Thursday, October 06, 2011

Elegance and the everyday

I'm an Apple apostate. My first computer was a Macintosh 512K Enhanced. I worked that baby all the way through college *and* grad school, feeding it floppy disks like so many potato chips which I failed to properly label and lost. Then I went to work in the corporate world and everyone--except the graphic designers, those hippies--used PCs. There wasn't much of a choice back then, if you wanted to, you know, run software.

Over time one device intertwined with another, and I've been fully PC for over a decade. And it's been fine. Really. PCs work. It's only occasionally that I feel a twinge of envy as some Apple person breezes by in their architect eyeglasses, carrying some irresistible device that I really don't need. I console myself that my PC was cheaper and works just as well, and...

But PCs are the strip malls of personal computers. They are function without form. We need inexpensive groceries, quickly, and an easy place to park the car to get said groceries. Hence the giant parking lot in the center of town, ringed by bunker-like chain stores and anchored by the gigundous Safeway. You know, fine. It works. No one set out to build a temple here. But, Christ, it's ugly. And somehow a little disrespectful, as if consumers--which is all we are, in this mindset--really care about nothing besides saving money. We don't really care what our cities and towns and thoroughfares look like, just so they get us where we're going (which is where, exactly?).

I know, I know: meeting our basic needs as inexpensively as possible is important, especially in these times. You can't feed elegance to your kids. Also, it's not like Apple is a great roar of protest against the degradations of consumer culture. It is one of that culture's most potent sources of fuel, and waste--the lovely, pretty much unnecessary gizmo that causes you to toss your previous gizmo into the landfill.

Still. Steve Jobs and Apple insisted that the most utilitarian possible object, the computer, should be elegant. Using it should not just satisfy us, but please us. It seems like a small thing. After all, we can find beauty at the art museum, or on the mountaintop, or in the concert hall, if we need it, right? Why should everyday, functional objects also be beautiful? Well, because they pull us one step back from the abyss of what Russians call "poshlost'"--the depressing mix of banality and vulgarity for which there is no equivalent English word. Every ugly, purely functional, hastily slapped-together thing that catches our eye is another little poke in the eye: we don't need anything better; we don't deserve better; we aren't better. Not settling for everyday ugliness is a little rebellion.

So here's to Steve Jobs and the elegance of the everyday. I really do not need an iPad. But I really want one.

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