Usually, a review of an operating system would tell you all kinds of
technical qualifications, specifications, and a performance related run down. This one won’t. What it will tell you is something much less useful. The kind of things that technical reviews overlook.
I wanted to describe the scene I look at more than anything else. More than people, landscapes, objects or even TV. Especilly as it’s not designed to be looked at full on – an operating system iis made to be background, to be boring and incidental.
The famous case between Apple and Microsoft about the graphical user interface was all about ‘Look’ and ‘Feel’. It struck me that I hadn’t really looked or felt properly. Is it possible to look into your
monitor in the same way that Constable looked at the sky, Titan looked at flesh or Vermeer looked at cloth. Or is the sensation of looking into a clean desktop the same kind of feeling you get looking into a Rothko.
Here is a recurring daydream: What it would it feel like if it flopped out of the screen of my iBook. The screen bursting and the graphics became real stuff, the wind blowing some away dust while other pieces dropping onto the keyboard like tiny metallic charms.
OSX was kind of a shock – after the snappy, clicky world of system 9. Up to X, the Mac had an interface of amazing utilitarian elegance – my desktop was liberally strewn with files like a teenager bedroom floor. Retrospectively, its the Hunstanton School of OS’s. X+ is different. It is a graphic front end on a Unix behind: a hyper styled dashboard attached to a junkyard of chips and wires. It is in the great tradition of Las Vegas casino sheds – where the delivery of the experience is very different to the infrastructure.
It is a long way from the early green text on black screens or the Atari 2600, 8 bit blocky pixel graphics. Long superseded, but remembered fondly as an aesthetic – just look at designers like Anthony Burrill at friendchip.com or Craig at flipflopflyin.com. Their takes on superseded graphics bring nostalgia and poetry to something once functional. In the superfast digital world they are a kind of Heritage Institute – keeping old fashioned craft techniques alive – Prince Charles’ of the digital generation. Alternatively there are interfaces which explore more fantastical ways of organising and displaying information: see the one that’s previewing on Tomatos site right now. Apples Aqua interface isn’t either. Its designed to be dull – but a special kind of dullness. And it is evolving qualities more like a thing or a place.
The desktop pattern has the feel of a vapour trail with the geometry of mucus strands. It looks cold like a cloudless January day. It looks like you need a scarf and mittens and earlier there was a frost. If
your warm breath passed through the screen it would form clouds. It looks weightless, like polystyrene rocks. It feels smooth, panels sliding over each other as though coated in dry-to-the-touch WD40.
Each window, which bursts into existence with a translucent zoom out of its file icon, has a brushed metal effect. The edges are rounded and lit from an unseen light above casting a soft shadow onto the windows piled up below. They are virtual cousins of Apple ti-Book caseing panels. There are a few left over bits of plastic from the old iMac range. Top left in each window there are red-orange-green coloured glass marbles rest below cut-outs.The menu bar mimics the effect of the translucent ribbed plastic casing. In the real world, these would be made with snap together components in a Mexican factory.
There is a real attention to materiality – which is strange for something isn’t made out of anything. Its pixels not molecules. But while they might look like things we know well, they behave very
differently. The aluminium looks warm, and just a little fuzzy, like wool. Everything has a matt softness like lead – and as bookmarks are added, graphics are embossed like Helvetican Hallmarks. Things become translucent when they are dragged, transmogrify from plastic to metal
as they come to front. The qualities of materials slide away from reality like texture editors in render programs: transparent aluminium, liquid oak, solid smoke. Slider bars rewriting the Periodic Table at
This poker faced alternate reality ignores physics but obeys the eye. Shadows fall in unnatural ways – like the multiple shadows that conspiracy theorists see of the flag on the moon. The flawless
gradients that seem like a cartoon version of a Foster aesthetic.
The old icon of the hourglass has been replaced by new agey hypnotic animations – the kind of thing that Avengers baddies would use to brainwash Emma Peel. Spinning colour wheels, bars chasing in circular patterns. Most operating systems have sought to use analogy – the conceit of the desktop, small drawings of folders to represent directories. Here, the icon of the hard disk is a drawing of part of the inside of the machine – a kind of literalism at odds with its surroundings.
The projection of the world in front of your eyes is a strange mixture – based on the idea of desktop with pages and things scattered in layers on top of each other. A mixture of plan, perspective and
isometric projection. Its like looking down and up and 3/4s at the same time. My finger tracks on the horizontal pad, resulting in vertical movements on the screen. But unlike the shock of cubism’s multiple views, this is the omicience of the beaurocrat.
Its a backdrop for whatever it is you are doing, or shouldn’t be doing. OSX is the coming together of Apples ‘digital lifestyle; concept. Which is both fantastic and terrible thing, because that probably includes downloading Huey Lewis and the News while looking at animal porn. There
is a conjunction of design, violence and pornography that happens on the innocent screen that could be the digital hub of Patrick Batemans life. With so many windows open it makes the Man who Fell to Earth look positively focused. Windows tracking all kinds of live information across the screen, message boards scrolling up, news tickers tracking across, windows refreshing the latest scores, all kinds of devices connecting and updating each other wirelessly, streams of copyright infringing data flooding your down pipe. Such a torrent of bits that actually doing anything yourself feels insignificant. Amongst all of this stuff its hard to locate yourself – geek-work and geek-leisure all
swirled up together integrated by iSync, patched together with Rendezvous.
While we learn to adapt to new OSs and interfaces, they subtly influence our relationship to the real physical things around us. There is that strange sensation sitting with a tracing paper pad and a pen of reaching for undo – like a phantom step at the top of a staircase. While Milton had his daughters, I have my Voice 2 Type.
First Published in Icon