Lean Computing: A Computer Philosophy

by Jeffrey S. Rosenthal, 2002

While recent years have seen spectacular advances in computer hardware performance (processor speed, disk size, disk speed, etc.), much of modern computer software still runs slowly, is unreliable, and tests the limits of what the hardware can handle. It seems that computer software requirements, like ideal gases and household chores, expand to all available limits. (By contrast, if ever you run old software on a new computer, it moves like lightning!) Indeed, for every computer application imaginable, there is always some new graphical display or musical accompaniment or flashy interface that can be added. But is this necessarily a good idea?

Of course, computer advances do open up doors to new and useful content. I myself am pleased to use image files, java applets, sound files, video files, etc., when I feel that they actually add something to the functionality of my computer usage and/or web pages.

However, when added functionality is not required, then I tend to use simple software which does only what I want, and nothing more. I keep my home page very simple, writing the simple HTML instructions myself instead of using some awkward "web creation system", and with no pop-up windows or slow-to-download images or even unusual colour choices; I use the unix/linux operating system with a simple window manager, rather than the clumsy and buggy Microsoft Windows; I usually program in ordinary C or Java rather than use some fancy interactive "programming package"; I create mathematical documents using just plain tex/latex (writing macros myself whenever needed); I edit with vi/vim rather than a weighed-down "word processing system"; I process e-mail with mailx (piping to editors and display packages as needed) rather than with some fancy "e-mail suite"; I have even been known to use the plain-text web browser lynx rather than more image-intensive alternatives.

By keeping my computer use lean, I find that I am able to get computers to do exactly what I want (no more and no less), quickly and precisely and with great control. Furthermore, I can combine various computer applications very easily (for example, by piping the output of one program to the input of another). This is in contrast to some other users, who have to just cross their fingers that the one particular huge bulky software package they have purchased was pre-designed in a way that satisfies their needs.

Now, my personal computer usage is my business, and yours is yours. If you prefer to use software which plays Yankee Doodle Dandy with every keystroke, then more power to you. However, it is especially important to consider computer philosophy issues when your computer usage affects others. For example,

And perhaps most importantly, with e-mail, when sending to (or requesting from) other people, keep the formatting as simple as possible to send what you need to. If you send a message in plain ASCII text (nearly always the best choice), then the recipient can read it using whatever e-mail software they like, with no risk of any compatibility problems. If you use some other freely-available format (e.g. RTF, postscript, PDF, HTML), then the user must use specific software to read your message, which may place an unnecessary burden upon them. If you use a proprietary format (e.g. Microsoft Word, or Wordperfect), then the situation is even worse: the recipient needs to purchase some particular commercial software from some particular private corporation to read your message. In fact, the situation with Microsoft is even worse than that, since they refuse to make their Word software available for any non-proprietary operating system, so a user needs to purchase not only the Microsoft Word software, but also the Microsoft Windows operating system (which is itself bulky and awkward and full of bugs!), in order to read your e-mail. (For more on that, click here or here.)

In other words, if you decide to send someone an e-mail message in Microsoft Word format, then you are implicitly saying to them, "Before I am willing to communicate with you, I insist that you purchase and install new software and a new operating system." So before sending that next message in Microsoft Word format, consider if the above is really what you want to communicate. If it is not, then why not convert your message to plain text before sending it. Otherwise, your implicit demand is so irritating to someone who (like me) does not use Microsoft products, that it is likely to overwhelm what you were actually trying to tell them.

Indeed, if Marshall McLuhan were alive today, he might well conclude: The file format is the message.

-- Jeffrey S. Rosenthal (contact me)

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