Change and comfort

I really miss Charles M Schulz’s Peanuts.

I can only have seen a tiny fraction of the 17,897 comic strips which he created, but his observations on human behaviour remain some of the most astute ever published. Although Linus van Pelt did not appear until Charlie Brown had been around for a couple of years, and it was not until four years in that Linus gained his security blanket, he epitomises the human need for comfort, even when we crave change.

(It is also no small coincidence that Linux is named after another Linus, although in reality Linus Torvalds was named after the Nobel prize-winning chemist, Linus Pauling.)

Even the most radical change-monger and early-adopter also seeks comfort and their security blanket at times.

In art, many critics claim that, at least as far as the nineteenth century and more recently, novelty and innovation are the greatest determinants of ‘success’ and ‘greatness’, however you might measure those. Yet if you look on the walls of family homes, I think that you would be surprised at how few Picasso prints or abstracts are to be found there; you would be most surprised to see Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon on display in many living rooms or nurseries, let alone the odd Colour Field or Jackson Pollock. Most personal spaces go for the comfort of the more traditional.

I suspect that one reason for reluctance in the West to accept that Japanese (or Chinese, or Korean) painting has moved on from its pre-1800 tradition, is the comfort gained from seeing styles and techniques which changed little over the many preceding centuries.

So in language we get terribly peevish about how our Mother Tongue should be spoken and written. I recently bought a quite entertaining book by Gyles Brandreth (his Word Play) in the hope that it would be worth reviewing here. Unfortunately it revealed its flaw very quickly: although Brandreth expressed his glee at the introduction of new words to the English language, he also revealed himself to be the patron of the Queen’s English Society, noted for its obsessive and often irrational peeves.

In theory, you might have expected the rapidly-changing world of computing to be less concerned with comfort and security blankets. If anything they seem to be even more tenaciously gripped. As first generation hackers like me reach an age where sentiment is expected, it is hardly surprising that the computer press is running reviews of old models which we gushed enthusiastically over when we were young.

Apple and others have the very difficult task of coming up with products which are sufficiently new as to appear exciting, and entice us to buy, but not so radically new that we feel our security blankets have been pulled from under us. They don’t always get it right: the Newton was (among other things) so radically new that most prospective purchasers stuck with their blankets, thank you, whilst iPods, iPhones and iPads have struck a much better compromise.

From this our expectation should be that the Apple Watch could be extremely successful, but will probably take a couple of years before it really catches on.

Howls of anguish already being raised about the next major release of OS X, El Capitan (10.11), before it has even made it out of beta, have greater forboding. In the name of security, it looks as if it will stop us from tinkering with the system and Finder. Although in truth I suspect the limitations will not be that important, once users perceive that Apple is tugging at its corner of the blanket they may not be so happy.

Yet everyone keeps telling us how we live at the time of greatest change. Compared with the transformation that resulted from railways being driven through the country, or that wreaked by the First World War across the whole of Europe, I think not. But it seems to provide us with comfort to think it so.