Unevenly Distributed: Chrome, the iPad and the Crossroads of Civilization

On October 7th, 1930 — slender and bright; like a string tense and silent in anticipation of the purpose of her note — Beatrice Warde was introduced to the British Typographer’s Guild. The speech she gave would change the way people thought about type for the next fifty years… and should be burnt into the flesh of anyone who is making a gadget to this day.

Warde’s message was as clear as the theory of type she espoused. She described print collectively in its many facets from typeface to layout as a crystal goblet, but a better analogy would be a window. A stained glass window might be a work of art in and of itself, but it hides the dynamic, changing world on the other side; it is a living vista obscured by the lurid but unchanging overlaid upon it. It has forgotten its true purpose. To reveal. To let in light.

“The most important thing,” Warde said, “is that [printing] conveys thought, ideas, images, from one mind to other minds.” When layout, font or type becomes more noticeable than the message they convey, it’s an abomination. And though Warde said all of this in a pleasant, instructional lilt cast in an educated American accent that has since gone extinct, the fierceness of her passion, the righteousness of her belief still growls and pulses in the text of her most famous broadside, which once hung on the wall of almost every printer in England:

THIS IS
A PRINTING OFFICE
CROSSROADS OF CIVILIZATION
REFUGE OF ALL THE ARTS
AGAINST THE RAVAGES OF TIME
ARMOURY OF FEARLESS TRUTH
AGAINST WHISPERING RUMOUR
INCESSANT TRUMPET OF TRADE
FROM THIS PLACE WORDS MAY FLY ABROAD
NOT TO PERISH ON WAVES OF SOUND
NOT TO VARY WITH THE WRITER’S HAND
BUT FIXED IN TIME HAVING BEEN VERIFIED IN PROOF
FRIEND YOU STAND ON SACRED GROUND
THIS IS A PRINTING OFFICE

I only read about Warde recently in Just My Type, Simon Garfield’s compelling book about the history and philosophy of font. Even across most of a century, Warde’s the kind of woman who fascinates: she is like a firework exploding in your hand.

But the thing that most struck me about Warde’s message wasn’t how it applied to type or printing. If she were alive today, you wouldn’t find her in a printing office, her fingers smeared with inky metallic lilac. You’d find her at Apple or at Google, because print would no longer be her passion. Her passion would be the Internet, which is the new and better pane through which we now view the world of images and ideas; its the fusion of computer design and that of their operating systems which would now be her crystal goblet.

Last week, Google unveiled the Cr-48, the obsidian plinth that will support the rollout of their new Chrome OS. It’s an intriguing machine that willfully and defiantly eschews every notebook convention possible. It is literally a blank slate. It even looks like one. The notebook itself is uniformly black, unslathered with stickers or logos; it’s specs are an absolute mystery; the operating system itself something completely new that aims to be a transparent window to the Internet and the cloud, but not a world unto itself.

There’s a lot of criticism of Google Chrome OS by the old vanguard of legacy computer users. “We already have netbooks, and those netbooks already run more full featured operating systems like Windows or even Ubuntu that everyone’s already familiar with. Chrome OS is a backwards step: why would you give up local storage and backwards compatibility with older programs to be in the cloud when you can use a proper operating system and still be in the cloud too?”

These people are missing the point. Chrome OS has its problems, and the Cr-48 has its quirks, but it is clear what Google is trying to accomplish here. The Cr-48 is a machine for the conveyance of thoughts and ideas. Chrome OS is a pane of glass, and has no goal besides transparency; the netbook itself is simply a handsome but unadorned window frame. If not for just a few niggling technical issues — the trackpad sticks, video runs sluggishly, it’s a little too heavy — the Cr-48 would be the perfect gadget. Why? Because it’s one of the few gadgets that can forget itself in favor of its purpose.

Warde would be proud. Think of what Chrome OS represents: the bare minimum operating system necessary for tapping into the living ebb of the Internet. Google has polished this window thoroughly. Chrome OS is mindless to administer. The UI is uniform. Legacy support has been thrown out the window. It’s immune to malware. Battery life is extreme. It’s even immune to system failure; if your computer breaks, your operating system corrupts, all you’ve lost is the glass and a frame, and the world it conveys still exists outside it. All you need to do is find another window.

The Cr-48 is almost perfect in the purity of its unadorned blackness and the single-minded transparency of its operating system, but it’s also a device not widely available for sale. The first commercial Chrome OS netbooks are due out early next year from Acer and Samsung, and you can expect those companies to spooge their branding all over their machines, like a window frame covered with bubblegum stickers. Way to miss the point. A few Acer logos and Intel stickers won’t cloud the glass, of course, but it will make it seem somehow dirtier and less pure by the juxtaposition.

It’s too bad, because Apple — by controlling their hardware and reinventing their software through iOS — is the closest thing to Warde’s Crystal Goblet as exists in mainstream tech… and that’s why they’re the most profitable computer maker and one of the most sought-after brands on Earth.

It’s less true on the Mac side of things. Mac OS X, while an incredible operating system, is still mired in the conventions of the past (although far less so than, say, Windows). It assumes the necessity of backwards compatibility with the Power PC architecture, and local storage, and compatibility with plugins, and interaction with networks and legacy third-party hardware. It’s Mac OS Ten for a reason… nine versions came before, each passings its genetic kruft down the line as a slowing DNA junk.

iOS is a different beast, though. It’s an operating system birthed to be mobile, and therefore singular of purpose. It was built from the ground-up to be a magic, portable window to a world of information — voice and internet — that was ethereal and existed unsolipsistically beyond its own boundaries. An iPhone is a limpid version of one of Acme’s Portable Holes: it was one of the first truly mobile device that you could pull out of your pocket and both absorb and exude the Internet with a minimum of compromises.

Look at an iPad and you’ll see Warde’s window, if she could have imagined it. The iPad’s design is attractive, but without flourish or adornment: masterfully subtle construction and invisible tech forms a unibody frame to a vaster world that it both conveys and crystallizes. Every iOS device features only a single interface button, so it’s minimalist to the extreme. With every app you call up, you gaze into a different world… sometimes local to your device, sometimes transient, sometimes alien and far beyond. The device itself, though, is only meant to be a complimentary and attractive frame, perfectly realized to the purpose of conveyance. An iPad, or iPhone, or iPod Touch has nothing superfluous about its design. Where these devices have advanced technologically over the generations is all in the aim of becoming a clearer glass to the world of communication — whether by grafting on a Retina Display, shifting from EDGE to 3G or upping the CPU — not making the frame more showy and ornate.

Obviously, there’s a lot of difference between your modern Ive-hewn Apple gadget and Google’s Cr-48, but the pulse of the the design code the two share is one that Warde would have instinctually felt. The world is wide, the future bright, and we can only view it one small window at a time, so the glass must be clear and the frame must be sturdy and not garish. Think of the passion pulsing off the page when Warde defended (in centered Albertus) the righteous sanctity of just one printed page. Now think of the Internet as it exists today, and you can see how just 80 years would have shaped the woman she was… and how defiantly she would have railed against today’s over-engineered, over-designed crap gadgets.

Stretching the analogy between gadgets and type any further is a bit hazardous (although I can’t help but think that the engineers behind Sony’s Vaio would sympathize with these sentiments of Eric Gill, the creator of Gill-Sans: “Continued experiment with dog… and discovered that a dog will join with a man.”) Even so, is it so hard to imagine the text of Warde’s broadside, subtly manipulated, hanging on a wall at Cupertino or Mountain View?

THIS IS
WHERE THE INTERNET STARTS
CROSSROADS OF CIVILIZATION
REFUGE OF ALL THE ARTS
AGAINST THE RAVAGES OF TIME
ARMOURY OF FEARLESS TRUTH
AGAINST WHISPERING RUMOUR
INCESSANT TRUMPET OF TRADE
FROM THIS PLACE WORDS MAY FLY ABROAD
NOT TO PERISH ON WAVES OF SOUND
NOT TO VARY WITH THE ARTIST’S HAND
BUT FIXED IN TIME HAVING BEEN VERIFIED IN PROOF
FRIEND YOU STAND ON SACRED GROUND
THIS IS THE INTERNET

Because it should… and everywhere else besides.

* * * * *

Unevenly Distributed is a weekly column written by John Brownlee fusing the week’s most interesting tech stories with history, context, weirdness, humor and vision towards the future. You can drop John a note by writing to john AT gearfuse DOT com.

32 comments

  1. Ironically, you couldn’t type Warde’s famous broadside on a Cr-48, at least not easily. It lacks a caps lock key.

  2. It doesn’t lack one, Dylan, you can switch the Caps Lock option on under Chrome. But yes, the irony’s still there. πŸ™‚

  3. The caps lock key is an artifact of mechanical typewriter keyboards… treating the capital letters as a separate alphabet and a style, like italics, makes sense when you’re not actually operating a lever to lock the type into a different position. I’m tempted to suggest that losing it brings the Chrome notebook closer to windowpane-lucidity with respect to the view it affords of the internet. But there’s still a whole lot of past-tech baggage there, with a QWERTY keyboard, etc. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

  4. Caps Lock key is a requirement for anyone who writes about gadgets, or spends time in an office spreadsheet every day. I always rankle a bit when the Caps Lock key is more maligned as a key for slobber-mouthed idiots than, say, the Num Lock key.

  5. Hardly immune to system failure – if you expand your definition of system to include Google (or at least its cloud).

    No electronic data – stored locally or in the cloud – is so fixed in time, imperishable or invariant as the printed word.

    That being so, why give up the local in favour of the cloud when you can have both?

  6. I think this article has things precisely backwards, and I suspect if Warde fully understood what the cr-48 represented, she’d have hated it. What all of these cloud-based schemes do is throw away the central virtue of the internet; decoupled storage and asynchronous data dissemination.

    Imagine how wikileaks would have gone down in a cloud-heavy world. When everyone’s data is in the cloud, the authorities only have to lean on a few companies to shut down all dissemination and identify the distributors. The government would be in a position to call Google and say “Here’s a tool; run that tool on every file in the cloud, erase anything the tool says to erase. National security. Get on it now or be arrested.”

    “But my data is encrypted! They’ll never know how to find it!”

    You know the lousy thing about modern encryption? If you have the plaintext, it’s actually fairly easy to check whether a given encrypted stream is actually that plaintext. The “find it” tool doesn’t need a back door; if the intent is to destroy all encrypted copies of a known plaintext, it’s easy.

    As I understand it, Warde was impressed with printing because it spread culture and truth in a way that was difficult to destroy. Note how she specifically sites the advantage of the printed word against the ephemeral nature of sound. The cr-48 is a giant leap back in the wrong direction, towards central control and increased ephemerality of intormation.

    To put it another way, the archaeological value of a cr-48 is roughly that of a stone knife; it will tell our descendants that we had a culture, but (except what they can glean from the silkscreening on parts) will leave them no direct artifacts of it other than the machine itself. A long-dead computer might harbor something readable on a hard disk; a partially recoverable song, some text, perhaps, possibly more. The cr-48 is a tombstone and nothing more the moment it loses the cloud.

  7. It really depends what you want to do with your computer I suppose doesn’t it? The Cr-48, Ipad and indeed a well typeset book are all great ways for consuming media, but, to actually make something beyond blog posts or a little word processing I think old fashioned computers certainly have the edge.

    What do people think? Are cloud based devices likely to evolve to the point where we write computer programmes, run applications like Photoshop on them etc. or are we likely to see cloud based devices and tablets at home and computers at work?

  8. Mac OS X…assumes the necessity of backwards compatibility with the Power PC architecture

    Just to pick a nit, this isn’t exactly true. As of 10.6, Rosetta (the PowerPC compatibility library) is only an optional install. I opted not to install it and have not missed it. Considering the amount of legacy software out there, Apple is pretty brutal about leaving it behind.

    But I agree, this doesn’t take away from the observation that MacOS is still bound by existing ways of doing business in general.

  9. Adam — that’s a fair point and one that was brought up to me in edit, but somehow I forgot to put it in. Thanks!

  10. Seems a reasonable analogy, expect for one major point the author is missing. Using this “machine for the conveyance of thoughts and ideas”, and using the cloud for everything you might want to store, you have to discard the concept of privacy. The analogy to a window must be expanded from analog to digital: it’s about a window that transmits to a third party everything you see through it; and you have to trust this third party that “they don’t do evil”. Having read “1984”, and living today, I find that pretty scary.

  11. Chris:

    The cloud model has been around for decades, really; it’s the same old “central server with mostly dumb terminals” dream that the software industry has been chasing since the 80s. Everyone has been chasing it because everyone in the software industry wants to be rental model; they want to charge a recurring fee for access rather than sell you the software once.

    The “free” model is still rental. I can’t remember the attribution, but the relevant quote was “If the service is free, YOU are the product being sold.”.

    So, applications like photoshop? Yes. Microsoft, for instance, would be thrilled to have whole businesses running on cloud-Office. Writing your own programs? Not so much. Or if you can, expect to have to pay rent to run them.

    I think the reason the cloud never goes away is that it’s the promise of vast lucre for whoever can make it work. The reason it hasn’t taken off is (aside from technical considerations) that living with the cloud in practice is very different from the theory. Imagine if (say) whenever Twitter was showing the failwhale you couldn’t do your job. Or imagine you lost your work every time you were working when Tumblr had one of their temporary outages.

    For that matter, imagine the fun of a sewer maintenance crew accidentally severing your office internet connection, and the whole office being unable to work for three days while it gets sorted out.

    Also, do you mind if a DNS screwup accidentally routs all your cloud traffic (with all your company’s sensitive information) through China?

    Cloud computing is one of those bad ideas that never quite dies.

  12. The modern internet is the confluence of *two* great technology trends. One is easy transmission, and Chrome OS is presumably great at that. But the other is easy creation and, for now at least, you need a non-cloud, non-appliance operating system to create anything significantly more than text.

    If Beatrice Warde would love Chrome OS (and iOS), it’s because it represents the printing-press model rising up *against* the internet model. Somebody else creates, you consume. A perfect window into a world you can’t contribute to.

  13. I was going to make exactly the same point as anon. A thin client and the main smarts being elsewhere is hardly new. It was what I was using with our campus computer system in the late 1980s. It was a reasonable idea then because processors fast enough to do word processing tasks weren’t cheap. There are various things I can see i want mobile — but it’s data not applications. This is hardly a step forward, it’s what we had 20 years ago. It worked OK then but I was glad to see the back of it and the move to applications local, data remote.

  14. Putting it all “in the cloud” is just another phrase for distributed computing storage. We did this in the 80s with IBM mainframes (we had essentially brainless monitors and all the storage was elsewhere).

    Problem is: you have to trust those supporting the ‘backside” to a significant degree. They won’t screw things up, lose data, have system problems, and will keep your data secure and private.

    Me? I don’t have that kind of trust in anyone but myself. I want total control of MY data, and Google, imho, is the antithesis of the company that doesn’t want to be evil, but is getting there, albeit slowly. That Chrome will be able to track significant aspects of what you do with that browser THAT CAN NOT BE DISABLED is just another example of a growing arrogance in the belief that, like it or not, the customers/user has no say in the matter, ’cause it’s free.

    Witness the statements on privacy from the Google CEO and Facebook’s Zuckerberg.

    Nah, not going to play in their guilded sandbox.

    I value my privacy and my perceived right to have total control of any data related to me. The sooner we collectively draw a line in that “sandbox” the better.

    “Cloud” computing has serious dependency issues on having Internet access. Is that important?

    Pull the plug on your high-speed line for a day and see how useful “cloud storage” is.

    FYI, Mark

  15. Hugh, you said it beautifully. I agree wholeheartedly.

  16. THIS IS
    THE INTERNET
    CROSSROADS OF CIVILIZATION
    CO-OPTER OF ALL THE ARTS
    ACCELERATING THE RAVAGES OF TIME
    ARMOURY OF BASELESS SPECULATION
    FURTHERING WHISPERING RUMOUR
    INCESSANT DEGRADER OF LABOR
    FROM THIS PLACE WORDS FLY ABROAD
    TO PERISH ON FIREWALLS
    VARYING WITH THE BROWSER AND STYLESHEET
    UNFIXED IN TIME, DYNAMICALLY GENERATED, UNDEFINED BY PROOF
    FRIEND YOU STAND ON SHIFTING SANDS
    THIS IS THE INTERNET

  17. For all the lauding I hear regarding Chrome and this brave new world…I can’t help but think about some very critical issues…

    Google controls this world…you access it from their browser, you use their tools, their backend, and you have to make a HUGE leap in trust that a) they will never violate your privacy b) they will never experience a critical outage c) you will never have your account banned or closed d) they will never eventually pull a “it was free but now it costs,” play where your data is now hostage.

    Also…with all the talk about choice…using this solution actually limits your choice. Google becomes the gateway for the internet…the gateway for your data…you are now using apps within apps within apps.

    Some applications will never work well over distributive networks. Computing power and data requirements regarding storage and processing power are increasing not decreasing. Google’s solution seems to tax our networking systems…a lot.

    And as others have pointed out…once you lose the connection…you lose your world. As someone who has 6 terabytes of media in my home that’s backed up to 3 different solutions (including the web), I don’t see how they can provide me with the scalability I need at the cost I’m willing to pay…hard drives are cheap…online storage and the pipes to move that data are not.

    Lastly…I think internet providers are not going to be entirely happy with this solution. You are asking them to bear the brunt of all that data being transferred back and forth…I can see an argument here for why net neutrality is a bad thing…at least for them. I imagine tiered pricing just like we’re seeing on mobile phones. Without those pipes…Google doesn’t have a product…and I don’t see them ponying up to provide free internet access in the amount necessary for this to work.

  18. From the sounds of the nay-sayers, I guess everyone here has decided “the cloud” and “the internet” belong to the big third party players: Microsoft, Google, Amazon, etc. I disagree that “the cloud” necessitates having a third party with unlimited access to my data or my business’s data. For the experts among us we can build our own part of the cloud if the price point for virtualization and application support is comparable to what we get from a third party. I maintain my own part of the cloud, and for me, a so-called “transparent device” or ultimately thin client is a wonderful tool for application access. I’d much rather manage the legacy applications on the back-end or pay someone to manage them and have a single client that can securely access them from any connected place on the planet. Yes, connection is important, so buy your antenna(e) now and starting building a truly distributed, anonymous, and secure internet that isn’t dependent on the privately held tubes for transmitting data.

  19. ebb is the wrong word:
    1. the flowing back of the tide as the water returns to the sea ( opposed to flood, flow).
    2. a flowing backward or away; decline or decay: the ebb of a once great nation.
    3. a point of decline: His fortunes were at a low ebb.

    and a firework going off in your hand is not interesting.

    The comment above by “hello” is the only applicable one to the relevance of her quote to ‘the internet’.

  20. Well said, “hello”

  21. anon 12:08 nailed it

  22. I find myself flipping back and forth, bistably, between agreeing totally, and disagreeing totally. The disagreeing totally side keeps coming back to Neal Stephenson’s “metaphor shear” as presented in In the Beginning Was the Command Line….

  23. ‘Hello’s’ comment was wickedly funny, and spot on! I’m as romantic about written communication as the next guy, but the revolution of Warde’s day still offered the consumer of that printed material the knowledge that facts were checked (any degree of fact checking would be light years’ worth of improvement over the webs as they now stand), spelling and grammar were carefully corrected, and no small amount of care given to presentation.

    With democratization frequently comes vitriol, spin, inanity, and, worst of all, laziness compounded by the theft of the creative works of others.

    I’m likely older than most on this thread, but am the farthest thing from a Luddite. That said, I do long for the days when considerable care and thought were given to all pieces of written correspondence, public and personal. This column is generally well-written, if a little overly romanticized, but I’ll give props where they’re due.

  24. “It’s an operating system birthed to be mobile, and therefore singular of purpose.”

    You’re describing Android; Chrome OS, according to Google at least, is designed for use with a keyboard (and mouse). Though netbooks are more mobile than notebooks or desktop machines, they aren’t really intended for use while one is actually on the move, the way touch-based phones are. As such, the iOS comparison isn’t quite right, though both Chome OS and iOS devices support the push toward paternalistic computing.

  25. You have a point, but I think it will be eradicated by the lack of security inherent in this model. As recent events have so clearly illustrated, we cannot trust the handlers with our data, and the cloud is an idealized trap.

  26. anyone who has had an account hacked online can tell you, the cloud is deeply problematic for that and many other reasons. I’ll always prefer local storage. You might be able to hack an online storage space, but try to pick my pocket and I’ll break your arm.

  27. The window metaphor is an interesting one, but I think it’s being abused here. A better use would be to say that if the means of interaction with the internet is a window, then the computer and its operating system is not simply the frame, but the entire house built around it. And just like computer than can only access the cloud, a single window standing alone ensures that someone treating it as their home will have no security and no privacy.

  28. I thought Warde’s poster was in Perpetua Titling?

  29. “Missing the point” , Ha! Apple fanboyism, wrapped in gadget idolatry, wrapped in vacuous pseudo-philosophy, wrapped in a bit load of sh*te. You’ve forgotten your purpose. To reveal. To let in light.

  30. Adam Rice is correct, but there’s another related point to be made. Mac OS X *doesn’t* carry the “genetic cruft” of the previous 9 major iterations. OS X was a total rewrite and a complete change in architecture from the OS that Apple created whole cloth to a NeXTSTEP/UNIX based OS. Code-wise it had as much in common with the previous versions as it does with, say, Windows. In fact, it only ran legacy apps via the “Classic” emulation layer.

    There are plenty of legitimate complaints about Apple’s operating systems, but being bogged down by its heritage isn’t one of them.

  31. To pre-emptively clarify/correct my own post, OS 9 apps written with the Carbon API *could* run natively under OS X.

  32. Well, it does still require the genetic cruft of past device and driver support, Datan0de. I could have spelled it out more explicitly though.

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