I am a big fan of the National Geographic series Drain the Oceans. Shipwrecks, great historical stories, cutting-edge technology – what’s not to love? My only real complaint is that too many episodes centre on the Second World War.

Sure, there’s more stuff from that era sunk out there, and it’s newer and less wooden, so easier to research and find semi-intact.

But I like my history a bit older and less military, and something else occurred to me with regards to why I prefer the episodes about older wrecks: aesthetics. Those pre-steam era ships were built for real work, but they were also gorgeous.

Designs and embellishments were different depending on where in the world the ships were built, and when. But that moment on the show when they do a 3D re-creation of a ship in full sail, weaving it into the stories of whatever adventures it was involved in, is my absolute favourite. There’s just less magic with metal, so to speak.

Now, sure, for every flagship the king commissioned (pick a king, any king…) there were thousands of plain little boats out and about, plying their trade. But then, those boats weren’t commissioned by the highest powers in the land for Very Important Purposes.

Sure, simple folk with simple watercraft could adorn and personalize their boats. As an example, in the header image, a local fishing boat (luzzu) in Marsaxlokk, Malta. They are typically brightly painted, often with a pair of eyes on the bow.

But that’s not Grand Design. That’s like slapping some stickers on your laptop.

And really, consumer tech – like laptops – is a great target and example of what I think is my ultimate gripe: when did the stuff we use just get so boring, or downright ugly?

Black boxes, grey boxes, mine looks just like yours. Is it somehow impossible to make working tech beautiful and personal if you don’t have unlimited access to the royal coffers?

For a long time computer hardware, whether corporate or consumer, has basically looked like the cube farms it populated. Square, grey, identical. (Gripes about the aesthetics and functionality of office spaces, or the software we stare at all day, are another set of columns…)

Why? Mass production. Making a gazillion of the exact same thing, no unnecessary bells or whistles, assembled the same way, is cheaper. Cheaper means more profit for manufacturers and lower prices for consumers. The supremacy of Walmart and Amazon demonstrate well how dedicated we are to lower prices (at almost all costs).

But this hardware didn’t just happen on its own. It’s designed that way. It’s manufactured that way. A finished colour was chosen. It’s just that “oyster” grey or black is the choice over orange or pink or paisley.

Of course, people have opinions about orange, pink and paisley, and no one has an opinion about “oyster.” It’s designed to be boring and invisible. Nodding back to military history, it’s basically office dazzle. You’re there to work, not get lost in the aesthetic inspirations of your desktop setup.

Over time, efforts have been made here and there to think different, as it were. Once upon a time, the iMac and iBook came in bright, translucent colours like “Key Lime” and “Bondi Blue.” They were kind of amazing, with their rounded shapes and translucent cases that let you see inside.

That hardware became a bit of a joke, collectively known as the “fruity” Macs. The iBook has also been referred to as a toilet seat. But someone tried, you know? Enough years have passed at this point that such hardware has developed nostalgia value, with retroactive appreciation for zigging instead of zagging on consumer tech design. (Though yes, you would have paid more for it, as one still does for Apple products.)

Imagine if design innovation and aesthetics were our baseline, even on items as unsexy as your work computer. Imagine if, everywhere you turned, there was something as gorgeous as it was functional. This is not a world in which brown Zunes would ever have seen the light of day.

Apple has become a touchstone for mainstream consumer tech design over the years, but is their stuff really that much more interesting or different? Is a Space Grey MacBook or a Rose Gold iPhone really comparable to the craft of a ship like the Vasa or Queen Anne’s Revenge? Maybe under the surface, but not on it.

Granted, the kings of yore weren’t spending madly for the benefit of the average serf. And in our capitalist society, Apple’s raison d’être is to get us to give them our money, not spend their vast piles of it to delight us beyond what’s necessary to get us to open our wallets.

Sure, there are companies that make utterly stunning items out of mainstream consumer tech devices. But phone cases that cost tens of thousands of dollars aren’t meant for the average serf today, either.

One could argue that the ships of yore made for a better marketing campaign than some of today’s luxury goods. Sure, they’re all supposed to grab attention and send a message. But the ships in their appearance and use sent a bigger message to a much broader audience. (Even when they weren’t firing a cannon at you…)

The really high-end tech these days is a bit more like great art was for centuries. The result almost exclusively of royal or church patronage, like very high-end luxury manufacturers or retailers are now. It demonstrated wealth, power and prestige, as owning these things still does. These rarefied patrons were what enabled artists to make art (within very specific parameters).

But how many people actually saw and experienced the work? Not that anyone really cared what peasants thought as long as they behaved.

A farmhand in the Renaissance didn’t get to suggest tweaks to painting styles or subjects. A 17th-century sailor didn’t get to suggest design elements for the ship he served on. And we don’t really get to influence the design of the tech that we’re just supposed to shut up and buy. (Mint green iPhones, Apple? Really?)

We’ve been trained to expect more choice or customization to cost more, if they’re available at all, because of mass market manufacturing’s long race to the design bottom.

But give industrial designers some room to play. Use tech specs as constraints to fire their creativity. Develop parameters for materials, function and cost that don’t cause an exorbitant rise in manufacturing costs, and let them run wild and see what they can do. While we’re at it, let’s throw in some better labour and environmental practices.

The result has to be better than “oyster” or even curved white plastic.

For centuries, beautifully carved figureheads were part of ships’ design. But they weren’t just pretty painted wood. They were full of mystical meaning and menace and mythology. Today’s consumer tech has nothing comparable.

If any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, maybe that’s the crux of it. “Magic” isn’t within specifications or budget. Modern-day kings are about shareholder value, not convincing anyone of their godlike status. (Then again…)

When you stop striving for magic and settle for “efficiencies,” you end up with square and “oyster.” But when they drain the metaphorical oceans a few centuries from now, nobody’s going to be in awe.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca.