Infinite Loop 2: “Is My Mac Just a Machine and Does It Matter? Part One.”

In Infinite
Loop 1
we examined the claim, made some by
PC users, that the loyalty some of us show the
Mac is ill-founded because it is after all “just
a machine.” This strikes us as rather interesting.
Why should attachment to the Mac be any different
than attachments persons have to other kinds of
artifacts? About a year ago I lost my wedding
ring. We rented a metal detector, we dug up the
yard, we even burned off the grass looking for
it. It meant a great deal to us to find it. Yet
using the same logic as PC users this was a waste
of time. My wedding ring, after all, is just a
piece of metal. Such heirlooms are only one example
of being attached to something nonhuman.

The claim also strikes us as vague
(and philosophers seek clarity). So we will disambiguate
it. We will examine several possible interpretations
of what a “machine” is and show that for each
interpretation the conclusion does not follow.
Each interpretation is designed to establish the
following conclusion: That the sometimes strong
emotional attachments and loyalty some have to
the Mac are ill-founded. Does claiming that the
Mac is just a machine establish this conclusion?
We think not. In fact, at least three reasons
people give for forming attachments to artifacts
like wedding rings and art are also made for the
Mac, namely, beauty, utility and symbolism. I
will explain these below, and go into more detail
next week

Consider this article combat training.
When you are defending the Mac someone is sure
to say to you, “it’s just a machine.”
If we are right in this article then this claim
turns out to be nothing but an abusive ad hominem,
an insult with no intellectual backing. Take the
offensive and ask, “What do you mean by a
machine?” Very few will be able to answer
this question in any informed way, and they should
walk away in shame. But if they do not, then there
is a finite number of responses to this question.
I list them below. Take them to heart and you
will silence anyone who makes this claim. (Of
course anyone that makes this claim may not understand
the points below either.)

It Depends on What You Mean by “Machine”

So when someone says, “it’s just
a machine,” what can she mean? Well, it all depends
on what she means by “machine.” There are four
possible interpretations. Each fails to justify
the conclusion.

Interpretation 1: The artifact
interpretation. The Mac is just a machine means
the Mac is merely a human artifact. A human artifact
is anything that is man-made, e.g., a car, a house,
a painting or a computer. These stand in contrast
to natural things like trees, oceans and electrons.
Thus the argument is that attachments and loyalty
are ill-founded if placed upon a human artifact,
upon something man-made.

But think about this. Persons have
attachments to human artifacts all the time. Here
are a few artifacts persons have strong attachments
to: a car, clothing, a photograph, a house, a
movie, a book, a work of art, a song or a heirloom
of some kind. Think of some artifact you value.
Now think how you would feel if you lost it. We
bet you would feel like I did when I lost my wedding
ring. The point is that merely assuming that the
Mac is a human artifact (and it is after all),
does not justify the conclusion that attachment
and loyalty to it are ill- founded. It is a rather
everyday occurrence in fact.

But why do people become attached
to artifacts? The wedding ring example gives us
a hint. It was not the wedding ring per se but
what it symbolizes which made it valuable for
us. Some artifacts, likes works of art (which
are artifactual if anything is), are valued because
of their beauty. These are only two reason persons
form attachments to artifacts though. There is
another, namely utility.

Interpretation 2: The utilitarian
interpretation. The Mac is just a machine means
the Mac is merely a means to an end, and attachment
and loyalty to it deters from its higher ends.
In other words, the Mac is a machine means the
Mac is just a tool or instrument, where “tool”
and “instrument” are understood as anything
which helps us manipulate the world or do a job.
After all, it is argued, one might be attached
to the spice rack he makes his wife but certainly
not to the hammer he used to make it, for it was
serving greater ends to which it was only a means.
So the argument is that attachment and loyalty
are ill founded if placed on means, tools or instruments
and not their ultimate ends.

If understood right, “attachment
and loyalty are ill-founded if placed on a tool
or instrument” just means “attachment
and loyalty are ill-founded if placed on a means
to X rather than X itself.” But again, there
are many examples where this breaks down. For
most things are both means and ends. For example,
a delicious meal tastes good and curbs hunger,
and we value both. The Mac falls under this for
it is both beautiful, and beauty is desired for
its own sake, and because of its utility. But
beyond this, one may value his trusty old pocketknife
because it always gets the job done well.
Means are valued only if they are proper means
to the end we are seeking, and if a tool helps
us reach an end, and it does it well, then it
is valued. Since the Mac is such a good means
to many of our ends (both personal and commercial),
we value it and rightly so.

But now things get interesting .
. .

Interpretation 3: The dualist
interpretation. The Mac is just a machine means
that the Mac does not have a soul. This is to
be understood literally: It has no personhood,
it is a nonlivng thing. Thus the argument is that
strong emotional attachments and loyalty are ill-founded
if placed upon something which lacks a soul and
all that implies. For example, pets, which we
become attached to, and computers have an essential
difference: pets have feelings, computers do not
(so far as we know). If I smash a Dell computer
with a hammer it feels no pain. Does this make
a difference? (Marvin
, one of the founders of artificial
intelligence, said that if computers keep evolving
they may keep us as pets!)

I could have said that computers
lack feeling right now, but they may possess
emotion in the future. If computers are capable
of thought then it is a short step to computers
being capable of emotion. If that time comes,
then of course even Apple couldn’t sell them because
it would be nothing but a slave trade. Owning
a Mac would become a moral situation; upgrading
could hurt its feelings and so be immoral. Be
that as it may, we have gone full circle, for
artifacts like wedding rings lack feelings and
a soul, too. Yet we have attachments to them.

Interpretation 4: The mechanical
interpretation. The Mac is just a machine means
the Mac is only a mechanical device: a purely
physical, closed system operating according to
strict causal laws. Thus the argument is that
strong emotional attachment and loyalty are ill-founded
if placed upon something purely mechanical. Yet,
machines in this sense can be found in nature
(atoms, brains) and as artifacts (water pumps,
engines). Perhaps, some say, we are machines in
exactly this sense. We are just physical systems;
we are highly complex biological machines. The
brain, for example, is just a neuro-chemical machine.
(And there is evidence that Steve Jobs is fascinated
with this fact. See Apple Confidential
for the quote.)

And beyond these points, one might
say that that WE are computers after all. Perhaps
the mind is to the brain as software is to hardware;
our program is genetic code not computer code.
Perhaps all thought is calculation and so we are
just calculators. The only difference between
me and my pocket calculator is that that I am
wet inside and it is dry inside. Thus, becoming
attched to a computer might mean being attached
to my Mac or to my best friend, who is also a
computer. If one says that attachment to a computer
is ill-founded and we are computers, then he obviously
is not thinking about what he is saying. That
is, he is confused about the kinds of things in
the universe which might be computers and which
might not be computers; the very being making
the statement might after all be a computer too.

What we have said so far is this:
Assuming that the Mac just is a machine, any possible
interpretation of what a “machine” is does not
show that attachments and loyalty to it are ill
founded. On the contrary, the opposite position
is quite sensible, for we become emotionally attached
and loyal to machines under all four interpretations.
This is an everyday occurrence, and one that appears
justified when applied to wedding rings and other
artifacts. So why not the Mac? Mac users who make
the claim are just as reasonable as one who says
that he is attached to his wedding ring, pet,
trusty old pocketknife, or even his brain (a wetware
computer)! So even if the Mac just is a machine,
this is of little consequence as far as our attachment
to it is concerned. (In fact, even those PC users
who find themselves strangely attached to their
Wintels are prima facie justified, but only prima
facie. We will examine this in Part II.)

Becoming Attached

All we have said here is that in
persons become attached to artifacts
and other kinds of machines all the time. I have
not argued that they are justified in
being so attached. That will wait for Part II.
For now we can say the following. We find ourselves
attached to artifacts and other kinds of machines
because of their utility, beauty and symbolism.
We will examine these next week and explore how
we come to attach value to artifacts at all, but
especially to the Mac which, it can be argued,
embodies all three to a higher degree than Wintels.


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