RETROFUTURISM 13 JULY 1990

 

The Macintosh Computer: Archetypal Capitalist Machine?

by William Bowles, October 1987

 

 

The Macintosh computer represents a fundamentally new approach to the way

machines interact with people. The philo-sophy inherent in the Macintosh

is, for the vast bulk of working people, an augur of the direction that

contemporary capitalism would like see production relations take. At the

same time the Macintosh also expresses many of the contradictions of

capitalist relations, and so for this and other reasons the philosophy

inherent in the Macintosh makes it an ideal example for study if we want

to understand how science and technology are being used to wrest more and

more surplus value from labor, while at the same time reducing the amount

of control workers have over their own lives.

 

But what makes the Macintosh so different from other kinds of personal

computer? Aside from the raw power of its main processor (equivalent to a

room-sized machine of say 15 years ago), the operating system represents a

radical departure from the essentially "science" based systems of such

machines as the Apple II or large mainframes. By this I mean that in order

to interact with earlier forms of the computer, some considerable

knowledge of the computer itself is necessary in the form of a computer

"language" that the user must first master before being able to make use

of the machine's computing power.

 

In this sense virtually all computers prior to such machines as the

Macintosh represent the formative stages of the development of computer

technology as it is expressed under capitalism.

 

 

The Rise of the Machine

 

There are many useful analogies available to us from the first era of

machine development during the Industrial Revolution which can help give

us a better understanding of what the Macintosh represents. During that

period the development of industrial tools followed a somewhat similar

path insofar as the kinds of techniques embedded in the machines were

discrete reflections of specific human skills. In other words, the first

machines were not "general tools" in the sense, for example, that the

modern numerically-controlled machine tool is.

 

What do we mean by a "general tool"? The process of transferring "skills"

from human to machine is essentially done in stages. The first stage

involves a craftsperson building a prototype machine which consists of the

craftperson's brain/hand skill being broken down into its component parts

and each process being assigned to a specific element of the machine. A

good example of this process would be the metal turning lathe. The lathe

itself consists of several elements. The first is motive power (this

emulates muscle power), the second is measurement (which embodies

generational experience of the physical environment), the third is the

process of transforming the raw material into a useful product (this

represents the actual tool-using capability of the craftsperson).

 

In the development of the lathe the process of synthesizing these elements

may take place as follows: Power in the form of rotational motion must

first be transferred to the chuck (the chuck represents a discrete,

artificial form of hand for holding the work in place); a method of

transferring measurements to the material to be worked on, and finally the

cutting tool itself and its interaction with the material to be

transformed. In the initial development of the lathe the cutting tool had

to be brought in contact with the raw material manually and the

measurements for how much metal to remove were also done manually (with

calipers and later micrometers). But as more and more expertise became

embedded in the lathe, the operator could simply set vernier dials on the

machine and eventually even the act of cutting was automated via a

screw-driven feed connected both to the cutting tool and the rotating

chuck (it is here that we begin to see the emergence of feedback systems

of some complexity, e.g. the lathe has to "know" when to stop cutting).

The act of developing the lathe then is a two part process, first, the job

is broken down into its discrete parts which are then "re-united" via the

interaction of various forms of generalized feedback (as in the above

example).

 

The end product of this process is the emergence of what I refer to as a

"general tool," that is, a tool whose basic principles embody not only the

specific skills of the craftsperson, but more importantly, the "skills"

are embedded in the lathe in such a way as to "mask" not only the craft

origins of the process in terms of the skills needed by the operator to

use the machine, but more importantly, the tasks are standardized via

specific elements incorporated into the operating system of the lathe.

This is done by "pre-setting" the lathe as much as possible for a single

task or series of tasks. In this way the operator need only know, firstly,

how to load the lathe with the raw material, then how to turn it on, and

finally, how start and stop the sequence of operations that results in the

end product, the finished article.

 

The account above is an accurate if abbreviated description of the nature

of the technical transformation brought about by the advent of the

industrial system. That machine tools are now many orders of magnitude

beyond the originals in complexity and versatility does not alter the

fundamental concepts that they all utilize. Indeed, until the advent of

the computer, basic machine tool design has not fundamentally changed

since the 19th century, and even with the addition of computer control,

such tools still use the same basic principles.

 

 

Microchip Meets Machine Tool

 

The process started by the industrial revolution has reached a pinnacle in

the form of the computer, for the computer is essentially the "end

product" of industrialism in the sense that it acts as a unifier of

discrete, industrial processes in the same way as the lathe did for craft

processes. At this point we could ask a hypothetical question about the

nature of the "end product" of computer development; what form would a

computer take, if it too, were to go through the same process of

rationalization as the machine tool has? By this I mean is there an

equivalent computer version of the "general tool" for people with a

"generalized" education? The implications of such developments are, in my

opinion, as revolutionary as the development of the machine tool was.

 

The slogan "the computer for the rest of us" is extremely misleading (and

probably has a lot to do with why Apple dropped it), but buried in the

idea is a kernel of truth, for indeed if, and it's a big if, some kind of

standard for using computers were to be adopted by all computer makers,

then the promise in the slogan could have read, "The Macintosh, universal

tool, the computer for all of us." There are heavy ironies on many levels,

which are not only interesting to pursue simply as ideas, but also

relevant to the direction society is, or could be taking.

 

The market economy as it is now constituted presents many obstacles to the

adoption of a general tool such as I have described above. A corporation

like IBM, of course, has the clout to try and force its standard on

everyone else, but in fact it is more likely to be the State in the form

of the IRS or some other large bureaucracy that decides what the standard

should be (simply by virtue of sheer numbers bought and the need for a

common protocol of communication).

 

In a sense, the Macintosh operating system is a form of "State Socialism,"

in that its effective operation depends on absolute adherence to what are

euphemistically known as "the Macintosh guidelines." The user interacts

with the operating system via a command structure that is the same

regardless of the application. While I have no fundamental quarrel with

this approach, for it to work effectively everything must be "in" there;

that is to say, every possible contingency must be planned for.

 

This after all is what the Toolbox is all about (note the description of

the sub-routines or "mini-programs" as Tools). It parallels very closely

the kinds of standards developed in machine tools, for as with the

industrial tool, the operating system effectively "masks" the "real"

operation of the computer by interposing itself between the user and the

Central Processing Unit. The operating system then is itself the "general

tool" that I referred to earlier. This approach has other drawbacks for it

means that all applications written for the machine must conform to the

rules or "guidelines." Apple even suggests that the application be sent to

them for "clearance." What this means is that they check it to see that it

doesn't "collide" with some other application that may be coresident with

it, or parts of the operating system itself (which in turn may have

already been "harmonized" for some other application already loaded into

the machine). This further suggests that one fundamental error was made in

the design of the the operating system, namely that it is not a true

multi-tasking machine, for a multi-tasking machine is inherently designed

to accommodate different applications concurrently.

 

Even this modest scratching of the surface of the Macintosh reveals the

incredible complexity of such a general tool, not so much because it has

so many disparate functions, but because they can be combined in a

never-ending array of permutations. It also illustrates just how much

expertise and labor is actually embedded in the machine's operating

system.

 

 

A Further Look at the "User Interface"

 

If one looks at the commands and functions built into the Macintosh, we

see that the majority of them emulate basic communications functions like

drawing, positioning and pointing at objects (the so-called Quick-Draw and

associated routines), as well as font manipulation. In the background, of

course, the operating system is active continuously, monitoring the

keyboard, disk drive and so on.

 

The Macintosh then is a multi-purpose graphics-based computer which has a

built in set of "tools" for manipulating the Central Processing Unit (as

well as the auxiliary processors) which interacts with the user through a

set of choices represented by words or images. The icons are simply

generalized signs for objects or functions (the use of language

independent images for universal communication is well known to us through

for example, international traffic signs). For example, the "undo typing"

command in Macwrite doesn't know what typing it's undoing, it just does

it, the command itself is a "generic" term, which in turn acts on certain

"assumptions" made about the command.

 

But with all the talk of icons on the Macintosh, it is the Word that has

become the real icon, in that by generalizing English words, the operating

system has been "colloquialized," or opened up to the speech of everyday

interaction. In other words, "any fool can use it" And it is a fact that

the Macintosh really is easy to use (as well as being extremely

frustrating at times), and anybody can master the basic system in a very

short time.

 

 

The Dictatorship of the Machine

 

One of the chief objections to such machines as the Macintosh is the fact

that it is essentially a "black box." By this I mean that the inner

workings of the machine are "sealed off" from external access by the user

interface. The "shell" erected around the operating system (the menus and

commands), although extremely comprehensive and easy to use, deny access

beyond a certain "depth." By contrast, machines such as the Apple II allow

penetration by any user to the basic binary system of operation that the

central processor uses. Not only that, a computer such as the Apple II is

physically open to anyone, with direct access to the main processor,

enabling anyone with sufficient knowledge to "tinker" with the workings of

the machine itself.

 

By contrast, many people have raised serious objections to the "black box"

approach used by machines such as the Macintosh, arguing that by making

the machine into a closed system it not only reduces the range of choices

open to the user, but perhaps more importantly it encourages a particular

attitude towards machines in general by mystifying the processes involved.

This in turn leads to a state of unquestioning acceptance of the supremacy

of technology. This is, of course, a process which began with the

industrial revolution.

 

A comparison between products of the first industrial revolution and the

revolution we are in the middle of illustrates the difference. The first

products of the machine age were essentially simplified versions of the

craft original (simplified because the machines themselves still reflected

on the one hand their craft origins, and on the other because they were

still relatively crude machines their powers of "resolution" were

limited). What this meant was that the products of the early machines were

still accessible to craft worker, they could be repaired or modified by

hand, but perhaps more important than that, the processes embedded in the

products were comprehensible to the worker. Inevitably as the techniques

used in production got more and more complex and the sophistication of the

machines grew, so too the products became more and more inaccessible to

the ordinary individual. In this sense then, the Macintosh reflects the

general trend of industrial production to further alienate the worker from

the processes s/he is involved in.

 

There are obviously a variety of forces at work that result in this

development which reflect on the one hand, the nature of productive

relations (increasing complexity), and on the other, the drive to increase

profits (which in turn has an important effect on such things as

complexity, repair versus replacement). It obviously benefits the

manufacturer to replace rather than repair a product (the tag, "no user

serviceable parts inside" is by now well known to us). The issue is

however more complex and reflects a much larger problem, that of the

relationship between consumer and producer, which in turn is predicated on

the level of education.

 

Elsewhere in this essay I mentioned "general education" as a reflection of

the generalizing effect of industrial production on the labor process. The

specialization necessary for modern science-based production methods is

predicated on the existence of a stratum of the work force who possess

unique knowledge of the processes involved. This technocratic "caste" is

indispensable to modern productive forces, but even this highly trained

segment of the work force is under threat from developments in the field

of socalled "expert systems and Artificial Intelligence."

 

 

"Hoisted by Its Own Petard!"

 

Driven by the necessity of maximizing profits, yet hounded by the inherent

contradictions of ever more efficient production processes, capitalism has

sought to resolve the conflict by, on the one hand eliminating human labor

as much as possible from the process of production, and on the other, by

binding it as closely as possible to the organization and nature of

production. This has been achieved through a series of scientific,

technical and political revolutions. But ever more efficient production

eventually lowers profits-this is the irony of industrial capitalism. Once

you have maximized the efficiency of production there is no place else to

go! If wages have been held to their lowest, and you are using the most

efficient machines (more efficient than any of your competitors) you will

eventually find that production exceeds consumption.

 

Each round of technical advances has heightened the contradiction, by

making production cheaper and cheaper, which means that in order to make a

profit, you have to squeeze more out of the consumer, who is also a

producer (or at least some of them). The time lag between the introduction

of a new technology and its eventual absorption by society grows ever

shorter. Hence technical change is forced on us with greater frequency.

Eventually however, it must "bottom out." There is a finite limit to the

amount of production the world economy can absorb, at least as it is

presently set up.

 

 

Revolutions in Production

 

Each revolution of production under capitalism has been based on the

introduction of a new, key invention or process. Depending on where in

history you want to start from (I like to "start" from the Renaissance, or

about 500 years ago), the "progress" of the development of machine

technology can be traced by the advent of each new technology and its

effect on society. In the 19th century, first the canal, then the railway.

In the 20th century, first the internal combustion engine, followed by the

airplane, and finally computers, have in turn formed the basis for a

revolution in production.

 

For example, the chronograph can be seen as a key invention, which in turn

stimulated and/or created the right conditions for other, connected kinds

of inventions and processes. But accurate timekeeping was the result of

the necessity to bind together an empire, for without it accurate

navigation and hence mapping was impossible. Greenwich Mean Time is one

obvious "general tool" to emerge as a result of that event, or "general

time"; a fixed standard whereby no matter where you were in your empire,

you knew how quickly you could move your resources from one location to

another. The "spin-off" from the chronograph was amongst other things, an

increase in the accuracy of measuring tools. This was prompted by the need

for precisely made cogs and other moving parts. This in turn meant that

the tools needed to turn out such devices had to be more accurate, which

in turn prompted more accurate devices for making tools

 

 

Homogenization of Knowledge

 

As with the invention of "general" time, which was the culmination of a

long historical process, each wave of innovation has eventually arrived at

the point whereby general principles and standards have been extracted.

Standardized units of measurement (the decimal system, electric voltages,

screw thread dimensions, etc.) are the end product of many millennia of

observation and practice.

 

Taylorism, for example, does for the actual integration of the production

process what standard units of measurement does for the machine tool

itself. The invention of the telephone initiated the process of the

standardization of communications protocols. Ultimately then, it would

follow that the introduction of computers into production and distribution

would eventually arrive at the same destination, that of standardization

and the extraction of general principles of use. General principles would

be laid down about, for example, the way computers relate to production

processes. We already see such things in the field of electronic

communications, but the process is of course, fragmented and uneven in its

development and application.

 

 

The General Tool

 

What they all hold in common though, is that each process is eventually so

thoroughly assimilated by society, as to become a part of the "general

knowledge" of society (much in the same way as everyone knowing how to

drive a car).

 

It is interesting to note that Apple has, so far successfully, squashed

all attempts to imitate its user interface (the so-called desktop,

pulldown menus, etc.), threatening to sue any company that comes close to

imitating the "look and feel" of the Macintosh environment. It is tempting

to speculate about what kind of long term view Apple have of the

development of the computer/human environment (for good or bad). It would

appear that Apple have recognized the necessity for a "universal" means of

accessing the computer. If, in one form or another, a set, standardized

way of accessing computers can be established that enables the

"de-skilled" and "unskilled" to access computers and the dead labor they

contain, the complex problem of maintaining society can be handled without

resort to educating everyone to the level of the university.

 

But for this to happen, for a critical period of time, one system must

dominate! This is obviously what Apple is banking on happening. AT&T has

done it in telecommunications. IBM has already done it in the "business"

environment, but that is the land of the Nabobs: we are talking about the

domain of Burger King! As office automation accelerates, and virtually all

forms of commercial interactions are "standardized," the problem of

utilizing a deliberately undereducated work force to handle extremely

complex tasks, becomes a "manageable" one. The standardized interface of

the Macintosh lends itself well to dissolving the difference between

"factory" and "office" work. The old, artificial hierarchy of blue and

white collar work is on its way out, to be replaced by the generic,

general service worker, who has enough skills to work a slick automated

terminal like the Macintosh, and dispose of the output in some way (i.e.,

post it, stuff it or shred it), but a person who has no control over the

work being done! For proof of this we need look no further than the cash

register of a typical fast food chain. The only numbers you see are the

final bill! All the cashier need do is punch a button marked

"cheeseburger," or "coke," and the built in processor handles all the

addition and taxes. The Macintosh that I sit writing this on runs in a

similar way to the fast food cash register, in that in order, for example,

to change the font that I am using, all I need do is move the cursor to

the "button" marked font, and select one! The old way would mean knowing a

set of commands that would load a different font into memory, and then

only when the document was printed. They might be, "ESC E-56, ESC-CTRL L,"

and further, they would have to be inserted in the text at precisely the

right point and then turned off at the appropriate point by another yet

another set of commands.

 

 

User Friendly?

 

If the technical/professional elite are to maintain the system, they must

make it as simple as possible to operate. By embedding the maximum number

of possible states inside the code of the machine, it is possible to

account for most of the situations likely to be encountered. In effect,

all you need is the ability to read and follow instructions. As we saw

above, no knowledge of a complex command language is necessary to make the

computer do different things, the computer itself already contains all the

necessary linked sets of instructions. If it goes wrong, or you do

something wrong, monitors will spot it and a supervisor will be

despatched--no big deal. Each cog in the complex machine holds no

indispensable power or leverage. Notice how the "toolbox" that the

Macintosh contains, parallels the synthesis of general sets of knowledge

that may be accessed and comprehended by all! What we are seeing then is

an exact duplication of the first industrial revolution where craft skills

were stolen and locked into the industrial machine, then perfected to the

point whereby general principles could be extracted and applied to ever

more sophisticated machines, each in turn, requiring less and less skill

(and labor) to operate!

 

The languages that computers use reflect this process, for the first

languages were specialized tools of mathematics and logic (again

reflecting the "craft" origins of computers), but arcane and abstruse,

understood only by the select "few." Further, the very nature of the

specialized origins of computers has led to a mystification of the

processes, leading to the common misapprehension that computers are

complicated, "devilish" devices that only "hackers" and "eggheads" can

comprehend. The Macintosh breaks with that tradition, at least in one

sense. It is also, paradoxically, a logical extension of the same process!

But it is the general nature of the principles embodied in computers, that

makes them be, "all things to all people." It is this apparently

contradictory nature of the computer that makes it so difficult to deal

with. The computer is inherently a two-edged sword, unlike the factory,

yet very much a part of it. Uncannily "human," it is nevertheless seen as

the ultimate in "inhumanity."

 

 

Conclusion

 

The Macintosh is very much a creature of two worlds. On the one hand it

represents the highest level of collective labor currently possible. By

this I mean that only the most integrated form of collective work could

have produced such a device, utilizing virtually every discipline

available to us. The "toolbox" routines represent the distillation of

literally thousands of years of collective experience.

 

On the other hand, the computer is also an archetypal device, like the

assembly line, except that it is diffused throughout the fabric of

society. It is the precursor of the "general-general" tool, a tool which

will either enslave us or take an active part in our liberation. For the

end product actually is the synthesis of the living, collective labor

process that created it. This is one of the reasons why the conflicts

raised by its existence are so intense. This is also precisely the reason

why it makes such an interesting object of investigation. The key

originators of the Macintosh interface, Alan Kay and R. Buckminster

Fuller, had a very clear picture of what they wanted it do, and how it

should do it. Called the Dynabook, it was to be a paperback sized version

of the Macintosh, battery powered with a complete "toolbox" contained

within it, all designed to be the literal extensions of the literate

people who would use it. They saw the Dynabook as universal tool, enabling

people to communicate with each other using the collective skills embedded

in the ROM chips. Add to this the access afforded to databases of

collective knowledge and you have not so much a technology but a

philosophy of technology. You might call such a vision "idealist"; on the

other hand the alternatives are far worse. For capital sees such tools as

a means of extracting more and more surplus value from our labor. The very

people who make the corporate decisions about the direction society should

take are also the same people who would delegate the role of starting

nuclear war to computers! They care very little about the impact of

computers and automation on life. They would entomb all living labor in

machines had they the power!

 

In very many ways, the computer, especially in its Macintosh form, also

represents the very antithesis of capitalism, for in spite of the fact

that it represents the forefront of capitalist innovation, it also

represents the very highest level of socialized labor currently possible.

Not only that, but in order to extract the maximum advantage from such

technology, private ownership actually gets in the way; unless, that is,

there is to be one computer company, one telecommunications company, and

one manufacturing company! All this tells us is that computers and

automation are an inevitable end product of monopoly capitalism, which

would remove all competition from our, so-called "free enterprise" system,

of which Apple Computer is so much a part. The universal tool of which the

Macintosh is the precursor has the potential to open up knowledge and

hence control to all people. That is why I can regard such a tool as an

extension of the intellect, and someone else can be enslaved by its

simplistic, collective "mind." More's the pity that for most of us, such

potentially liberating tools will be used against us, making them objects

of fear, and in the process imbuing them with almost mystical abilities as

they apparently mimic aspects of human behavior. But like any window, the

Macintosh window can be a view from a prison cell or open on to a new

world waiting to be explored.

 

 

(Extracted and ASCIIfied from Retrofuturism 13 PDF file,

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