The Plan of St. Gall

Source: Ray Badowski, "The Plan of St. Gall (The Editor's Desk)," The DeskTop Journal 10 (Winter 1986), 2.
Location: M1007, Apple Computer Inc. Papers, Series 12, Box 19, Folder 11.

While doing some research, I had to refer to one of the early books written about the Macintosh: Doug Clapp's Macintosh! COMPLETE. Something caught my eye, under the section for further reading. It was a reference to Walter Horn and Ernest Bom's 3-volume publication The Plan of St. Gall. The description read as follows:

$325 and worth every penny. St. Gall was a ninth century Carolingian monastery, and more complex and fascinating a system than anything filled with transistors. Anyone who loves books will love these books.

What are these books doing here? Simple: they're wonderful books! Save your money.

I was curious. I didn't spend the $325 but I found a condensed version entitled The Plan of St. Gall - In Brief, for $27.50. So, I ordered it. When it arrived, the saleswoman made the comment "That's a beautiful book." I grew even more curious.

Well, the quality of the bookmaking alone is superb. The oversize pages on heavy stock, the different styles of typography, and the many illustrations and annotations make it enjoyable to just thumb through. But what of the subject matter? It seems that some time between 820 and 830 A.D., there was drawn on a section of parchment a blueprint, if you will, for the Church of Saint Gall in Switzerland and the surrounding self-contained monastic community. The plan revealed an astonishing congruence with modem concerns of community planning, technology, and efficient use of resources.

The book is indeed fascinating. But what's the point of all this? How is this literary effort relevant to the Macintosh? First impressions might say it's not at all. But don't leave yet. Simply put, I would expect praise for something like this type of literary effort to come from an early Macintosh zealot. Could there be a correlation between "Macintosh people" (whether they be the developers of the Mac or its followers-- authors like Doug Clapp-- who believed in it) and the ability to appreciate the arts and humanities? We've all read the stories of the sneakers, the T-shirts, and the avant garde atmosphere surrounding the Mac's development. Very atypical, and unprofessional in some people's eyes. Yet, in order for something as well thought out as the Macintosh user interface to have been developed, there had to have been some very human things, some very artistic things going on. And they say that all artists are a bit eccentric, so maybe all is forgiven.

The Macintosh was not just another technically elegant computer. We've got lots of those. It was something more: it was friendly. No, call it ergonomics, call it human engineering, the Mac went beyond user- friendly. User-seductive is more like it! In order for a software developer (or even an author) to have the vision to see how that interface can be exploited or how the Macintosh can be of real value, it takes a certain "liberal arts" perspective-- the same perspective that would allow him or her to also appreciate the humanitarian accomplishments of a ninth century monastery.

Can those in the technical sciences appreciate the arts? Sure, but when it comes to computer hardware or software, those who design a product often forget the human element-- or maybe they're just unaware of it. They could use the help of someone maybe less technically inclined, but more interested in just how the product feels. I'm reminded of a picture of the team of people who designed and wrote UNIX. Although UNIX is a powerful operating system, judging from that picture (excuse the stereotype, but when they coined the term "technoids" they must have been thinking of these folks), it's going to take a different breed of people to make it usable.

The Macintosh was developed with a statement of direction: that "natural" holds the key to making a computer valuable. And to build in that "natural" requires an aesthetic, humanistic perspective. Without that perspective, things become lifeless. The monastery at St. Gall will have been just another building.

Document created on 417April 2000;