In search of the distraction-free computer desktop.

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Jan. 24 2008 4:27 PM

The Tao of Screen

In search of the distraction-free desktop.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

If your computer desktop is anything like mine—and, brother, it is—you've paved over every spare pixel in an iconistan of clutter. Desktop design originated in a wistful visual metaphor, the clean, still work surface, encouraging users to productive ends. Leaps forward in computing horsepower and the rise of constant Internet use has transformed the tabletop terra firma into a cockpit, an antic terminal for the networked self. Our desktops are now a thick impasto of tabbed windows, pull-down menus, dashboard widgets, and application alerts. No possible distraction gets left behind, no link, feed, IM, twitter, or poke unheeded. It's blindingly obvious to note that disarray is one of the defining aspects of the frequent Web user. (I could cite some pertinent statistics, but I don't trust myself to get back to this word processor window.) Ask any designer: Without white space, humans have difficulty focusing. Chances are, you're reading this alongside a flurry of other twinkling points of attention splayed across your monitor. But it doesn't have to be that way. There's an emerging market for programs that introduce much-needed traffic calming to our massively expanding desktops. The name for this genre of clutter-management software: zenware.

Spaces. Click image to expand.
Spaces screenshot

The philosophy behind zenware is to force the desktop back to its Platonic essence. There are several strategies for achieving this, but most rely on suppressing the visual elements you're used to: windows, icons, and toolbars. The applications themselves eschew pull-down menus or hide off-screen while you work. Even if you consider yourself inured to their presence, the theory goes, you'll benefit most from their absence. Zenware promises to help the ADHD user who lurks in each of us. But does any of this stuff actually work? As every freelance writer is a trusted authority on the powers of distraction, I decided to put a range of programs through the paces to see if they helped complete my daily computing tasks more punctually and efficiently. Deep within the steamer trunk of features in this fall's Mac OS X Leopard update is an innocuous-seeming application called Spaces that is designed to extend desktop real estate. The goal is to parcel your applications into task-specific groups. I use Spaces to divide my desktop into three areas: word processing, spreadsheets, and dashboard-type applications (e-mail, newsreader, and calendar), with each screen a quick keystroke away. (In a winningly antique way of transitioning between tasks, the screens shuttle across like a ball bouncing along a roulette wheel.)

I've found this approach to screen expansion—making more with less—works nicely, acting as a natural encouragement to concentration and organization. Deep-surfing RSS feeds is my most frequent vice. With this system, when I start reading something I know will blow away my five-minute break, I click to minimize it to my dock for retrieval later. Rather than indulge my worst surfing habits, Spaces encourages fastidiousness. Every time I use Spaces, though, I'm forced to remember VirtueDesktops, an antecedent application for the Mac that allowed a greater range of configurability. (As old-school Unix and newer Windows users can crow, virtual desktops have been around the PC market for years.)


The most common zenware programs are the mini-apps that act to quiet the desktop in tiny ways. Widely available for PC or Macintosh, they variously dim the menu bar, highlight or isolate an active window, darken an inactive one, or minimize inactive applications completely. Most of these are niche-marketed to microscopic groups with particular screen annoyances; in combination, they are all a bit much.

Writeroom. Click image to expand.
WriteRoom screenshot

In trying out these various widgets, I learned that some zenware holds unexpected benefits. One program I tried, called Spirited Away —the PC equivalent is Swept Away —works by automatically hiding any program that's been sitting on your screen unused. Unfortunately, this feature assumes that you're always staying on task. If you get distracted and, say, start surfing RSS feeds, the pressing tasks that you're supposed to be working on drift away to help you focus on your procrastination. Even so, I've stuck with Spirited Away because it enforces a happy habit: alertness to the task at hand. If one of my important windows disappears, I know it's time to start working again. If the word processors WriteRoom (Mac) and DarkRoom (PC) are any indication, the virtues of the zenware approach shine brightest when it comes to full applications. Almost immediately upon starting up WriteRoom, I felt a kind of aesthetic arousal normal people reserve for, say, tattoos or kung fu movies. Part of this is nostalgia, as WriteRoom tosses its user into a monochrome void that's lit only by the blinking green cursor. But the true charm here is the configurability of the user interface, which allows you to craft an ideal composition space. The key is that, unlike in Word, the choices are kept shrewdly off-screen: WriteRoom's blank slate reduces the urge to twiddle with margins and other formatting gewgaws. Instead, I find myself forgoing cosmetic changes for more functional ones, like bumping up the type size when my office window light starts to falter. Unlike practically everything else in our digital lives, WriteRoom's minimalist interface implies a truly flattering proposition: It's you, not the software, that matters. After repeated use, I found a pure joy in writing that my computer mainstays—from basic notepad apps to Word—had siphoned away years before. Part of this could be novelty, so I'm remaining cautious. I can't quite say it's made me a better writer, but then neither can any technology. But WriteRoom has me composing more quickly, and it's brought back the elemental thrill of assembling thoughts by tossing words onto the screen. As outrageous and premature as it sounds, programs like WriteRoom could have the kind of impact for this generation that The Elements of Style had for another, by distilling down the writing process and laying bare its constituent parts.

A little screen simplification can go a long way. For those keeping score, the computer is supposed to be the thing with the electrical plug, not the wired drone operating it. So try dialing down the Twittering itch for a moment and see where it leads you. The pundits have told us about the dangers of info glut and data smog, how our screens are accumulating noisy riots of data. But with zenware, the cure is right at hand—for those who really want it.

Jeffrey MacIntyre is a Canadian freelance journalist in New York.

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