Book Reviews

Machine Beauty: Elegance And The Heart Of Technology by David Gelernter

ISBN: 978-0465043163
Publisher: Basic Books
Pages: 176

Recently I revisited an old blog post by Kathy Sierra. The work of Kathy has been a main influence on my own career. Her always brilliant writings are one of the reasons I once choose to embark upon a learning journey outside my own technological field. So far it's been a journey that took me through a degree in psychology and continues to this day. When I read her reference to David Gelernter's Machine beauty as her favorite book on aesthetics and technology, I knew it had to be good.

Gelernter sees beauty as a fundamental part of all science and technology. Beauty is the driving factor that underpins "the most important discoveries in computational history and continues to push research onward today". So what is actually beauty? The philosopher Stendhal once explained that "beauty is the promise of happiness". Could there be any truth to that within the field of technology?

Gelernter defines beauty as "a happy marriage of simplicity and power". Simplicity and power are indeed qualities shared by all good theories and all great designs. Achieving beauty in a design is hard. Not only do we have to solve a hard problem. We have to make it look easy. As Gelernter reminds us, uniting simplicity and power doesn't necessarily guarantee beauty. It just makes it possible.

Beauty in technology shouldn't be limited to interfaces or product exteriors. It has to flow through our solutions to, permeate every piece of them. Gelernter argues that beauty is of vital importance since software is so complicated. Beauty is our defense against this complexity. Guided by beauty we set out to create designs of integrated elements of simplicity. It's about identifying clear principles and unifying patterns.

Machine Beauty turned out to meet my expectations. It's an interesting read. Besides the more philosophical discussions, Gelernter applies his ideas to studies of historically successful products. A whole chapter is devoted to how Apple's beautiful designs could lose out to Microsoft's less elegant products. Gelernter reasons that "beautiful technology is unmanly". This idea is taken as the main reason Apple failed to capture the business market back in the 80's. It sure may be speculative but I believe Gelernter is correct in his assessment. However, in the 15 years since the book was written, the tides have started to turn.

Ultimately Machine Beauty is a call for acceptance of beauty in technology. It's a quest for a complete change to scientific educations. Beauty has to be incorporated and accepted at universities in the form of art education combined with repeated practice until both correctness and elegance are present in the solutions. I like the idea since I share many of these views. David Gelernter captures them in an opinionated and sarcastic text, frequently spiced with humor. Machine Beauty is a recommended read.

Reviewed July 2012