The Mac at 25 (Intelligent Life)

I’m a big fan of Douglas Coupland, ever since his first novel, Generation X. Okay, revealing my age here. In the same vain, Coupland wrote an article for The Economist’s lifestyle magazine, Intelligent Life.

The Mac at 25
Douglas Coupland (Intelligent Life)
Winter 2008

In 1984, a computer came along which was big, beige, clunky — and life-changing, even for people who never had one. Douglas Coupland celebrates the Apple Mac.

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Apple’s Mac is 25 — which means it’s also been 25 years since I graduated from art school, and since my crabby and slightly embittered typography teacher arrived in the class one afternoon and spat out the words, “Type is dead. Everything that one can possibly do with type design has been done.” Shades of Francis Fukuyama declaring the end of history, but, if life has taught me one thing, it’s that the moment something has been declared dead, it emerges from the grave like at the end of “Carrie”, only more powerful and bigger than ever.

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I don’t remember what exactly it was we were doing when our type prof made his searing pronouncement. We were most likely sitting there with gouache and whiteboard painstakingly drawing the entire Helvetica bold font — upper case, lower case, numerals and glamorous European diacritical marks. We probably felt smug and oh-so-elite knowing that we were among the few people in North America who were aware that an umlaut was called an umlaut. And, if this pronouncement was made at term’s end, we were most likely soaking up real-world experience by having something professionally typeset on (gasp) a computer. We would have been sitting there listening to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “Architecture & Morality” album while encoding hundreds of lines of complex output language that crumbled with one misplaced keystroke. Did I think type was dead? No. But I would never have guessed the size and strength of the monster that emerged from Carrie’s grave — and I couldn’t have been happier with the timing.

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Quickly, the Macintosh, commonly nicknamed Mac, is a brand name that covers several lines of personal computers designed, developed and marketed by Apple Inc. of Cupertino, California, 50 miles south of San Francisco. The Macintosh 128K was released on January 24th 1984; it was the first commercially successful personal computer to feature a mouse and a graphical user interface (GUI) rather than a command line interface.

Thank you, Wikipedia.

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The Mac made life easier. It was a good product — no, it was, in the parlance of the Mac’s makers, insanely great. For the first time ever, you, alone in your home or office, could use a computer easily and intuitively, navigate through multiple documents and applications, and all the while you’d have the sensation that your computer wasn’t your enemy. Your computer, in fact, was your friend.

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It was a little R2D2 that joined you on a daily adventure. This innate friendliness and anthropomorphicity is something other computers have yet to achieve. It’s what makes Mac an icon, not just another appliance. And I want to stress here just how primitive computers were in 1984, and how fearfully and 2001-chimps-touching-the-monolith-ishly people approached them. I know I did — computers were ugly, boring, slow, expensive and in order to get anything at all done with them you first had to deal with a person who is now commonly called a geek. It’s an interesting measure of how far we’ve come as a society that we have normalised the word “geek” into our language. In 1984 a geek technically meant someone who bites the heads off chickens in a travelling circus. Now it defines a person who rules the world.

Progress: 1 OED: 0

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The thing is, back then, one could never imagine writing an article such as, say, this one, without the implicit knowledge that almost any change would require vast amounts of time, elbow grease and patience. My particular instrument of self-torture was an IBM Selectric .. with auto-erase. Yes, with a few keystrokes, one could automatically go back and mechanically overwrite characters with expensive and somewhat clumsy white guck. Owning an IBM Selectric in 1984 was like owning a Bentley today, and made you open season on disapproving clucks from envious onlookers: “Ooh, we like ourselves, don’t we? Aren’t we special?”

What happened in my life is that in 1987 I went from designing type to writing words with it — starting out with magazine work and then moving into books. In 1988 I moved to Toronto to work as a junior editor on a new-defunct business magazine. The founder had deep pockets and the magazine was the first in North America to be all-Mac.

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And this is where I learned first-hand one of the powers of the Mac and how it reshaped office culture, and later society: it made the writer the designer, too. This effect was amplified in my case by the art director’s stubborn refusal to learn how to work with computers: his nickname was “Where’s the ON button?” I have no idea why the publisher hired the guy, but his wilful ignorance at least forced everybody else in the office to do his job for him. That may well have been his strategy all along. Or maybe he was simply lazy. I’ll never know. What I do know is that the other staffers, mostly fresh out of journalism school, were suddenly using terms like kerning and drop-caps and leading. In 1987 I’m guessing there were maybe 10,000 people in North America who knew what kerning was. These days my 12-year-old nephew uses all of these typography terms freely. That’s a revolution. The Mac democratised typography. It democratised design. Starting in 1988, editors and writers learned what the art director already knew: words aren’t just words any more, they are art supplies.

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The funny thing about all of this in retrospect is the fear and mockery the publisher received for going all Mac. Local editors and publishers regularly walked through the office crowing like Thomas Dewey ten minutes before Harry Truman won. The usual fearful chimps bleating sort of thing: It’ll never work. It’s too complex. You’ll never get regular people comfortable using computers. It’s too high tech — it’ll all blow up on you some day.

When the magazine tanked in 1990, those same crowing editors bought the used office equipment at fire-sale prices. Many of them are now good friends and we look back on those early days of “desktop publishing” (doesn’t that phrase take you back in time, sort of like, “information superhighway”) and wonder what all of the fear and loathing was about? I guess the reason was because no one could believe that going Mac could be so insanely easy, or that they could do what they did so quickly and painlessly.

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Of course, not all magazines went Mac, and a few still aren’t. Magazines, however, tend to be far more Mac than newspapers, and it’s not just a coincidence. Magazines are intrinsically visual and of necessity morph images and text together, a task at which Macs shine. With their wysiwyg user interfaces and high-speed processing, Macs allow users to will into existence whatever they want, almost effortlessly. Click and drag. Drag and click. Bigger? Smaller? Invert?

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I’m feeling like a shameless Mac pimp here, and I know the tendency of Mac users to evangelise annoys many PC users, but then there’s a lot to pimp about. The PC users who get the most annoyed are usually the ones who are licked into working situations where management has invested heavily in business-specific software that runs only on PCs because Bill Gates and IBM got in just a few years earlier and pretty much rammed their bizarre Frankenstein-monster operating system down the planet’s throat. This, by the way, reminds me of a time that younger readers may have been too young to even remember — a time before 1994 when IBM (yes, IBM) was considered the world’s best company and was feared and respected in a Stalin kind of way — and when Microsoft was the plucky little underdog that everybody loved, sort of the way everybody loved Google a couple of years ago.

At this point we need to separate the changes personal computing has made in our lives from the changes Macs have made in our lives. Aside from its near-impregnability against viruses and spam, the big plus of the Mac is that it makes the computer kind of invisible. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve had to piggyback on someone else’s computer for an afternoon or perhaps use the hotel’s business centre and we’ve had to use the system opposite to the one we’re used to. This PC intrusion happens to me once a year or so, and when it does, I look at the keyboard, I look at the screen, and in a flash I know what it must be like to have a stroke.

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The smallest chores take minutes, and rendering the counterintuitive intuitive gives your brain that same clenchy feeling it gets when you know you have to carry a box of lead weights up several tall flights of stairs.

When my brothers and I decided it was time to finally drag our parents kicking and screaming into the world of personal computing, it had to be on a Mac. The thought of having my parents starting out on a PC was unthinkable for us: we didn’t want to have them phoning us at all hours of the day asking us what to do when their screen froze while downloading RealPlayer 7 or why everything vanished or exploded or disappeared or froze of got infected… Two years later, my parents are doing fine and they’ve discovered the way Mac turns work into play, usually with just one or two clicks. My father listens to iTunes Radio’s selection of online country-and-western stations. My mother has a bookmarked collection of conspiracy-theory websites. Funnily enough, neither of them has ever made either a file or a folder. That wouldn’t be Mac’s fault; it just might be a getting-old thing.

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(The editor of the world’s largest computer-gaming magazine was having dinner at my place when my father called asking how to install a CD of Texas Hold’em Poker, so I foisted the editor onto the call and listened in: “No, Dr Coupland. First you have to press the return key. It says RETURN on it and it’s about two-thirds of the way across the keyboard in the middle. No. Don’t worry, take you time.”)

Earlier I spoke about visual thinking and this is perhaps the most important dimension of Macs — what makes them so Mac-y: you can see everything you need to see and nothing that you don’t. When you’re writing something with a pen, you’re thinking of the words, not the pen. When you create something on a Mac, you’re thinking of your project, not the Mac. It becomes invisible and heightens creativity. The flip side of this point could be, “Does a Mac make a person lazy? Does a Mac make a person appear smarter than they really are?”

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No. I think that’s sort of like asking, “Does changing a document into a different font make the article better?” Of course not. But it’s nice to have the freedom to monkey around effortlessly and try that if you like. As an added bonus, Macs are terrific at allowing many programs to run at once with zero interference. Every day I have Photoshop, Word, Illustrator, Safari, Firefox, QuickTime, various widgets, my scanner, iTunes and PowerPoint on at all times.  I have no idea how Mac figured out a way to make that happen, but long gone are the early days of Mac when the dreaded Bomb came onscreen during a systems crash. These days you really, really have to work hard and do outrageous things to crash a Mac.

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This multiple windowing experience is perhaps the perceptual hallmark of our era: the ability to shift across various modes of information instantly and effortlessly: words, numbers, images and countless forms of translation, serenaded the whole time by an endless loop of that song you remembered from when you were 17 plus a small QuickTime screen in the corner playing a bootleg downloaded German-language version of “Mrs Doubtfire” starring Robin Williams.

PCs can sort of mimic the effortless transmodality of the Mac, but they’re way crashier, and their clunky interfaces make you feel like you’re in East Berlin circa 1974 while everyone in the West has already entered a funner, smarter future, the other side of that pesky wall.

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OK, enough proselytising. I’m trying right now to think of life without Mac.

It’s like wondering what the 1960s and 1970s would have been like without TV, the 1930s without radio, the Renaissance without perspective. The era would stop being that era and become something else, something neither as rich nor as defined. Sometimes I wonder what life would have been like if I’d been born on a Scottish heath 500 years ago when the most complex technology going was staircases. I’d have been born and gone to the grave never knowing the many interior dimensions of myself that I know exist. It almost makes me wonder about the future — what new devices will be invented, and what heretofore unexpressed things about you or me might percolate to the surface?

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I joked earlier about geeks emerging from nowhere in the 1970s to the point where they now dominate much of society. It wasn’t just geeks that flourished. Chances are you too have flourished as a result of technology in general but also because of the Mac. As a product it consistently raises the bar in terms of what we can and should expect from personal computing. It’s changed the way offices function. It’s changed the way we spend our free time. It’s stripped computing of its old intimidating aura. But most of all, the Mac has democratised many skills and realms of knowledge previously confined to elites. Three that come to mind are publishing, film editing and music editing. A friend of mine in advertising says the industry is in a massive slump right now thanks to the Mac. Clients arrive for a Monday morning meeting with a CD and say, “My kid made this on his Mac this weekend for free. So remind me again why I’m paying you a quarter of a million dollars for the same thing from you.”

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An excellent question, and one that might act as a koan for a the next few decades: I can do this just as well as you and I had fun doing it. So what are you people going to do now?”

3 thoughts on “The Mac at 25 (Intelligent Life)

  1. Coupland may have a point about the Mac raising the bar back in the day, but he way overstates its benefits now. Saying that when you write with a mac you don’t think about the mac would much more persuasive if he wasn’t going on about how great Macs are. I usually write on windows machines but sometimes on a Linux laptop and occasionally on a mac. I don’t think about the computer much regardless of which one I’m using. If it’s a mac, well there’s a bit of clickery because I’m not used to it, but it’s no big deal.Saying that he can have different applications open at the same time is underwhelming – I can do that on my pc and on my linux laptop. I’m sorry Douglas has a bad experience when he has to use a pc in a hotel, but can’t understand why – I find them both pretty easy to use. As for being less crashy – well, I got a lovely green imac, back when the cuteness of imacs was making them very popular. My wife got a windows laptop which was nowhere near as cute, but didn’t crash anywhere near as often. Maybe I got an unusually crashy mac, maybe I did something wrong, but I thought the things were supposed to be easy to use.For mine, the Mac/PC thing is old. It’s like car bores – your Toyota might be better in engineering terms than my Ford, but either will get me from my home to a party and talking about the differences is as interesting as watching paint dry. I’m not an art or music person, for whom I believe Macs are superior, so can’t comment on that aspect. I just use computers to write things, send and read emails, newspapers etc, play games and watch youtube clips. For me, it’s the Ford/Toyota difference.

  2. I make music and art with my PC – the only problem I’ve ever had is blowing out the firewire on my motherboard (theoretically, haven’t reinstalled after the incident) – which has happened to the cellist Zoe Keating on her macbook many times over – she has to return it for a new one, I can buy a 30$ add-in card to fix my computer.PCs may be different than a Mac, but it’s like going from driving an automatic to a stick – you’re not used to it but if you practice well you can learn. It will become like a second nature to you, and you will no longer think about it. I’m sorry your learning experience with the Mac was 25 years ago and you don’t really remember the getting-used-to-it you had to do – it was so much easier than the other it shined in comparison. Sure, you could get to everything with a few clicks, but you still had to learn what virtual memory was, whether or not you should set it, how much, etc etc. Fast forward 25 years and of course it’s easy. I’m not sure what’s harder about sticking a cd in the computer and having to click next a few times vs. sticking in the cd, opening it up, then staring at the icon wondering what to do (answer, open up your hard drive, the application folder, then drag the icon there. Then drag from the application folder to the Dock to make a quick access icon. Or, if you don’t have a clue, you just put everything on the desktop.)My point is, once you’ve learned it, it’s a pencil. The first time you picked up a pencil, you sure as sh1t didn’t wonder what to write, you wondered how to hold it, how to press down against the paper, how to curve your letters appropriately. A lifetime of practice later it’s a pencil and you no longer ‘think’ about it.I tell you what, I’m an electron microscopy student, and to me, a scanning electron microscope is a pencil, now. To you? A maddening array of knobs and buttons that won’t make any sense without months of intense training.

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