Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

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tech 5 min read

In a way, it all started with the Start button.

On Tuesdays, in whatever year of high school I was in at the time, I had a double period of Computing broken up by lunch. I don’t remember the year, though it would have been the mid-nineties, but I do remember that it was a Tuesday.

I was the kid who volunteered to help out in the computer labs during his lunch break. On this particular day, I was carrying a batch of software manuals from one lab back into the department office. It was a square room between two labs, and its windows looked out onto both.

My high school was one of those schools where uniform was mandatory, and the computing labs were fully stocked with row after row of Macs - at that time, gorgeous little beige-grey-green boxes with dramatic lines and vents. Macs were the norm at our school, which was an exceptionally rare thing. I’d been using them in classes for a few years, and it had never really occurred to me that there was anything else out there.

I walked into the department office and set down the manuals (I’m almost certain they were for FileMaker Pro), and noticed that my computing teacher was playing with an unusual gadget - a laptop that looked different from any I’d seen around school. It definitely wasn’t running the Mac System software. I wandered over.

I asked my teacher what it was, and he told me it was the new version of the Microsoft Windows operating system, Windows 95. I watched over his shoulder with interest. Then I saw the Start button, and I frowned.

“What does the Start button do?” I asked, and he explained that it was where you launched programs or accessed settings from. Not wanting to take up any more of his time, I just nodded and returned to my tasks.

I was still thinking about it later that day. It bothered me, for some reason.

I assumed that my question was stupid, or at least naive. I’ve always been able to see the basic thread of logic in the interfaces I’d already used. Yes, things were sometimes worded eccentrically - the Finder didn’t really find things, and the Special menu was more like Miscellaneous - but generally, there was order and sense. The overall impression was that someone really cared. A whole lot of someones.

I remember doodling the Start button on some of my notes in a different class later that afternoon (Latin, I think). I found the notes years later when clearing out a drawer, and saw I’d also sketched a car key, as if the Start button was an ignition.

It took me quite a while to realise the button’s significance, or rather the importance of my reaction to it. It’s no wonder that I was slow to understand: the only computers I’d ever known had the Apple logo on them.

The Mac turned thirty years old this year, and I remember the first one I used. It was a Colour Classic, closely followed by a series of LC and LC II machines, all in that same computer lab at high school. A couple of years later, I acquired an LC III for home, then progressed through some Mac clones, and eventually to a blue-and-white G3, and so forth. The Colour Classic is still my favourite. I fondly remember sitting playing with nested folders, and Finder label colours. It all made sense to me, with barely any effort of understanding.

And that, of course, was what bothered me about the Start button. It’s called Start because, to do almost any task on the computer, you start with that button. Click it to show a menu where you can launch (or search for) apps, access settings, view your files, open a command shell, or even shut the machine down. It makes a certain kind of sense.

What bugged me was that every other time I’d seen a start button in my life, you used it when the device wasn’t already running. The button made the thing start. That’s why it was the start button. But the PC was demonstrably already fully booted, humming away, displaying the desktop, and ready to go. It had already started up, and the task-related semantics of the Start button didn’t quite sit right with me.

That was the day I made an obvious-in-retrospect but profound (at the time) realisation: I’d been living in a bubble of assumed ignorance, accepting whatever was given to me on the assumption that its creators just knew better than me. I’d been living with the belief that, if I didn’t understand or agree with how something worked, that I was missing something. The Mac hadn’t confronted me with the ugly reality behind my conveniently-wrong assumption very often, but the PC most certainly did - a dozen times, every time I had a chance to use it.

I took the train to high school - it was a thirty-minute journey to the other side of the city, morning and night - and on my trip home that evening, I saw things through fresh eyes. I’d learned that the world was neither optimal nor inevitable, and that much of it was probably flawed, substandard, and poorly thought-out. Our civilisation was designed, up to a point, but it wasn’t necessarily designed well.

There were almost certainly other people out there who didn’t quite grasp why things had been made they way they are, or why a button was labelled in a certain way - and they probably never thought about the changes you could make that would turn something confusing into something that’s easier to use.

Most people still haven’t made that realisation, and never will. That’s a truly sad thing. They tell themselves every day, subconsciously, that they’re missing something - or maybe that they’re just not very good with whatever kind of device or interface they’re currently trying to use. It’s a mundane tragedy.

All the stuff we make - whether it’s a machine, or a piece of software, or something as simple as this chunk of text - doesn’t exist in isolation. Every piece of output is a symbiont, waiting for its host; one half of a partnership. There’s the thing itself, to be comprehended and consumed, and then there’s the consumer. A thing that hinders that relationship instead of facilitating it isn’t really a valid thing at all.

We can create work with the purpose of challenging people, certainly - that’s an important potential goal. But to accidentally vex the people attempting to interact with what you’ve made… well, that’s missing the entire point. You should be able to interact with the world on your own terms, without having to first become an artificially different kind of person. The entire world ought to be designed with that goal in mind. That world is still some way off.

That’s the lesson I learned from the Start button, and I’m grateful for it every day. It gave me permission to be dissatisfied, and there’s probably no greater motivation for positive change.

This article originally appeared in issue 27 of The Loop Magazine. I also have an article (on the importance of fan fiction as literary output) in issue 28, out now.

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