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Paper’s evolutionary leap

Ever since I installed a simple word processor called WriteRoom on my laptop, I’ve been a huge fan of full screen interfaces. That was WriteRoom’s sole selling point – it took up the whole screen, getting rid of all distractions. There are situations where I want several windows or panels at once – writing software, for instance. Editing photos and composing music. But when it comes to reading and writing, I like to focus on nothing but the words.

Here’s my interface for writing blog posts:

I am absolutely falling in love with the combination you see above – the latest versions of WordPress (3.2.1) and Mac OS X (Lion). Actually, I guess the point is that you don’t really see them. It’s a full screen browser hosting a full screen text editor. Menus will pop up if I point at the top of the screen, but otherwise they stay out of my way. It’s writing perfection.

Behind my screen is an incredible array of technology, from solid state drives to cloud computing. It’s a seamless mix of open source infrastructure, chargeable services, and premium content and clients. It’s a great balance: commodity infrastructure (cheap hardware and free software) with premium add-ons to suit my personal tastes and needs (the commodity components are in an Apple laptop, the WordPress theme is bought from Headway). Given the almost religious wars between, for example, the open source and intellectual property crowds, I like to think of it as technological paganism.

Overall, it represents the two most beautiful things happening in tech these days:

  • Good design and simplicity. The technology has matured – and the speed of computers improved – to the point where usability and aesthetics are not prohibitively expensive indulgences. The latest WordPress is as easy and beautiful as a software tool can be.
  • The global network. Commonplace though it is, what I’m doing right now is absolutely incredible. In front of me, I’ve got as close as you can get to a plain, blank piece of paper. Yet with a few clicks, I could be looking at a map of the world, dotted with pins in every continent where people having been reading my posts. When I take the time to contemplate it, my flabber is truly gasted.

This combination of human-focused simplicity with sheer technological power is what marks the 21st century as the Information Age. Cloud computing is nothing new – we had mainframes back in the sixties. Telecommunications networks are nothing new – the first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1866. Letters are certainly nothing new. Yet there is something magical in how they have all truly come together at dawn of a new millennium.

Information has been flying around the globe at high speed in high volumes since, let’s say, the introduction of the EDIFACT standard for Electronic Data Interchange in the 80s. But the Information Age really only starts when it is accessible to everyone, not just the well funded entity with particular requirements.

This plain white screen could represent almost everything I have ever learnt. The creative challenge of starting with a blank piece of paper. How even a few simple words can ask that you put an entire lifetime’s experience into understanding why they have come to be written down in that particular combination at that particular time. The scientific discoveries and engineering marvels that have made the technology possible. Thousands of years of painstaking precision and care. A long line of countless people who have all at some point sat down with a simple writing tool, focused on a particular train of thought, and explored or described the world around them.

As I write this, I’m reminding myself that I’ve never been a fan of ivory tower thinking, or overwrought interpretations of simple things. But looking at this simple page, it’s easy to conjure up vaguely remembered lessons in everything from grammar to composition to physics to electronics to programming. It’s not the subjects I remember (alas), but the passion of so many experts who would see so many different, wonderful and profound things in a glowing white rectangle.

Technology is catching up to the point of meeting the simple (yet surprisingly complex) needs of how people actually want to work. After we invented paper thousands of years ago, I’m glad I’m around to see this incredible evolutionary leap.

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