Easy Chair — From the December 2014 issue

Poison Apples

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Thirty years ago, Apple Computer launched a new product with a messianic commercial in which legions of blank-faced, coverall-clad workers march, as if in a trance, through a strange industrial world. They arrive at a bright screen, which they sit in front of in homogeneous rows to watch a Big Brother–like figure announce the triumph of a mind-controlling monoculture. An athlete speeds toward the massive hall. Her sprinting power, her golden skin and bright red shorts, and even her gender stand in contrast to the zombie shuffle of the male figures.

The ad cuts back and forth between this vivid, supercharged woman in color and the bald ghost-workers in black and white. Pursued by faceless police in riot helmets intent on stopping her, she nevertheless finds time to spin her sledgehammer round and round before hurling it at the screen, where it smashes the image of Big Brother. The screen explodes in brightness, like an atomic blast, before the video cuts to a shot of the audience’s illuminated faces, their mouths open in shock. Then comes the famous tagline: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’ ” It’s perhaps Silicon Valley’s first announcement that they don’t just make tools; they make culture. But what kind of culture?

This minute-long movie was made in an era of considerable anxiety about the future. Alien (1979) postulated the usual hostile invaders, with better effects; Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) showed a chaotic world of post-peak-oil car mania; Blade Runner (1982) was set in a Los Angeles that was a weird mix of post-human and post-white, two qualities that were regarded with what seemed like equal dismay; and The Terminator (1984) worried about smart machines. This little Apple film was made to pep you up about the future, not to scare you, back in the days when the power of computers was puny compared with now, and nuclear threats were huge.

Watching the commercial again, I recall Delmore Schwartz’s short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which takes place in another movie theater, where the dreaming Schwartz watches the courtship of his parents before his birth and stands up in horror to shout, “Don’t do it! It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.”

The Macintosh was and is a good product, but the corporation that made it is part of a nightmare industry. I want to yell at that liberatory young woman with her sledgehammer: Don’t do it! Apple is not different. That industry is going to give rise to innumerable forms of triviality and misogyny, to the concentration of wealth and the dispersal of mental concentration. To suicidal, underpaid Chinese factory workers whose reality must be a lot like that of the shuffling workers in that commercial. If you think a crowd of people staring at one screen is bad, wait until you have created a world in which billions of people stare at their own screens even while walking, driving, eating, in the company of friends and family — all of them eternally elsewhere. Apple’s iPhones will make their users trackable at all times unless they take unadvertised measures to disable that feature. They will be part of the rise of the Internet, which will savage privacy, break down journalism as we know it, and create elaborate justifications for never paying artists or writers — an Internet that will be an endless soup of grim porn and mean-spirited chat and rumor and trolling and new ways to buy things we don’t need while failing to make the contact we do need.

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