Overthinking the Mac-Human relationship

Overthinking the Mac-Human relationship

Summary: "Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs" is a forthcoming book is expected to arrive on bookshelves (digital or otherwise) this week. The tome looks to bring with it a new level of over-the-top descriptions of computer-human interface, technological innovation and Apple's place in the tech market.


An excerpt of Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs by Brett Robinson appears in a recent post on Wired. Robinson is a U.S. marketing professor. According to the publisher, the book will reconstruct "Steve Jobs’ imagination for digital innovation in transcendent terms." 

Robinson's brief analysis in the Wired post looks at several Apple advertisements. He then riffs on what he considers to be their deep meta messages of narcissism with the computer user as well as the bonds between humans and their computing tools. He places particular emphasis on the famous Get a Mac campaign with Justin Long and John Hodgman, saying that Apple products may "possess personality traits or to reflect a particular way of thinking and processing information grants it a human likeness."

These ads rely on a metaphor that equates the human actors with the hardware and software of their respective computer systems. This biological analogy between computer parts and the human body reminds us that the metaphors that guide computer development come from our own human faculties, particularly cognition and memory.

But the reverse is also true. Our sense of self is now shaped by the technologies that are used to diagnose and repair the body. It’s easy to assume that the two actors in the “Get a Mac” campaign represent PC and Mac users, but the intent is clearly to grant the operating systems a human personality.

In the Mac narrative, differences in operating systems represent differences in cognition styles. Associating with a particular brand, then, is more than an affiliation to a name or corporate philosophy; it’s an affiliation to a way of thinking. The operating system is a metaphor for the mind.

Oy. What a bunch of hooey. Perhaps it's just as likely that Apple's marketing department at one time had a sense of humor (I'm unsure about that nowadays) and found that this funny "illness metaphor" could represent in less than 30 seconds the rather complicated subject of Windows upgrades and the hardware upgrade that almost always were necessary to run them back in the day?

However, I agree with Robinson on at least one point: the Get a Mac campaign never had users saying that they were a PC or a Mac. Hodgman and Long were actors representing the computing platforms and their differences. That was the point.

Rather, it was Microsoft that offered in 2008 an ad campaign that presented persons saying that they were PCs. The intent was to show that PC users were just folks, ordinary users, using the ordinary OS of the Wintel platform. I admit that I always found this campaign odd. After all, there are "cat people" and "dog people" but they don't say that they are cats and dogs, respectively.

These marketing campaigns certainly said something about Apple's solution approach to computing. But they also said much more about how the Windows and PC market has spent years working to become a cheap commodity, and easily interchangeable platform, one that users don't perceive any exceptional value. That isn't true with Apple customers.

Topics: Apple, Operating Systems, Windows

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • One word saves this entire piece

    "But they also said much more about how the Windows and PC market has spent years working to become a cheap commodity, and easily interchangeable platform, one that users don't perceive any exceptional value. That isn't true with Apple customers."

    That word is "perceive". You are absolutely right. apple users PERCEIVE that apple gives them exceptional value. apple doesn't, of course, provide exceptional value but that doesn't stop apple users from convincing themselves that it does.

    It is actually the Windows PC that provides exceptional value. We take it for granted, however, that Windows PCs just work and so we don't "perceive" it to have much value. It just silently works.
    • It's All In The Mind Of The Beholder…

      And you perceive yourself as offering valuable and informative commentary on ZDNet, yet it's the typographical equivalent of a slime trail from a parched slug. Are you that desperate to win the argument that you reach the point of declaring that Apple owners hallucinate?
    • "It is actually the Windows PC that provides exceptional value"

      Because all Windows users don't stop to convince themselves, that they use the most advanced operating system in the world and running it on the best hardware in the world. Despite so many Windows faults, including the last one - Windows 8.
      Maria Davidenko
  • Thinking different

    David, thank you for responding to the Wired piece. Excerpts can be a dangerous thing because you lose some of the context. Allow me to attempt a clarification and to suggest that reading the rest of the book should allay some of your criticisms. The idea that computers and the 'human operating system' are intertwined is nothing new. Sherry Turkle at MIT has discussed the pros and cons of this as has Jay David Bolter in Turing's Man. What I try to do in the book is revisit those ideas through the Apple ads - to show how sociological and psychological theories about technology and culture play out in popular discourse.
    After working in advertising for a number of years, it became clear to me that the best advertisers know how to exploit psychological and sociological tensions to sell products. Douglas Holt talks about this in "How Brands Become Icons." Apple was particularly good about reducing the fear factor with computers by humanizing the machines. That is the point of the Wired excerpt. The ads can be read at both a literal and figurative level. The rest of the book considers similar themes by placing them next to Jobs' own penchant for "overthinking" or perhaps more fittingly, thinking different.
  • Reading way too much into all those commercials

    I thought the "Get a Mac" were funny but unfair ads. No subtext beyond that.

    As to the Windows ads, I saw a company that had been stung by the rival looking for an angle to fight back with. They didn't find it until "Laptop Hunters", when they pretty much figured out the right answer.
    • The Only Thing MS Figured Out…

      …was price. That was always the turning point of the ad. Also, never once, did they dare enter an Apple store where something could be shown properly.