Would you pay more for a noisy computer?

Computers should expose their internal workings as a 6th sense, Matt Webb:

I kinda miss the days when I could hear the hard drive of my computer. If it was taking a while to response (say, when opening a big file), there was a difference between the standard whirr chugga chugga ch-ch-ch chugga seek pattern, and a broken kik kik kik. And you’d have an idea how long loading a file from disk should take, versus the silent “thinking” time afterwards.

The point is not the sound. You barely noticed the sound.

The point is that you felt you like were in psychic communion with the workings of the computer.

1.

Watch and car enthusiast/collectors go wild for these qualities. They go on and on about the shape of the Jaguar E-Type, the roar of an American V-8 engine, the howl of a Formula 1 V-10 engine, the smell of new watch strap leather, the classic looks of an Omega Speedmaster or Rolex Daytona.

And then there’s the “save the manuals” crowd! Despite knowing that modern transmissions are more effective than any human, they desire the involvement of controlling a major interaction between the car’s engine and the rubber meeting the road.

Another crowd revels in and/or yearns to own one of the “last analog” of some sort. The Last Analog Ferrari/Porsche/BMW/etc. It’s a desire for a sensory experience at the expense of outright speed/efficiency, a True Scotsman argument, and a lot of nostalgia. It’s also nice that “analog” cars can’t become haunted my misbehaving computers or software.

2.

Computers (and their distant cousins, the electric car and smartwatch) are left only to simulate these qualities. A smartwatch could display the same information as an Omega Speedmaster and replicate its design down to pixel perfection. It will never catch the light like a physical watch will. Porsche’s Taycan electric car makes its own kind of howl (if you pay slightly more for the option), but it pales to any era of their gasoline engines.

A lot of these watch and car qualities come down to nostalgia. On paper, a CO2 producing, endlessly vibrating machine full of moving parts that are going to break is inferior to the electric car designs of 2021. What we need is a new sort of romance as we transition from moving parts to entirely solid state machines.

Computers could make us feel something. They should tap us once if something works, or tap us a few times when something needs our attention. We should be able to tell they’re working hard, or hardly working, by the sounds of their insides clicking, whirring, or churning. Data and files that have gone untouched for a while should have a faded patina.

In particular, there’s room for moving from Apple Store austerity/minimalism to color and form-follows-function ornamentation.

3.

Cultured Code’s Things is my go-to example. They’ve gone to the trouble of re-implementing large swaths of the UI toolkit Apple provides on their platforms. The attention to detail shines through. Every action has the slightest haptic feedback. Swiping and tapping through the UI has a hint of physical heft, as though there’s a bit of momentum to scrolling around, opening up a task, or flipping over to the navigation “sidebar”. It’s the best use of animation I’ve seen on the platform. It’s still quite austere, but at least there’s a feeling that it’s not a UI floating in Jony Ive’s featureless, zero-gravity void!

I suppose the jury’s out whether patina, “this is my computer, none are like it”, and collectability are out the window too. Maybe this whole crypto-token thing will bear fruit without extending humanity’s use of coal power far beyond its past-due date.

4.

There’s another angle here. To continue the car metaphor, most people don’t want a sports car or muscle car. They don’t even want an SUV with a muscle-car engine. They want something reliable, convenient, and affordable.

Folks mostly want appliances. Solve this problem for me with a minimum of showmanship or drama. That is, they want a quiet and unassuming car or computer. Normal operation should make no sound at all. Worrisome noises should only happen if things worsened after warning the owner and the machine remained quiet.

Solid state computers and cars are unavoidable, as futures go. There’s no reason to go back to combustion, cooling fans, and extensively spinning disks. Computers as appliance are largely here and largely preferred. Watches are in the midst of that transition. Cars are next on the wave of change.

5.

Maybe this all comes down to computers-as-invisible-fabric-of-life vs. computers-as-central-tool. Glass walls that show off the mainframe/server/datacenter room (not unlike glass engine covers on McLaren/Ferrari/Lamborghini supercars!) vs. servers sequestered behind anonymous drywall or offsite completely “in the cloud”.

Someday, we’ll get past computers as we know them now. Then we’ll have “computer-punk”. Like steampunk before it, we’ll imagine life if we’d advanced in knowledge and ethics but not technology.

Probably, if I see that future, I’ll have some fleet of computers, mostly invisible, which I use as my “daily driver” for getting stuff done. But if current trends continue, I’ll spend a few hours a week enjoying a “weekend computer” that is clack-y, slightly anachronistic or nostalgic, and gets noticeably huffy when I ask too much of it.

By Adam Keys

Telling a joke. Typing.