The date is January 22nd, 1984. As you watch the third quarter of the 18th Super Bowl from your recliner, you see a grey Nazi-esque army marching on-screen. The ad sends a shiver up your spine; it has the eeriness of vague familiarity. Fears of Cold War slavery and corporate conformity dance in your head; the rows of eyes staring at a screen remind you of your own addiction to the television set. A minute later, however, you find relief: a hammer-wielding Olympian has delivered you and the on-screen audience from the grasp of the Orwellian Big Brother by giving you: the Macintosh.
Apple’s 1984 ad marked the beginning of a revolution. Just as the star of the ad’s gender, physique, and actions let her smash this dystopian system, Apple went on to smash the dominance of IBM and its mundane, grey, soulless PC. Apple transformed computers into fun, liberating, feature-filled devices of consumer desire: bubble icons, cute and simple interfaces, portable audio devices, phones, laptops, home devices, and wearable technology alike.
But while fulfilling one promise, Apple has broken another: as tech giants boomed with the growth of the internet in the early 2000s, Apple’s products—alongside those of Facebook, Amazon, and others—have turned Orwellian threats into everyday realities. Orwell’s novel does not describe a government always watching, but rather one always potentially watching. At all times, Siri sits and listens for its name–and who really knows whether anyone else is behind the screen?
Before Apple released Macintosh, accessing computers was the privilege of engineers who knew how to punch cards to run programs. Few others knew how to use these powerful devices, let alone what to do if such devices were hypothetically used against them. This gap, the ad implied, was what kept the public in check; so, in Apple’s eyes, the introduction of Macintosh, a computer that everyone could learn to use, would liberate everyone from IBM’s iron grip.
Unfortunately, many of today’s hackers continue fighting to keep reality as far away from 1984 as possible. Some protect digital rights by jail-breaking iPhones, re-writing PS3s, or hacking tractors; some take down regimes by whistleblowing, wreaking havoc, or establishing covert communication systems; others work to protect citizens’ privacy, by providing communication and web-browsing alternatives such as “Signal” and “Tor.” In many ways, hackers are doing what Apple intended—even if it’s ironic that today Apple is often counted among the threats, rather than the saviors.
The spirit of Apple was once animated by a countercultural, hacker spirit common in the Bay Area; back in the 1970s, Steve Wozniack and Steve Jobs built blue-boxes together, a device that allowed them to hack (or phreak) the telephone system for fun (and free phone calls). Driven by curiosity, Wozniak broke into Stanford university to learn how to use mega-computers, then convened with the early personal computer enthusiasts at the DIY Homebrew Computer Club to trade software and share skills. The Steves’ big “what if” is probably traceable back to a hackerish embrace of jest, curiosity, and anti-conformity: what happens when everyone has access to a computer?
Now that this hypothetical has become more of a reality, it seems as though we’re still hammering out the answer to that question.