Being stateside, I appreciate it a lot.

    It’s funny that whenever someone tells me they have a Facebook/MySpace, they will always follow it with ‘but I’ve been ignoring it for ages.’ Is that part of the whole experience, never actually using it? I’ve been getting that sense.

    Although I will admit to their usefulness for amusements. A friend of mine works at a theme park, and someone on the tech crew created a rather detailed MySpace for one of the animatronic characters, including dating information. Sadly, the park bigwigs nixed it, so Clancy the Leprechaun remains woefully single and bereft of an online social network.

  12. wireman says:

    “How To Use a Search Engine”… god, yes.

    Good luck with trying to explain that. And here’s hoping you succeed. For when we Google properly, we rule.

    Watch the parentheses, big man. I’d hate to see people rip the piss the way they do Zoe Williams.

    (Still) loving your work.

  13. Style and substance certainly should go together, if not constantly, at least for the occasional walk in the woods or trip to the local farmers’ market. Unfortunately jealous so-called friends came between them some time in the early part of the last century, and they hardly spoke at all for several decades. It was pathetic to see substance staring hollow-eyed into his bathroom mirror repeating Couéist mantras about self-sufficiency and independence. As for style, he became a complete recluse, and when he finally emerged into the sunlight back in the sixties he had to relearn everything he had known. Frankly, there were some embarrassing excesses before he managed to get himself in check, and he’s still painfully shy and self-restrained; but at least they’re talking again, and hopefully they will realise one day how essentially they complement each other.

    It’s a moral fable for our times, really. Someone ought to make a film…

  14. dark_maylee says:

    Heehee video games. I don’t think I would be able to handle things like MMORPGs. Never played anything like World of Warcraft. And first-person shooters? I’m usually that person screaming: “GO TO THE LEFT!” (Oh dear.) I played Halo once and kept falling off a cliff.

    I will say this: I am in love with the Legend of Zelda series. I recently obtained a game, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and started playing it while waiting for a download to finish. I didn’t sleep until four in the morning. How does this happen? Why must it happen with a game about LAWYERS? Yeah, video games obviously aren’t too good for my system so I try to avoid most of them.

    MySpace makes me shudder. I shall never own a MySpace account.

    This was a fun read, haha.

    P.S. I just received your reply in the mail. I’m actually surprised my post office is so efficient. My foreign friends rarely get any of my Christmas letters. Anyway, thank you so much. The letter made my day.

  15. jillydoc says:

    Congratulations Stephen on your new column for The Guardian. I look forward to your article on search engines, and I shall refer everyone I know to it and perhaps they’ll stop bugging me to find things for them. Sheesh!

    Also, thanks for the link to Umberto Eco’s writing. I always thought of Macintosh as Buddhist because it’s more intuitive, meditative, relaxing, centering, and simple, whereas Windows seems more a Judeo/Christian flavor, arrogant, rigid, propietary, and proselytizing hence the term “Plug and Pray” I don’t mean that all Christians and Jewish people are uptight by any means, or even that a majority are. Or that Buddhists are peaceful. I’m speaking of the caricatures and one must admit Bill has fit the suit. Well, to be fair Steve has as well. I don’t know but that they both seem to have mellowed considerably. I mean who could ever have guessed there would be a Mac/Windows Duo processor? Gives one hope that perhaps all wars can end, no?

    XO

    Jillian

  16. datdemdar says:

    Howdy, Now this Mac… Was it a 512, 512ke, a Plus…? The first one I ever owned was the 512ke. An old timer like yourself.

  17. My first computer was an Apple 2e. I wish I’d been able to appreciate it more at the time, but all I ever knew how to do with it was word process and play “Lemonade.” Now, after years of cursing and throwing things at various PCs, I’m back to Macs. I’m such a sucker for garageband…..and it’s nice to go online without worrying so much about contracting a virus.

    I would like to see you write something on Windows Vista, though. I’ve heard practically nothing about it, being in China, and I’m curious whether or not it approaches user-friendliness the way that a Mac does.

  18. lexid523 says:

    I wish I could remember what model my first computer was. I assume it was a Mac, but I was 5 at the time, so I wasn’t paying that close attention. I remember my first ISP though: Prodigy :D. God, that was forever ago.

    (Anyway, if you check your public Facebook account, you’ll find Alan Moore’s response to your own proxied greeting)

    ~LD

  19. Zazou says:

    Of course! Ramone47 is utterly correct. A podcast is a great idea. Nothing complicated, just reading out the blessays in your inimitable style.

  20. gynoidgirl says:

    I’d like to print out those first two paragraphs onto small notecards and hand them out whenever I encounter one of those bemused “A woman who claims to be both a seamstress and a gamer? I don’t think so – and I bet I know which you really prefer” looks. I won’t, because it would probably not go down well, but I wish I could.

    I’d love to hear what you think about Second Life if you have the time to write about it – my own feelings are very ambivalent. On the one hand, the concept is wonderful and the levels of creativity are superb. On the other, it crashes a little too often for me (although admittedly I could use a slight computer upgrade), and I’m not convinced that, as many Resis claim, it is the new and shining beacon of online community that we’ve all been waiting for.

  21. happybunny says:

    First congratulations on your new column. I must say how wonderful it is to read a site where every word is not in text code.
    The only games I have ever played on a computer are chess, and Civilization I through to IV.
    After the dot com hype went bust, I have taken the rest of the infomation with a pinch of salt.
    I look forward to reading your thoughts on just about everything.

  22. NeilHoskins says:

    Glad to hear your commitment to a lack of allegiance. May I suggest, perhaps, a column on the phenomenon of the “fanboy”, and a comparison with allegiances to football clubs?

  23. GaryW says:

    I used to use Apple for midi files, composing and playing. Time passed in a forward direction, as is its wont, and windows made its appearance. Atari came and went…
    IBM compats as they were called stayed. Beta max came, and were supplanted by VHS. Windows stayed. I used Netscape. Then Explorer came, and stayed.
    I have 3 machines, 2 laptops and one desktop firing 6 monitors, (Did I mention flight simulator?). You got it, windows based.
    sigh
    The moral of this tale is: er….
    I dont use Mac any more.

  24. nide says:

    Religious wars have been frequent in human history, the ones related to OS adna hardware certainly less bloody than say the 30 year war but not without their fair share of scirmishes. But I can’t say I agree with the venerable Mr Eco in his amusing analysis on the religious characteristics of the two major camps. I think that the basic fallacy comes from not including the entire field of players. There is Linux, certainly monotheistic, not without fractions but this is certainly Christianity. There is a bearded God and a fresh-faced and somewhat unwilling Son of God (I leave it to the reader to figure out which one is Stallman and which one is Torvalds, I guess we can say Raymond is the Holy Spirit as well). Much like the Bible the community is teeming with people of more or less consequence. Mac on the other hand is the religion of the single prophet. Steve Jobs (pbuh) lays down the law. And the fundamentalists are more fundamentalistic than any other kind. They pretty much outfundamentalist everyone. That leaves the PC. Microsoft. Don’t tell me you didn’t figure it out. It’s Scientology. Based on premises so inherently bizarre that you are surprised that so many people actually fall for it. But they do.
    Some of us are agnostics, I even dabble in Zen Buddhism (FreeBSD) but it seems somewhat useless for real world applications.

  25. I didn’t realise you were a fellow geek Mr Fry! I look forward to reading more of your articles :)

    Jimmy x

  26. Kitlizette says:

    I agree! it’s great with new gadgets! Not in your league though Mr Fry. I am , however, very exited about my latest purchase : a USB modem for my laptop , now I can blogg/read/email from everywhere! wohoo!!

    Well, saying that – as long as i get a signal that is. Might not work in the deep jungles of.. borneo. I am , I’m sad to say, not going there in the near future.

    Kit

  27. Richard Wager says:

    Your my first RSS entry into leopards updated mail app.I love it when you talk tech.Like other have said,It’s time to fire up garage band and make a podcast.

  28. Josef K says:

    A charming introduction into the digi world of Mr Fry for those who missed his first blessay on the subject. I look forward to wading waist-deep through further paragraphical delights he has to offer in this area.

    If there was an opportunity to lobby a request or two, I would look forward to Mr Fry addressing:
    - User based OS comparative, once Leopard has bedded in
    - Open source vs DRM
    - Do technological advances come at a cost?
    - Is One Laptop Per Child different to one Playstation per child?

    Also why are there inconsistent distances as to when my car will be unlocked by a press of the keyfob? No really, why is that? It is so annoying.

    Anyway, hooray for the site and the information and opinions therein. Congrats to all.

  29. Kuroshii says:

    If you are an IT or telecoms professional, you will probably find me lax, obvious and distressingly untechnical.

    Just for the record, I am a “telecom professional” and I happen to think you delightfully geeky. The main difference (between you and the dweebs) being that you have been properly socialized! ;)

    Thank you for choosing–and for getting the necessary permissions–to reprint these here.

  30. Stooshie says:

    I’m really look forward to the search engine bl(og/essay/issertation). Once someone “gets it” with a search engine they can find anything, especially things they weren’t particularly looking for in the first place! :-0

  31. James says:

    I guess I’ll have to start buying the weekend Guardian again, then? I am lazy, it is heavy, so it seldom makes it into my Saturday shop backpack.

    I look forward to it, Stephen.

  32. swmbo says:

    What I don’t understand is how you find time for Second Life among your many other activities; I don’t have time, and my productivity is much less impressive than yours. I suppose that’s part of the reason you’re, well, Stephen Fry, and I’m an unknown freelance writer.

    As far as geek cred goes, I did have a Fat Mac (512K), and I remember those halcyon days of constant disk-swapping. But I impress people more by telling them I was using the Internet when it was still the ARPAnet.

    I’m also a lover and admirer of Apple products, but I have to wonder what will happen when Steve Jobs’s deal with the Devil runs out.

  33. ritcey says:

    “jillydoc Says:

    … I always thought of Macintosh as Buddhist because it’s more intuitive, meditative, relaxing, …”

    Gah, tremendous pet peeve – it’s not “intuitive” – consistent, yes, but not intuitive; you don’t automatically know how to use the interface.

    As has been observed “The only ‘intuitive’ interface is the nipple. After that it’s all learned.”

  34. nebbo says:

    Ah…Google. Don’t know how I lived without it.

    Re. Second Life: Would be very interested to read your opinions and impressions. It’s a strange place. My experience there would have been very short-lived had I not discovered a region of neo-Victorian gentility (Caledon) and civility where adults talk about history, art, science (and Steampunkery) while strolling about in (mostly) 19th century clothes. Oddly, made the acquaintance of one individual whom I had actually already met in the flesh! Small world.

    Congrats on the newspaper column! The Guardian is better for your presence.

    Nancy Frye (sorry you lost your “e”!) ;-)
    Washington State, USA

  35. Brandon says:

    Your writing on technology is refreshing. I am an IT professional as well but I find your writing very engaging. I wish I had the money you did to feed my own technolust.

  36. Summery1 says:

    Just a thought; “mournfully inward and dismally unsociable”? Surely most techology is actually geared towards communication? Mobile phones, the w.w.w., and this blog, are all interactive and therefore very sociable.

    I prefer texting and typing to talking on a phone (I always find it difficult to end a conversation, thinking it will be an awkward experience – often a self-fulfilling fear). I think techology offers wonderful alternatives to verbal communication, that naturally more introverted people find easier.

    …By the by, my Pratchett-loving friends would kill me for asking this but, can it be that you are a fellow disliker of the man? Please say yes – even if by some private means – it would make my century if that were the case!

  37. BBEFBean says:

    I will say Stephen, that finding out that you had a love for digital things and a passion for macintosh didn’t surprise me so much as cause me to appreciate you all the more.
    I agree with you that it is human nature for people to be interested in a wide variety of things. I am currently in school for two degrees, Art History and Chemistry, and I get so many comments about how unusual a combination that is but I don’t think it’s all that weird.

  38. Alberik says:

    Damn.

    Second Life will now fill with hopeless cases in quest of an encounter with you, even more hopeless cases impersonating you in order to dance the two-backed virtual beast with the first group of hopeless cases, an even more drastically hopeless group of hopeless cases dressing in period clothes from Tom Brown’s Schooldays in the hope of achieving these unlikely goals.

    When Second Life implodes under the weight of new registrations in 24 hours or so, it will all be your fault. It will not be the fault of the millions of Stephanomaniacs creating ever less likely new avvies in order to pursue the fictive object of their obsessions. No way, no sir!

  39. shamann says:

    Sweet! The blessays AND the Guardian column! Woo-hoo!

    Okay, I have settled back down into my comfy computer chair. I thank you once again Mr. Fry. I look forward to the gadget columns since I am one of the unenlightened whose first response to “red hats” and “yellow dogs” was – “Huh?” Whether blessay or column, I look forward to the next installment of our (collectively speaking) “One-sided conversations with Fry” (w/optional comment).

  40. chris hopkins says:

    I totally agree about Apple having style AND substance.

  41. Thank you

    Your writing is like a breath of fresh air on an otherwise dull day

    Regards

    Richard

  42. monk22 says:

    Thank you so much for writing this blog, I keep checking every other day if you’ve written the next one!
    You hit the nail on the head when you say that a computer is something that you develop an emotional attachment to. I have a mac and I feel all warm and fuzzy towards it. I think its the aesthetics, the attention to detail in the graphics and the overall humany feel.
    Its nice reading your column because i can be a whole lot more enlightened about all things IT.

  43. Grace says:

    If you want an exquisite example of non-user friendly computer systems, try a hospital. I’m a nurse and use a computerized charting system that must have been designed by soviet political prisoners for all the relevance it has to my job.

  44. Ralph Corderoy says:

    What’s interesting about Ubuntu http://www.ubuntu.com/ is its regular new release every six months which, thanks to its system of packaging software, you can upgrade to rather than having to re-install and start from scratch. It’s made significant improvements on every release compared with having to wait years for “improvements” from Microsoft, or improvements from Apple for that matter.

    Once people understand the “free software” concepts behind how it is produced, and experience its friendly community of users offering assistance, there eyes are opened to what a expensive pile of junk XP can be, especially with Microsoft’s crippling sales terms. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7063716.stm

    Stephen, no interest in programming? I’d have thought that was an obvious next step. Have you tried Python? http://www.python.org/ We should be getting our children to play around with this to re-create the interest in home computing engendered by the home micros of the 1980s.

  45. Riz says:

    Thanks for the fantastically refreshing writing. I look forward to future posts and to learning new things.

  46. emmashaw says:

    Hello,

    Its great to read an interesting column in the Guardian about technology that doesn’t throw technical jargon at you the whole time :o)

    Being a medical Librarian, and having to constantly explain about the problems with access to digital technology/resources, and how to use them, particularly via the computer, it would be interesting to hear what you have to say about this. People still struggle with new technology, and are reluctant to use it, and I can understand why sometimes, particularly when it involves accessing electronic information. Most of all the possibilities digital technology brings, it can sometimes be overwhelming!! where do you start?

    However, it is a good thing and has made my job extremely interesting, paricularly the writing of blogs for library users etc.

    Looking forward to your next column :o)

  47. Ronan Juran says:

    Well… Call me useless, but I discover, on the same day that you, Stephen, one of my minor idol, both have a blog and use SL! I think we could be brothers (I knew already about the Mac thing – but that was obvious). So don’t be shy and come and visit my virtual bit of paradise in SL, I will offer you a well deserved (virtual) glass of my best champagne!

  48. moochy says:

    I love reading your blogs Stephen. Especially enjoy the Mac stuff because they are SEX!.
    Loooking forward to buying the Guardian every saturday.
    Love you

    Lucy

  49. Giles says:

    “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.”

    I’d always fondly imagined that you and Mr P would get on rather well – apart from anything else, people who are genuinely excited about learning sometimes seem to be depressingly rare…

    Perhaps I’m reading too much into your choice of phrase, tho – I can keep my illusions if I like ;-)

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