I Garbugli della Rete - 4
October 1996

English translation

The Hermes Pendulum
and the Art of Lightness

disponibile anche in Italiano


Hermes Trismegistus, according to the Egyptian and Orphic tradition, taught the Law of the Pendulum. If something moves too far in any direction, it will generate a counter-force and eventually swing back.

The pendulum of information technology is swinging too far in the direction of heaviness.

Faster and faster CPUs, bigger and bigger hard disks. We are busy stuffing the enormous bellies of our computers with overweight software.

The same thing is happening with connections. A short while ago there were still people navigating happily with a Commodore 64 and a 2400 bps modem. Now we are told that a Pentium 133 with a gigabyte disk and 16 megabyte RAM will be “entry level” before the end of the year – and that a 28,800 modem may not be fast enough.

The so-called “highways” are creaking under the load of heavy images, animations and all sorts of unnecessary clutter. If bandwidth widens, someone clogs it up with more useless paraphernalia before we can notice any improvement. We are getting close to times when we may feel obliged to have satellite connections with 64 kbyte databoards, using the huge bandwidth that someone will be setting up to handle digital television, to handle the same amount of real information that we were managing more easily with one-fifth of the speed, or less.

Can this process go on forever? I don’t think so.

I saw a dealer yesterday and asked him if they are throwing away 486 PCs. He told me that some of his customers say “a 386 is all I need and I want it cheap”. Some people are beginning to organize the recovery of second-hand machines that are quite adequate for many practical purposes.

There is an increasing availability of “light” software, that is much more efficient than cumbersome fatware. With one-tenth of the load they do three-fourths of what the heavy software does: and that’s much more than 99 percent of the users need. They also work more smoothly and have fewer bugs.

I read on the net that the most experienced people tend to stay away from upgrades, that often make things more complicated with no real advantage over prior versions of the same software.

We can’t be too far away from a time when information and network technology will break down in two opposed tendencies.

Take, for instance, sailing. If you look around marinas you see large motoryachts equipped with all sorts of devices, including television with a satellite disk, a washing machine and air conditioning. They are nearly always on a mooring, plugged in to the ground electricity supply. When they are on anchor, their noisy generators are always on. They are the delight of electricians and mechanics, because the more equipment you have, the more often it breaks down.

You see sailboats with windmills and solar cells, that go out to sea much more often, and keep electricity consumption to a minimum. I know from experience that it’s perfectly possible to use a computer, and have a wireless connection to the net, on such a boat.

The over-equipped motorboats are owned by people who have lots of money to throw away. They are also the choice of people who don’t really like to move with the waves – all they want is some sort of floating house.

There seems to be the beginning of such a separation in the world of computers and networks. Many following the fatware fashion, but some seeking a lighter diet. Just as we see, in the center of town, some people double-parking huge cars and some using a bicycle.

In homes, high-power computers are often bought for children. Mom and dad can use their word processors or spreadsheets on a much simpler machine. But the new games, with heavy graphic, sounds, animations, etc... Also in this area some fresh thinking could help. There are very interesting games, with lots of fun and also educational values, high in content and low in unnecessary gloss. There should be even more, and they should be much more popular.

In one way or another, the pendulum must swing back. And if each one of us occasionally gave a little push in the right direction... we would be slimmer, lighter, and with fewer bugs. Also, some money would stay in our pockets instead of going to Bill Gates or some other fatware pusher – and that is not a bad idea. :-)


Giancarlo Livraghi
  January 1998

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