Infinite Loop 27: Is OS X the End of the Postmodern Mac? Part One

“Once, when Caesar saw some wealthy visitors
to Rome carrying young dogs and monkeys around
on their laps and petting them, he apparently
asked whether the women in their country did not
produce children – a right royal rebuke of those
who waste our innate capacity for love and affection
on animals, when it is due to men.”

Thus begins Plutarch’s
“Pericles” in his Parallel
Lives
. The point of course rests in the earlier
Greek bias that what separates man from the animals
is reason, and thus to place “love and affection”
upon objects which cannot return and do not deserve
it is irrational. It makes as much sense as yelling
at an answering machine for a message we are displeased
with.

Might we say the same about the Mac?

This question is not to be taken lightly, for fear
that we might not learn from asking it. Many profess
a deep and almost profound “love and affection” for
their Macs. True, we mostly see this in editorialists
and not among the commoner, if you will. But many
a Mac user would, if asked, express the same
level attachment, to state it in a counterfactual
sort of way.

Technological Change


“Without the clock, capitalism would have
been impossible.”
(Neil
Postman, “Technopoly.”)


I do not wish to address whether this is rational behavior
or not. To my lights, I have sufficiently
answered
the question already; my answer is ignored
at your own risk. I am uninterested in short, superficial
answers about the Mac being “insanely great” or “just
feeling right.” These keep my attention for about as
long as I read the words, and I am a fast reader. A
certain level of Mac enthusiasm is rational because
of the Mac’s symbolism,
utility and beauty
, and it is just as rational as
it is for other kinds of artifacts for which we express
affection that possess these important properties. “I
love this can opener!!” “Why?” “It looks good and it
does the job well.”

What interests me, though, is the etiology of this
affection. That is to say, many, if not all, talk
about what we can do with the Mac. My interest is
in what the Mac does to us.
For it is a truism that any technology we use changes
us as much as it changes the world we manipulate with
it. It has to be this way, for technology extends
our power and reach in Nature, and as they are extended
we begin to view ourselves and the world differently.
As Neil Postman says in Technopoly:

“New technologies alter the structure of
our interests: the things we think about.
They alter the character of our symbols: the things
we think with. And they alter the nature
of community: the arena in which thoughts develop.”

Or, as Postman pointedly puts it, “…to
a man with a hammer, everything looks like nail.

OS X is a new technology. So it follows that it
will change us in some ways. In fact, antagonism to
OS X may be due less to a change in the OS and more
to resistence of change in one’s soul than anything
else. As I will show in a moment, the shift to OS
X is more than a mere adoption of a new OS: It is
a change in one’s philosophy on deep cognitive levels.
No wonder there is reistence! The point: Mac OS X
not only changes the Mac, it changes us, and it does
so in deeper ways than has yet been acknowledged.

The angle I wish to take here is roughly as follows.
The Macintosh operating system captures important
elements of what has come to be called a “postmodernist
aesthetic.” In other words, there is a body of literature
out there which says the Macintosh, in 1984, was the
first postmodern computer. But, I think OS X has changed
this in important ways… maybe.

Macintosh: The Postmodern Computer

Let me define some terms and give some background
first.


“I define postmodernism as incredulity toward
meta-narratives.”
(Jean-Fran├žoise
Lyotard, “The Postmodern Condition.”)


What Lyotard
means is that postmodernism rejects grand meta-narratives
(narratives about us) such as Kantianism, Christianity,
Marxism, or any highly general explanation of (1)
what a human is, (2) what the world is like, and (3)
the relationship between the two. Objective, cosmological
explanations of the human condition are rejected for
individual, subjective, and relativist conceptions
of fragmentation and pluralism. That is, individualist
pluralism rules.

So what do we mean by a “postmodern” OS? This is
not a new issue, for scholars have written on this
in many places. Basically, the concept is defined
by way of its complement, modernism. A modernist OS
is one with a foundation, linear rules, and
certain structures which cannot be violated. It involves
calculation within certain rules and structures.
We interact with a modernist OS by commanding.
It is the Enlightenment, Cartesian notion of a calculating
machine, and rests in beliefs about objectivity and
reason. So a modernist OS is one with clear rules,
a foundation, and linear structures, one which we
interact with through written commands, a sort of
linguistic (syntactic) interaction within very specific
rules. Open up the Terminal.app and you will see what
this means. In fact, forget about Unix or BSD for
moment, for the Apple II was a modernist computer
OS.

But a postmodernist OS is one we interact
with on a completely different level. Instead of interacting
with it through written commands, the interaction
is more personal, and subjective. Here too: Individualist
pluralism rules. A postmodernist OS is free-floating
and subjective. Calculation is hidden. We do not interact
by commanding and analyzing, but by more personal
behaviors, such a “negotiating,” i.e., finding our
way around in it, discovery, exploration, setting
our Desktop pictures, and so on.

For example, Derrida,
a post-modernist, -structuralist, says that a “text”
lacks any objective meaning; it is live, growing,
and organic even. Despite the best efforts of a Tolsty,
for example, in carefully choosing each word, the
text is empty and we infuse it with our meanings as
we interact with it. We will set aside the question
of whether this theory applies to itself, and thus
Derrida’s writings themselves lack independent meanings,
as interesting as that question is. The important
point is that what he says about “text” has been applied
to the computer by postmodernist and modernist scholars
alike. The Mac lacks a “meaning” or structure until
we give it one, partly because its modernist engine
lies hidden behind a surface of simulated and virtual
copies of real things.

When we interact with a Mac we are involved in a
more conversational style of interaction. It’s
part of the “holding power” of a computer (yes, what
we talk about as the Mac mystique actually has a technical
name!). It grabs us, attracts us, gets under our skin,
and takes on a life of sorts. As a musical instrument
is an extension of the mind’s construction of sound,
and its genesis from our nature explains music’s holding
power on us, so the computer is an extension of the
mind’s construction of thought, and this accounts
for some of its holding power. Thinking is a part
of us and thus the computer creates its holding power
on us.

Thus the Mac fanatisizing that we see, to return
to the Plutarchian question with which I started this
essay.

Screen Captures

To further see the difference between a postmodernist
and modernist computer OS, I will use the terminology
Sherry Turke uses in “Life
on the Screen
.” She speaks of an “aesthetics of
simulation.” What this means is that the original
Mac OS used real-world metaphors to create certain
ways of interacting with an OS. It introduced the
Desktop, the File, Folder, and so on. The “dialogue”
boxes are anthropomorphized, as if the machine
is “speaking” to us. When we open a word processor
we see a virtual piece of paper with virtual writing
on it which we can manipulate at will by cutting and
pasting. It is a simulated environment, of course.
There is no folder or piece of paper. They are simulations,
virtual realities (as real as virtual gets anyway).
This simulated environment changes the way we think.
As Turke says, “”I experience a typographical error
not as a mere slip of attention, but as a moral carelessness.”
She continues…

“The Macintosh suggested a radically different
way of understanding. Unlike the personal computers
that came before, the “Mac” encouraged users to
stay at a surface level of visual representation
and gave no hints of inner mechanisms. The power
of the Macintosh was how its attractive simulations
and screen icons helped organize an unambiguous
access to programs and data. The user was presented
with a scintillating surface on which to float,
skim, and play. There was nowhere visible to dive.”

To get this we must understand something important
about postmodernism and especially post-structuralism,
which goes all the way back to Plato (who’s hold on
us is still quite strong). As you know, one of the
most famous philosophical doctrines is Plato’s distinction
between appearance and reality in terms of copy and
original: As a copy is to an original, so appearance
is to reality. Post-structuralists especially make
a point of rejecting this distinction in its linguistic
form (with metaphysical implications of course). The
point is that the “aesthetics of simulation” is grounded
in the rejection of this distinction, that is to say,
simulations and virtualities
have come to dominate the realities of which they
are copies to the point that the thought of an “original”
loses all meaning
.

The Mac OS uses copies of originals to the point
that the originals are lost (in our thinking), some
say. The Mac OS hid the calculations and mechanics
of the “machine” and “it made the computer screen
a world unto itself.” This stands in opposition to
modernist, linear OSes in which commanding is the
primary means of interaction. It is free-floating,
playful, and with a virtual 3D, multi-dimensional,
simulated world, not a linear, command line, linguistic
environment. Turke: “[t]he Macintosh was consistent
with a postmodernist” aesthetic. The Mac operating
environment is a Derridian “text” waiting to be infused
with personal meanings.

Transparency in OS X


“I’ve changed my hairstyle so many times
now, I don’t know what I look like.”
(The
Talking Heads, “Life During Wartime.”)


Ultimately, with Windows winning the day, the postmodernist
aesthetic won out in our culture. So much so, some
say, that we now have engrained a “simulation aesthetic.”
Look at Harry Potter’s success – it’s a completely
simulated world.

The danger of the “simulation aesthetic,” some point
out, is that postmodernism defuses boundaries and
borders (and confusion is the game here). That
is to say, what is simulated and real, virtual and
natural, become blurred and eventually our thinking
gets confused and we soon find ourselves noetically
detached from the external world. We talk of “netsex”
more intense than “real” sex; we create virtual selves
in MUDs and role-playing games; we infuse our Macs
with our own mark. We have dozens of aliases and nicknames
and usernames. I am my Desktop. Some even speak of
the window of “RL” (real life): The real world has
become merely another open window in a world where
the virtual has become the real, and the real the
virtual.

At this point, one might wonder, Mac OS X has put
all of that behind us. It has, with its Terminal.app,
multiuser structure, and file system (basically, its
being built on a unix-bsd foundation), buried the
postmodern Mac. But is this so?

To begin to answer this question, think with me
a moment. Before the Mac people spoke of “transparent”
OSes. But what did they mean by that term? It was
a modernist notion at first, for a “transparent” OS
was one which clearly revealed its modernist, calculating,
commanding-line, innards. What the computer was, in
reality, was transparent, open for anyone to see;
for, when all is said and done, a computer is still
just a Universal
Turing Machine
, right?

The Macintosh hid all this behind a simulated world
of virtual folders and desktops. ResEdit was viewed
by some as a profanation of the pure and angelic Mac
OS! Soon after its introduction, in one of history’s
more ironic twists, a “transparent” OS began to mean
one that was easy to use. So the whole notion of “transparency”
was turned on its head thanks to the Macintosh. The
Mac was seen as the height of a transparent OS, not
its contrary.

So the question we really end up asking here is,
“How much transparency is left in OS X?” Or even “Is
OS X a transparent OS at all?” The answer is not as
cut-and-dry as you might suspect. But I will leave
that for you to think about…

…until
next time when we try to answer this question.

David
Schultz

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