The Hum of the Machine
Have you noticed that the newest versions of Chrome on macOS show how much memory a tab is using? I don’t mean something in the developer tools, or an internal process manager. No, you now only have to hover your cursor over a tab and Chrome tells you: this one uses 60MB, that one 200MB, the one at the end uses 400MB.
That’s endlessly fascinating to me. Why surface such a mechnical detail to every user of one of the most widely used pieces of software in the world? My guess: they probably want to educate users that Chrome isn’t the memory hog people claim it is, it’s the websites; here, look, we can prove it.
But doesn’t that go against the grain of the last ten years of product design?
Browser’s now hide the protocol of the URL, you only get a lock icon if you’re lucky. Chrome removed the downloads from the bottom of the window and shoved them into a submenu cellar. Long gone are the days when browsers showed the current request’s progress at the bottom.
Everything’s polished, everything’s smooth, everything just works – that’s what the UIs tell us. No mention, no indication that there’s machines executing code somewhere beneath the facade. Displaying memory usage feels like traveling back in time.
It’s not just software either. MacBooks no longer have any lights to show whether they’re even turned on or not. With the introduction of the M1 processors, they also no longer whisper (or scream) at you with their fans. Hard drives too have become a rarity and the SSDs that replaced them are silent. On a sensory level, computers now are just slabs of metal and plastic with displays and keyboards on the outside. Just by observing them, you couldn’t tell that there’s something happening inside.
I miss it. I miss the sounds and the LEDs and the vibrations and the fa– okay, yes, I don’t miss the fans, but everything else? I miss it because it was feedback, feedback that lets the user of the machine know what’s going on, or whether something’s going on at all.
Back when we had hard drives you could tell whether a program was doing its job, or at least attempting to, by listening: you could hear the hard drive spinning and the read head moving. If you ran programs often you learned to recognize patterns: ah, now it’s switching from this rhythm to that rhythm, that means the game is nearly done loading. Older computers even had LEDs to show CPU or network activity – a blinking LED could put you at ease because it let you know that at least something is happening, the computer hasn’t crashed.
This week I installed Xcode, which is 11GB in size. The installation process took somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes. For the entire duration Homebrew only printed “Installing xcode…” No other indication of what’s going on. Completely silent machine. It took a glance at the network indicator of iStat Menus to realize it’s still downloading.
Look, I’m not asking anyone to bring back fan noise, but I do think that we lost something when computers turned silent and still.
In fact and no exaggeration here, I seriously don’t understand how engineers can use their computers nowadays without something like iStat Menus to tell them whether a CPU is pinned, or whether something’s using the network, or whether memory is filling up – because the hardware doesn’t tell you anymore and the software doesn’t either.
Here’s an example: when I open macOS’ Activity Monitor on my M1 Max it takes 6 seconds for the list of processes to show up (yes, I timed this). 6 seconds long I wonder: will processes show up? Will it take 10 seconds more? 30 min? What’s going on? No sound, no LED, nothing.
When everything works and is fast and doesn’t use too many resources, that’s fine. You don’t want spinners and progress bars flashing up for half a second. But if things go wrong and take longer than 1-2 seconds, that’s when I want all the feedback I can get, as early as possible. Yes, even if it’s fans screaming into my ear to tell me that my program is inefficient.
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