Tranquil Windows

Windows 8, the newest, much-discussed operating system from Microsoft, is a fantastic mess. What’s immediately apparent is that when Microsoft sat down a few years ago and asked themselves “so, how do we tweak this thing used by a billion people?”, the answer they came up with was profoundly strange: they had to make something bad. Essentially the company had two choices: hope their Metro tile-based touch interface took off on its own strength; or force it upon people, knowing they’d be both baffled and annoyed, so as to radically change not only the idea of what an operating system it, but the idea of what a computer is, too. So here I am, typing away on this glorious riot of an operating system.

It is a rather fascinating, infuriating thing to use. On the one hand, it’s incredibly slick, clean and fluid; on the other, the existence of what are essentially two distinct systems in one – the same old desktop and the flashy new Metro design – can be a baffling thing to even the most experienced of users.

But beyond all the chatter about ‘how the market will react’ and ‘is the desktop dead?’, once you get used to the basic functionality of Windows 8’s Metro interface, something odd happens: you notice your behaviour changing. In their review of the OS, Gizmodo called Windows 8 ‘tranquil’–and strangely, it sorta’ is. Because apps either dominate the entire screen, or are paired with another one that only take up less than a third, your attention is often focused in a way quite different to how we usually use desktop OS’s.

Previously, on many an evening, I would settle in to watch something on Netflix. Though there is a TV and a console in the very same room as my desktop, I often chose to use my PC precisely because as the latest episode of Buffy played, I’d have Tweetdeck open, be checking and writing email, and would be catching up on the news of the day. I’d treat the screen of my desktop computer like, well, a desktop: a space on which I do multiple things, often nearly at once.

You can do all those things just the same as ever using Windows 8, simply by using the desktop mode. But the slick, fast apps of Metro (or whatever it’s called) appeal, and not just for aesthetic reasons. When Netflix takes up a screen, it… takes up the screen. You focus. There is only that one thing, and darting away to another app pauses the thing you were watching.  Similarly, news apps like the one for Globe and Mail dominate your attention because the only thing you’re scrolling through are more news stories. Rather than flitting back and forth between ten different things, even I, hyperactive and attention-deficient, tend to focus for just a little bit longer. Rather than just the frame of the screen, it’s the aesthetics that also hold my attention because it feels like that’s what they’re designed to do.

For a while now, I’ve had this lingering feeling that, because digital technology excels at giving us what we want, its most successful manifestations will, in contradistinction to the very core of capitalism, work by refusing our desires. That’s optimistic to be sure, but it seems there’s a very interesting thing to be poked at in the relationship between digital structures and attention. I mean, this is what we’ve been poking at forever, from Spreed to Robin Sloan’s Fish iPhone experiment.

But each of those have been respites from a broader structure: the OS. Whether a speed reading app on a smartphone or experiments in focus using grids from Salon or the NYT, they were always breaks. Windows 8 feels a bit different, even though the reasons behind its design (probably) have nothing to do with attention and everything to do with the technical limitations of tablets and touch as an input. If one ‘pretends’ desktop mode doesn’t exist, then the structure that serves as the interface for the web, your files, games etc., is built so as to focus your attention on one or two things at once.

This isn’t really that different from a tablet. But it’s been interesting the past couple of years to notice this radical difference between desktop and mobile–that strange feeling of freedom when you return to a PC that you can do nine things at once, a feeling that, for me anyway, is a bit like putting an alcoholic in front of an open bar. When I can open twenty tabs at once, my brain seems to cry “Moar information!”

It is thus intriguing to think about ‘deliberately deficient design’. To remove functionality as a way of dealing with a medium that excels at satisfying desire is incredibly interesting, and I think, arguably, Apple is already doing that somewhat (and now Microsoft are too). It’s also why, by the way, I believe the Law of the Father is still a very useful way to think about how we relate to Cupertino’s stuff. In the meantime, though, it is certainly pleasant to sit in front of the charmingly confused mess that is Windows 8.

I mean, beyond all the attention stuff, I’m still such a sucker for a pretty face.

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