Florian Cramer on Sat, 21 Sep 2002 01:14:15 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Macintosh Computer: Archetypal Capitalist Machine?

[The following text, written in 1987 and published by the small press
magazine "PhotoStatic/Retrofuturism" in 1990, appears to be the first
cultural critique of computer software. It has been republished lately by
former PS/RF editor and Tape-beatle Lloyd Dunn within an electronic
reprint of Retrofuturism No. 13. The reprint is part of the PS/RF
"retrograde archive" (<http://psrf.detritus.net> and
<http://psrf.detritus.net/issues.html>), Lloyd's ongoing effort to
reconstruct all PS/RF back issues as well-crafted, scrupulously re-typeset
PDF files.

For pre-digital net cultures in the late 1980s and early 1990s,
PhotoStatic/Retrofuturism had a function similar to that of "Nettime" for
digital net cultures since the mid-1990s. Drawing on situationism and copy
art, its major focus was anti-copyright cultural activism and criticism in
various media, including Plunderphonics, Mail Art, and the Plagiarism/Art
Strike campaigns. Among PS/RF's contributors were several people who later
became involved in Net.art and digital net cultures (including ourselves).

While the following text may be somewhat bothersome in retrospect with its
heavy Marxist jargon and commonplaces, we find its core approach and
insights still useful. It also happened to be an early source of I/O/D's
historical trigger for a cultural critique of computer software.

-Florian Cramer/Matthew Fuller]



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

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

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."


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,
<http://psrf.detritus.net/r/13/index.html>) --
GnuPG/PGP public key ID 3200C7BA, finger cantsin@mail.zedat.fu-berlin.de

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