256 Shades Of Grey

I want a black and white computer, and I don’t want it out of sheer, wanton weirdness. I actually think it’s a good idea. Here’s why.

A huge, huge proportion of the content we consume every day is text. And, for many, an equal proportion of what they work with is text — be it code, email, or published content like this. For the consumption and creation of text, a monochrome display is all that is necessary, and in some ways even superior to a color one.

Pixels on an LCD like the one on which you’re probably reading this are made up of dots or sub-pixels — usually one red, one green, and one blue. The transistor matrix changes the opacity of a sub-pixel of a given color, and by working together they can create millions of hues and shades. But they work (with a few exceptions such as sub-pixel font smoothing and pentile layouts) only as triads, meaning a display with a resolution of 1920×1080 addressable pixels has three times that many addressable dots. (This is the reason why simply desaturating the image does not improve the resolution.)

Consequently, if you were to remove the color filters, each sub-pixel would become a pixel — all only able to show shades of grey, of course, but pixels nonetheless, and far more of them than there were before. Result: extremely high spatial resolution, far beyond the so-called “retina” point, even at close range — beyond even glossy magazine levels of sharpness, a dream for rendering type. (The two previous paragraphs previously contained miscalculations as to the pixel density, which have since been amended)

It would also be brighter, or put another way, would require less backlight, since the removal of the filters allows far more light to pass through. That saves battery. Also saving battery is the reduced amount of graphics processing power and RAM necessary to store and alter the screen state, and so on. Small things, but not insignificant.

It would, of course, retain all of the other benefits of a modern, connected device, remaining as responsive and powerful as any other laptop or tablet, just minus the color. Logistically speaking, adapting existing content would not be that problematic (“time-shifting” apps and other extractors already do this). And it’s more than a glorified e-reader: the limitations of that type of hardware are lethal to many of the methods in which we are now accustomed to finding, consuming, and creating content (to say nothing of the screen quality).

Why black and white? Well, why color?

But what the hell is the point, you ask, if it’s not in color? The web is in color. The world is in color!

Your Instagram feed won’t be quite as striking in greyscale, it’s true. Rich media wasn’t designed for monochrome, and shouldn’t be forced into it. It demands color, and deserves it. Obviously you wouldn’t want to browse Reddit or edit video on a monochrome display. But if something does not require color, it seems pointless to provide it, especially when doing so has real drawbacks.

You’ve seen the apps that prevent procrastination, or make the user focus on a task, by blocking out distractions and the like. At some times, we want a tool that does one thing, and at other times, we want a tool that does others. That’s why computers are so great: They can switch between, say, text-focused work mode and image-focused movie mode in an instant.

They’re like Swiss Army knives: a corkscrew one minute and a can opener the next. But, as I tried to suggest in my previous column, if you tend to open a lot of wine bottles and very few cans, wouldn’t you prefer that you had a dedicated wine opener, without a bunch of other tools attached? That it can’t open a can is tragic, but more than made up for by its facility in its chosen task.

There will always be a place for the essential alone

I believe some people would not only be unperturbed by an inability to watch videos or what have you — in fact, they may prefer it. We already have different computing tools for different purposes, and we don’t demand that they all do everything — I have a laptop so I can write, as I am at the present, while enjoying some fresh air and coffee. I have a desktop for games and heavy productivity. I have an iPad for this, and an e-reader for that, and a phone for this, and a camera for that. What’s one more, especially when it would be, I believe, quite good at what it does, even if that’s “only” working with text?

There’s also a less practical, more aesthetic reason I would enjoy a black and white device. The content we consume and the ways we navigate it have become loud and colorful, and to me it does not appear that this profusion of saturation has been accompanied by a corresponding subtlety of design. The eruption of capabilities has made many lose touch with the beauty of austerity, and what’s billed as “minimalism” rarely is. There is a set of qualities that sets that starkness apart, and while we have always enjoyed ornamentation, there has always been (and will be for the foreseeable future) a place and purpose for the essential alone.

On that note, I think it would be an interesting experiment, and highly beneficial one, to attempt to rebuild, say, Facebook or an OS, without any color at all. When you subtract color cues like green for yes and red for no, or implicit boundaries based not on contrast and flow but on different coloration, the problem of presenting and consuming the information concerned is totally changed. Perhaps one would learn better the fundamentals of layout, flow, proportion, and so on, and that would inform the color world as well.

I read a lot, and I write for a living. I want a specialized tool for doing those things, just as a logger would want an axe instead of a big knife, or a runner a good pair of shoes instead of slippers. In the end, I like the idea of a black-and-white device and interface for many of the reasons I like black-and-white photography. It’s different, and has different strengths, and both requires and provides a different perspective. For me, that’s enough to at least want it on the table.