Beautiful Things and Working Well: Charlie Brooker vs. Apple

I’m in the final stretch of finishing a paper and presentation for a university subject called “Product Aesthetics and Values”. Without going into too much detail, I’m interested in the reverse of Donald Norman’s idea that “Beautiful Things Work Better”- i.e. if something is ugly but performs its job well, then it will become beautiful. Here is a quick primer on Donald Norman’s idea:

 I’ve always thought that this happens with cars. If an up and coming car maker, that doesn’t have a reputation for good-looking vehicles (like Tata or Great Wall or Chery) came out with an ugly ugly dogs-mess of a car, that performed beyond all expectations, and was fast and cheap and handled well; it would transform itself into a good-looking car.

Product aesthetics does affect the perception of use, and because perception-is-fact, good looking things work better. With this is mind I enjoyed Charlie Brookers 2007 piece about Apple: “I Hate Macs”. I’m reading “Dawn of the Dumb: dispatches from the idiotic frontline” which is a selection of his Guardian columns. I’m a big fan of Charlie Brooker’s TV shows, “ScreenWipe”, “NewsWipe” and “GamesWipe” which are mainly about TV. He also wrote “DeadSet” about Zombies and the Big Brother House. He isn’t for everyone, but if you like smart commentary mixed with teenage puerile knob jokes, he’s your man. Here’s a knob-joke-free taste (some swearing):

And like most books which are a collection of newspaper columns, it does have it’s fair share of  “two-hours-before-deadline-I-need-to-write-1000-words-about-what-I’m-doing-right-now” pieces, but does he hate Apple. This is from 2007 “I Hate Macs” (in full here:

“Macs are glorified Fisher-Price activity centres for adults; computers for scaredy cats too nervous to learn how proper computers work; computers for people who earnestly believe in feng shui.

PCs are the ramshackle computers of the people. You can build your own from scratch, then customise it into oblivion. Sometimes you have to slap it to make it work properly, just like the Tardis (Doctor Who, incidentally, would definitely use a PC). PCs have charm; Macs ooze pretension. When I sit down to use a Mac, the first thing I think is, “I hate Macs”, and then I think, “Why has this rubbish aspirational ornament only got one mouse button?” Losing that second mouse button feels like losing a limb.”

Completely anti- the ‘beautiful things work better’ idea that Apple promote, mainly because he thinks just because you say it is better, doesn’t mean it is better. He says what really pisses him off is the advertising insistence that people define themselves by what they buy, use and own…which he does himself: proper people use PCs, tossers use Macs.

A later column shows him softening, sort-of, 2009 “Microsoft’s grinning robots or the Brotherhood of the Mac. Which is worse?”

“I admit it: I’m a bigot. A hopeless bigot at that: I know my particular prejudice is absurd, but I just can’t control it. It’s Apple. I don’t like Apple products. And the better-designed and more ubiquitous they become, the more I dislike them. I blame the customers. Awful people. Awful. Stop showing me your iPhone. Stop stroking your Macbook. Stop telling me to get one.”

This is mainly an anti-Windows Vista rant:

“I know Windows is awful. Everyone knows Windows is awful. Windows is like the faint smell of piss in a subway: it’s there, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

But there still is the idea lurking in the background, that Apple’s prettiness and Apple’s functionality are related. Also, there is an appeal in the ugly Windows/ PC combination, it may smell of piss but it works, so the frustrating PC  is not-quite-that-ugly compared to the hot Apple, maybe even a little bit beautiful.

 A 2011 column shows his switch to the Apple side: “I don’t hate Macs, but they do give me a syncing feeling”

“I buckled and bought an iPhone. And you know what? It felt good. Within minutes of switching it on, sliding those dinky little icons around the screen, I was hooked. This was my gateway drug. Before long I was also toting an iPad. And after that, a Macbook. All the stuff people said about how Macs were just better, about them being a joy to use . . . it was true, all of it.

They make you feel good, Apple products. The little touches: the rounded corners, the strokeable screens, the satisfying clunk as you fold the Macbook shut – it’s serene. Untroubled. Like being on Valium.

Until, that is, you try to do something Apple doesn’t want you to do. At which point you realise your shiny chum isn’t on your side. It doesn’t even understand sides. Only Apple: always Apple.”

He goes on to highlight a problem I’ve had with my iPhone and iTunes in particular. Apples’ physical design stuff is superb, the user interface is for the most part great. iTunes is a major piece of crap. I’ve so many ‘syncing’ and other problems with my iPhone. I’ve lost photos and notes and music, gone forever, because everything has to go through iTunes- why can’t I drag-and-drop like every other computer file system in the world? Why can’t I use my own song which I purchased as a CD and ripped to an mp3 as a ringtone- why do I have to purchase that song from Apple as a ringtone again? What does ‘revert’ mean? Brooker calls iTunes a “…hideous binary turd…” and he’s right, like living in a dictatorship, if you do everything you are told to do, life is fine, but otherwise you are screwed.

Now my pretty little iPhone , frustrating me more and more, is starting to look a bit ugly. I want something that doesn’t look like an iPhone, I want something different. Like a hot girlfriend who has started to annoy me, I’ve gone off her, and then everything she does is now is horrible. Those Android phones are starting to look better and better.


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