On Second Thought

The original Apple Macintosh personal computer turned 30 years old recently, unleashing a tidal wave of retrospection across the Internet. One piece in particular caught my eye: Linus Edwards' On First Thought, a look at how groundbreaking Apple products such as the Macintosh computer were reviewed by technology journalists at the time.

It seems to conclude with a sort of mockery of the reviewers as disconnected from the needs of actual users, even though I doubt that was Edwards' intent (I read several other pieces on his blog before electing to quote from this one, and found him a thoughtful, charitable writer); certainly, his conclusion invites that interpretation:

It's very interesting to read these reviews and see how people have reacted to Apple's products over the years. Apple has always pushed the tech industry with its revolutionary products, but most of the time the first reviews missed these seismic changes, instead focusing on rather inconsequential features. Luckily, most consumers didn't listen to these reviews and bought Apple products anyway, because Apple was speaking to them, not the reviewers.

A simple question nagged at me: Would I have seen what was revolutionary about these products, at the time? Would you? (Yes, you, reader. You.) A well-established narrative of innovation, marching to its own drum and breaking with the herd exists for Apple today; would most of us herald its products absent that broad perception and an audience eager to support such laudatory views? Do we correctly identify fundamental, conceptual shortcomings in its misfires?

Into the middle of a lovefest for all things Apple I threw this:

I don’t eulogize my tools. I like them, and I choose them carefully, but I also replace them once they no longer suit me. I switched from Windows to OS X. One day I will switch to something else.

It was candid and true, but there was no need for me to publish it while people were celebrating the Mac, or to affix the celebratory hashtag to it. It was a little douchey, and I regret that. After conversing with others a bit, I hit on a different note:

[W]hat is really being lauded is a philosophy, a perspective on technology of accessibility and the attendant creative possibility. I think this is what people respond to. The Mac is not about specific hardware or materials—aluminum, glass, plastic; the Mac is not about specific software—languages, code, APIs.

The Mac is about furnishing people with tools to better, more intuitively express themselves. What is being celebrated is not any specific machine; those are just anchors, reminders of exposure to that philosophy. … What is being celebrated is the ethos of Apple itself. … A bicycle for the mind.

I would like to think that I'm a fairly insightful, educated and thoughtful person with a strong appreciation for the history of the fields I am interested in, one fortunate enough to have been personally steeped in the field of technology for some twenty-five years. And yet my first reaction was cynicism.

The real problem of tech reviewers may be precisely that they are technologists (or at least play one in print!). Their—our—fundamental evaluations tend to be utilitarian, to break a product down into its component capabilities and to evaluate the protocols and processors used to achieve them, and then to look at how our current (complex) workflows fit into the resulting usage models.

Most of the time this is a powerful asset, helping us sift wheat from chaff and toss out products that clearly offer no benefit. But every once in a while a product comes along and changes the paradigm, and it's not always obvious that it's happened.

I have no prescriptives. No rousing exhortations to close this essay. I have only a resolution: to strive to be less certain, less absolute, more open to possibility. To dive into crowds as unlike me as possible, that I might learn a little from dancing with them.

Happy birthday, Macintosh. 30 years on, you still managed to teach me something.