Infinite Loop 15: “Nihilism, Apple and the Mac Web. Part Three.”

At one point Nietzsche defines “nihilism”
as “everything is permitted.” Dostoevsky
said “If God is dead, then everything is
permissible.” If this in fact is the core
of philosophical nihilism, then the Mac Web is
nihilistic. I have talked about nihilism generally,
about Apple’s nihilistic overtones, and now,
in the final installment of this series, I turn
to the Mac Web itself. It sure seems to this writer
that on the Mac Web indeed “everything is
permitted.” It also seems this won’t last
much longer.

I need to get straight on some things
first. When I use “nihilism” here I
do so in both a specific and fluid way. I am thinking
of philosophical nihilism, and this in fact in
a very fluid concept. It is not the same as the
kind of nihilism we find in Russian literature;
it is not always the same as political nihilism
either. So far I have made the following claim:
Apple’s actions, some of them at least, can
be interpreted along the lines of Nietzsche’s
“to create one must first destroy” notion.
Nietzsche said he does philosophy with a hammer
– – think of the “1984” commercial and
Apple’s smashing of old designs and old technology
even to this day. But thisis a very fluid concept
which acquires different meanings in different
author’s hands. Today I stop messing around and
stick to philosophical nihilism as the belief
in Nothing, and whatever that amounts to.

Also, it is important to understand
one thing: Most I call nihilists or nihilistic
would shun the description. Apple wouldn’t
call themselves nihilistic after all, and neither
would many writers on the Mac Web. But I see it;
it’s there, and it’s everywhere. James C.
Edwards (see reading list below) has even coined
the term “common nihilism” because it
is so pervasive.

Today I move to the core of nihilism
as the belief in Nothingness and show how we see
it on the Mac Web. The nihilists believe that
Nothing is the ultimate reality – – we face the
abyss at each point. With the failure of Christianity
and Enlightenment optimism we are left with Nothing
and must make the most out of it. The assumption
is that’s all we had to go on – – religion or
Enlightenment rationalism are the best ideas we
could come up with to date, so with them gone
we’re gone as well.

All of life can be interpreted as
either our trying to escape this emptiness or
build something, which is really nothing, in its
place. We enjoy entertainments of all kinds so
as not to notice; we stay busy and find any distraction
we can. Why do you think the steamier side of
the Web is such a big business? And it doesn’t
matter what it is as long as it does its job –
– to distract us. Violence in the streets, world
wars, relativism in the media, and cosmic forlornness
are its effects.

The reason everything is permitted
is because, simply put, there are no standards,
boundaries, authorities, or rules. If there is
nothing then certainly there are none of these
things either. The result is that it makes no
difference what we do in anything; the question
“Why?” is empty. If it made a difference
then of course there would be something, but there
is nothing so it makes no difference what we do
in any way. We can justify action A as well as
action not-A equally. Every decision proceeds
ex nihilo with no reason or cause of its
coming about at all. Anything we do is generated
from a spontaneous assertion of our wills which
can, as Rosen says, “be negated with equal
justification.” It’s the “will
to power.” Nihilism is liberating for some
who call themselves “cheerful nihilists.”
With nothing there, there is no constraint, not
limits, no impediments to our actions and will.
This is radical freedom and we find ourselves
with a responsibility to use it we did not ask

I want to point out several aspects
of the how we relate to the Mac and Mac Web where
we see nihilism being expressed and worked out,
albeit unwittingly much of the time. First, we
see it when we read people talking about what
the Mac is.

One answer to the question “What
is the Mac?” is: “Whatever you want
it to be.” The symptoms are usually along
the lines of people naming their Macs, anthropomorphic
dealings with this machine (projecting a “personality”
on the Mac), and in talk about the freedom the
Mac brings. All sorts of weird behavior is seen
in fact. It includes the desktop patterns we choose
and the icons we place on our desktops, as well
as the sound sets we distract our coworkers with.
The reason the Mac is whatever you want it to
be is because, I would suggest, there is nothing
there to begin with. So knock yourself out! Make
it into anything you want; let your friends make
their’s anything they want. By a sheer act of
the will, like a deity, we create our own Mac
ex nihilo.

Obviously this cannot be true. There
is something there, and it sits right before your
eyes and my eyes. (See below.) So why do so many
resort to nihilism when trying to explain what
the Mac is? Lack of imagination. It’s what
we philosophers call the “conceivability
disproof” – – I cannot conceive it so it
must not be. But all along there is something
there, and the lack of conception is no justification
for the silliness we see.

Most people do not have the time
to think it through; reflection as a practice
(not a faculty), as our writer Roger Born says,
is not something exercised very often in this
fast and noisy society. Reflection takes time
and quiet, and these are two things which are
lacking in this society. “I don’t know”
with a shrug of the shoulders is our motto. Go
ahead and ask someone some deep questions and
you will get this response. It doesn’t take long
if my students are any indication. People are
just too busy to reflect. And it comes out on
the Mac Web as well – – one of the fastest ad
noisiest places on the planet.

There is another reason for the
nihilistic stance – – it’s called “applelust.”
As you know if you have read us this is a technical
term for us. Applelust is, pure and simple, that
level one reaches when words fail him. We see
this with the Mac all the time. One way we see
it is the degradation of vocabulary when trying
to talk about the Mac. We resort to flip words
such as “cool,” “awesome,”
and “insanely great.” These are indicators
that one’s vocabulary has run its course.
We know what it is, but we can’t explain.
We feel it; we see it; we touch it; but we can’t
talk about it. Much of the Mac Web is in fact,
perhaps, talking about things which cannot be
talked about at all? Or does it just lack imagination?

Again, go ahead and stand around
some Macs at CompUSA and watch how people react
to them. (Forget about mutated Wintellers who
are covered in so much misinformation they cannot
say anything nice about the Mac.) More times than
not the reaction is nonverbal. They express
grunts and moans and awes rather than an intelligible
sentence, if even for a second. Because the Mac
hits us on this level if one fails to get beyond
it then words fail him for a lifetime. And once
his words run out his ideas die and the Mac becomes
nothing but what he makes of it. Think about it
. . .

What is it that is there all along?
Once we get over the first primordial impressions
then we have a very large task indeed – – to explain
why the Mac has this effect on people. (Which,
I might add, some cars and other consumables have
the same effect.) Let me explain, at least, why
some never get beyond the basic impressions to
something deeper – – they conflate two ideas which
need to be separate. The primordial reaction synthesizes
ideas which are distinct. I have said it before
and I will say it again: We must always keep in
mind the distinction between the Mac as a computer
and the Mac as a Mac. The Mac as a computer is
there, unchanging and constant (until we come
up with a new definition of “computer”);
the Mac as a Mac is fluid, changing and growing
in our minds. It is the stuff of lore, myth, personal
expression, natural manipulation, denatured fantasy,
beauty and simplicity, all the things which make
a Mac a Mac and not just a computer. When I was
in Cupertino, on campus, I sensed the lore and
myth, the history and personalities which have
made this Mac thing. I wasn’t even thinking
about a computer anymore, so computer language
at some point becomes inadequate for me; if we
try to retain it we fail and end up expressing
odd thoughts in even odder grammar. This is a
sure sign we need to look for more logico-linguistic
devices. Many, sadly, don’t. Rushing around .
. .

If one does continue to think about
just a computer then of course words will run
out. Then throw aways such as “tool”
and “machine” rise up. But these are
only descriptive of the Mac as a computer and
not the Mac as a Mac. It is placing one dimensionality
on a multi-dimensional object, the way we do with
so many things in our society like women, money
and gods. The death of imagination is not a good
thing for anybody.

That is what I mean by a lack of

There are other symptoms of nihilism
on the Mac Web. One symptom has to do with the
sense that we can do whatever we want, that the
Web is a place of absolute freedom with no rules,
no standards and no guides; if we impose these
on the Mac Web then we kill it, we fear, for we
take away from its essence. And that essence is
nothing in itself, it is what we are creating
as we publish sites and articles. “What do
you want the web to be?” we are asked in
commercials. A code of ethics? No, that would
be censorship, some say. Journalistic standards?
No way – – we’re free, and we’re not
part of the real publishing world. Accountability?
Fogetaboutit!! No, we are in the land of nothing.
We surf Alice‘s Wonderland where logic is
void and contradiction makes sense. But it doesn’t
matter in the end anyway if it’s all “true.”

All this is changing of course.
The FBI is making sure of that with “Carnivore.”
And Adobe is going after a web site for publishing
trade secrets; lawsuits, or the threat of the
same, are thrown around with nauseous regularity
on the Web. We don’t like rules and accountability
yet we act as if we cannot live without them.
And this is the point isn’t it? Think about
it . . . it might be called the practical objection
to nihilism
– – it cannot be lived.

Anyway . . . the old Mac Web of
amateurs, hobby sites, and half-baked ideas is
going away. Publishers are being replaced with
real editors who place demands on writers for
content and who will not post anything they get.
It was only a matter of time before this would
happen. Once some realized that money could be
made on the Mac Web (a belief I do not find wholly
justified), then the pros, the ones with the money,
resources and training would move in and drown
out the hobbyists. More and more we see people
publishing who are not rank amateurs. We see more
highly educated people coming on to say something.
(You would not believe all the academics out there
behind many sites; I run into a new Ph.D. or professor
qua web publisher all the time.) People with a
lot of training and resources are buying up sites
and trying, in my opinion, to professionalize
the Mac Web
. Meanwhile, the old Mac Web is
fighting, or trying to beat down, the new-comers.
It’s not a war of titans by any stretch, but it’s

I am ambivalent about it all. I
think the Web and Mac Web have a way to empower
people by giving them a voice they might not have
otherwise. I think this is a good thing. Could
the professionalization of the Mac Web kill these
voices? Yet at the same time I see much nonsense
out there, and what is even more amazing is that
people read it. Professionalization almost killed
my philosophical impulse, and I hope it does not
kill the sometimes ironic and comical Mac Web.
Yet I see the need for higher standards and better
writing – – in a word, we need more pros. It’s
already there, for some of the best writing on
the Mac Web comes from real pros, like David
and Del
, and the lately departed (for Apple)
John Martellaro. We all know when someone doesn’t
know what he’s talking about and those who
do naturally have a louder voice. We’ll see where
they take us, if they take us anywhere. Who knows,
maybe there is no place to go?

I have detoured a long way from
nihilism in this article it seems, but I have
not strayed that far really. In fact I will end
where I began. We have a love-hate relationship
with the idea, and we see this on the Mac Web
and with our relating to the Mac itself, like
we do so many other things in the cosmos. Though
we do not always realize it we make the move to
nihilism when time, schedules, and imagination
outrun us, and when standards and policies impolitely
cuff our hands. In a society where sports outranks
reflection, where we turn people into objects,
and the universe seems so large and we feel so
small, nihilism becomes problematic because it
becomes a “live option” in William James’s
phrase. Then we are left with nothing but impulse
and the will to power. The problem is that we
are not gods: The Mac just makes us think we are
(like any technology). However, God’s will to
power, the ability to create, is measured by his
omniscience – – he knows how to use it. We want
instructions on how to use our power, but not
rules. Never the less, like money, power
does not come with the intrinsic instructions
we need to use it; and we don’t like the extrinsic
instructions we’ve been given. And instruction
on how to use it takes us back to the idea of
transcendence which the nihilist rejects in the
first place. Think about it . . .

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