Top positive review
Words and pictures
on 7 March 2014
In this little book (whose length is more befitting of an essay), Neal Stephenson displays an impressive depth of technical knowledge about how computers work, particularly in the area of user interfaces: the means by which we make them do the things we want. He uses that as a jumping-off point to tease out the differences between typing commands and manipulating objects on a screen, and what that means for how we think about what we're doing. It's a characteristically stimulating collection of ideas - thus, at one point, he suggests an analogy between a graphical user interface (GUI) and Disney World: both "are in the same business: short-circuiting laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed interfaces." He's concerned that an overuse of a GUI leads us into an unfamiliarity with the written word - in roughly the same way, I imagine, that a commentator of fifty years ago would contend that watching too much television leaves less time for reading books, and hence increasing levels of illiteracy.
It's an interesting observation, even if the technological examples he uses have inevitably become dated since the book was first published in 1999. This of course is an inevitable consequence of writing about the current state of a fast-moving technical landscape (for example, he says his favourite user interface is BeOS, whose development company was to be dissolved two years after this book came out). But the ideas contained in the book are stimulating enough to have persisted for longer than the technology, and there's been at least one attempt (not written by the original author) to update its examples and observations. One of the reasons this has been possible is that the text is apparently freely available on the net. But it's still nice to have the book.