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December 93 - THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE

THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE

ABRACADABRA

DAVE JOHNSON

[IMAGE 064-065,_Veteran_Neophyte1.GIF]

I've just returned from a really long vacation. For six weeks I didn't touch a single computer. (Well, that's not strictly true; I did stroke many a touch-screen on information kiosks or ticket machines, but you get the idea.) The first time after my return that I grabbed the mouse of a live Macintosh there was a brief instant -- just a single, sharp, fleeting moment -- when I felt the magic again.

Can you remember the first time you got to play with a working Macintosh? Were you amazed -- I mean really astounded -- as I was? Did you: Peek under the mouse to see what was there? Click and drag all over the place just to watch things happen? Drag a file into a folder and then immediately open the folder to see if the file was really there? Create a nest of new folders deep enough to get bored, just to see if it would work? Try every combination of bold, outline, shadow, italic, and underline?

I'm betting that the fundamental reason you're interested in programming the Macintosh is because of that magic. I know this isn't true for everyone out there (some of you -- gasp -- probably do it for the money!), but I suspect it's true for most of you, or at least it was when you started. Maybe you wanted to make a little of that magic yourself. Maybe you just wanted to peek behind the curtain to see how it was done. Or maybe you wanted (as I did) to find out where the magic came from, to hunt down its source. One of the problems with that kind of techno-magic, though, is that the more you learn about it and the more you use it, the more it fades away.

So here's the next question: When was thelast time you felt the magic? If you're like me, the magic of the Macintosh interface has been completely subsumed by everyday familiarity. It's become a part of everyday life, like matches, or light bulbs, or TV. I'm sure that when matches were still new, striking one and making fire was an amazing thing. I'll bet people used up whole boxes of matches, striking them one by one, just to see it happen. But matches are no longer special; their magic has become cheap and commonplace and has therefore ceased to be magic at all. People don't light matches for the thrill anymore (pyromaniacs excepted); they use them to light something else -- matches have become a means, not an end. Similarly, we don't marvel anymore at the fact that just by flipping a switch we can make an entire room as bright as day, banishing forever the night; we think instead about what we want to do tonight. We don't marvel anymore that moving pictures and sounds can be plucked out of the air (or out of a cable, these days) and made to show up on a box in our homes; we think instead about what's on.

This is probably a necessary and inevitable step in a culture's acceptance and assimilation of a new technology: people stop marveling at the fact that they have a new ability, and begin simply tousethat ability. That period when new technologies still feel like magic is also the period when a culture is adjusting itself to the technology and being transformed by it. By the time a new technology has been fully integrated into society, it's taken for granted, the magic exhausted and the transformation complete.

So how does this apply to computers? Is the magic from computers all used up? Have they been fully assimilated by human society and finished their transformational work? Are they now taken forgranted and just a part of the background noise of modern life? In the words of my mom when I asked her (at age 11) if I could get a tattoo on my chest: Hell, no.

Particularmanifestationsof computers have become a part of daily life for many people: cash machines, video games, bar code readers at markets, and so on. These are computers, but they're masked -- the true nature of the machine is obscured by a task-specific facade. Even the relatively small number of people who use "real" computers in their everyday lives use them for only a few tasks (word processing, graphics editing, number crunching, and game playing are common -- somehow recipe filing never caught on). So they're really just using two or three specific, task- oriented applications. And yes, these particular uses of computers have become mundane to those who use them: writers use word processors without blinking, accountants use spreadsheets without a hint of awe.

But I'm not sure whether computersas computers can ever be fully integrated into society. They're too slippery, too prolific, too, well,protean. (Protean: able to take on new forms easily, after Proteus, a sea god in Greek mythology who could change his shape at will.) Just when we get used to them in one guise, they blur and shift and suddenly they're something else, something new, something magical all over again.

And that's where programmers come in. We're the ones who get to cause that shift. We're the ones who get to craft new faces for the machine, like mad, happy mask makers. We're the ones that get tomake the magic. We get closer than anyone else to tasting the real flavor of computers -- their malleability and chameleon-like talent for taking on new forms -- but it's still only a taste, and the price is outrageous. Making magic turns out to be nothing but hard, grungy work. Being a wizard looks great from the outside, but there's a downside most people don't see: to create the magic, you need to spend inordinately huge amounts of time doing completely unmagical things, and even worse, you have to give up experiencing the magic for yourself. It's like sleight of hand: it looks like magic to the audience, but to the conjurer it's not magic at all. Learning that kind of magic means spending countless hours alone in front of a mirror, practicing the same moves over and over and over until they're automatic and can be made without even thinking. By that time any residual magic has been completely wrung out of it.

Like brain researchers who set off to find the source of human consciousness and end up studying the function of some enzyme in sea slugs, programmers often set off to find the source of the magic and end up writing device drivers. There's a valuable lesson there, one that took me years to learn: the magic isn't part of the machine at all. You can follow the computer's workings right down to the bottom, and what you find is a boringly predictable mechanism as devoid of magic as a meat grinder. It's like trying to find musical beauty by closely examining a CD: all you can find is a series of rough pits in a reflective surface, and there's no indication whatever that those pits could contain something sublime.

So where does the magic come from? The answer's obvious, once you stop to think about it: it comes from people. It turns out that computers don't possess any magic of their own, they're just very, very good containers for human magic. The computer is simply a shell, albeit one that's infinitely malleable. The people who shape the shell, who tell the computer what to be, are the real source of the magic. I guess I should've known.

RECOMMENDED READING

  • Man Meets Dog by Konrad Lorenz (Penguin Books, 1964).
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (Random House, 1964).
  • Let It Rot! by Stu Campbell (Storey Publishing, 1975).

DAVE JOHNSON wants to know: is he the only one who does watch-cursor push-ups during time-consuming Macintosh operations? First you find a horizontal black line (they're everywhere: window frames, folder icons, buttons, even the progress bar itself), then you put the watch cursor just above it, so that the bottom edge of the watchband overlaps the horizontal line by one pixel. Now carefully move the cursor up and down by one pixel, and there you have it -- watch- cursor push-ups! You can do pull-ups too! Amaze your friends! *

Dave welcomes feedback on his musings. He can be reached at JOHNSON.DK on AppleLink, dkj@apple.com on the Internet, or 75300,715 on CompuServe.*

Galileo's finger is preserved in a bottle, just like a holy relic, in a science museum in Florence, Italy. I saw it myself. Really.

Thanks to Jeff Barbose, Michael Greenspon, Bill Guschwan, Mark ("The Red") Harlan, Bo3b Johnson, Lisa Jongewaard, and Ned van Alstyne for their always enlightening review comments.

 
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