Book Review: brand fanaticism

The Cult of Mac, front cover, Leander Kahney, No Starch Press
Understanding Mac users used to be quite easy. For a few years at the beginning (maybe 1984–1989) Macs were undeniably cool and undeniably better than anything else you could buy. I encountered my first Mac in 1984 or 1985. Apple had made a gift of first-generation Macs to my college (the Polytechnic of Central London). I’d never met a computer before. I’m at least five years too old to have encountered one at school so I missed my inoculation of BBC, Spectrum, Atari and the rest. I’d never played a computer game (or even an arcade game). I knew nothing about programming or microprocessors or PCs or anything, really. As a result I was outside the geek/jock or geek/creative opposition. It never occurred to me that getting interested in computers might be in any way problematic, that people might reclassify me or demote me as a result.

I sort of figured this out, though, when I nearly failed my degree because I used a computer and not a camera to produce my degree show (although my attachment to the Crown & Sceptre in Great Titchfield Street might have had something to do with this. I blame Paul, anyway). So I figured out these strange new machines (I unpacked and set up quite a lot of them, even had a key to the computer room for a while) and began using them to make work for my degree course (which was a BA in photography). I finally conned my Dad into buying me one in 1985 – it had 512Kb of RAM and a 400Kb (single-sided) floppy disk drive (no hard disk, obviously) – it cost more than my latest Powerbook – about a year’s student grant, at the time. A fortnight later I blew about three months wages from my evening job at Marks & Spencer on a second floppy drive because I was getting a repetitive strain injury from swapping disks (they never mentioned that in the swanky West End Apple Centre where I bought it).

My Mac was a sort of khaki-beige and exotic and unutterably magnetic – I couldn’t stay away from it. It ran the excellent early MS Word, MacPaint, MacDraw, (later PageMaker, SuperPaint and the quite amazing HyperCard) and another lovely Word Processor called Nisus, which, weirdly, survives and has become my primary WP again). The Mac’s early ‘bong’ start-up sound is a perfectly preserved memory and the thought of it rushes me back to my cosy, top floor bedroom in Camberwell (and staying up late with the World Service and big mugs of tea and rounds of toast fetched from downstairs at hourly intervals). In my final year dissertation (1988) I quoted Derrida and Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto and used the Sun Microsystems copy line ‘The Network is the Computer‘ as a title. I cited Byte magazine more often than any other publication. No one (and I mean no one) understood what I was on about (including me, to be quite honest). I sort of had a vague idea that there was some connection between computers, images and language. Of course, I totally failed to prove this connection and I think my dismal 2.2 was a pretty good measure of the thought involved.

When I left college in 1988, Apple’s first golden age was already coming to an end. Jobs was on his way out, making way for a long dismal decade of increasingly cheesy beige boxes; a sad, botched licensing effort (anyone remember the appalling Gil Amelio?) and the slow demise of the eccentric and over-priced Newton (didn’t stop me buying four of them, though). The remarkable thing about Apple is that the firm’s fanatical following survived the middle period at all. The irony of the period is that the brand wasn’t sustained by the band of radical early adopters who were in at the beginning but by the people they’d become – the ‘can’t-change-won’t-change’ fuddy duddies with hair growing out of their ears (people like me). We bought Macs because we knew no better and were terrified of the alternatives. Anyway, somehow, the brand survived the extended suicide attempt of the 90s and has now been translated into an utterly unique luxury brand meets cult product.

In fact, when you’re trying to place Apple on the spectrum of brands it’s much easier to put it with the kookier fashion and lifestyle brands than with the other PC manufacturers: it’s Manolo Blahnik, FCUK, Diesel, fancy mountain bikes and hi-tech watches. This is why it’s very difficult to imagine the displacement of iPod and the iLifestyle in general by a tech or consumer electronics brand like Microsoft or even Sony. It’ll probably take a Virgin or a Calvin Klein to slow Apple’s progress in this weird collision of Moore’s law and downtown style. In the meantime, I think I can recommend The Cult of Mac, a fat, nicely-designed coffee table book covering in one- and two-page features pretty much every weird corner of the Mac universe – from the subculture of fantasy Mac designs to the hordes of people proudly bearing Apple tattoos on their arses. I say I think I can recommend the book because, belonging as I do to the hairy-eared old-timers, I may not be in the book’s true target audience. I feel a bit self-conscious in the presence of the teens and geeks and goths and video artists who seem to be the brand’s biggest fans these days. Maybe I should get a Dell.

Incidentally, the enterprising No Starch Press also published last year’s Apple Confidential which entertained me for weeks with Mac trivia of the highest order.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: brand fanaticism

  1. You say that Apple was past its peak by 1988. I beg to disagree. Remember the introduction of System 7 in 1991? It was brilliant, far far far better than anything else around. Windows was crap. Even the machines stayed reasonably great (if you ignore the clones). Macs stayed with it. OK, system 9 got a bit tired towards the end, but the hardware got great again to make up for it. Now, I’m just off to the new Apple store in Regent St …

  2. I got my original Powerbook out the other day. At the time I was most envied by the whole of Soho despite the fact I realise now that:

    it weighs a ton, takes 10 minutes to crank into beautiful dotty monotone, can’t cope with more than one thing being open or performing more than one function at any one time, the battery (the most heaviest bit) runs out after 2 hours and takes about 8 hours to charge and I only have the choice of 4 fonts. I really miss my mac classic with integrated floppy drive and tiny telly-like screen. Some bastard stole it when my office got broken into a few years back. Rumour has it that it went abroad – it got replaced with a Performa – not the same. Ah, those were the days.

  3. Well – I’ve never been in the Mac cult – but I do remember when I started work after college for the first time – it was 1990: the office was full of computers running MSDOS and Wordstar and VisiCalc. If you wanted do do a document with drawings in it – you had to use “ASCII art” – but if ASCII art would not do – then you went to a place called the “lab” which (amongst loads of big telco gadgets) had a lonely Macintosh in the corner – I think it was the original ones – with a “portrait”-orientation A4 screen. Black and white too. It used to run MacDraw. This was pre-Powerpoint days of course. One used to draw the diagram in MacDraw – then print. The picture then used to be manually inserted into the WordStar document where a “page left intentionally blank” page was left to insert the picture!

    By the way – you probably know that the brand new Apple store in Regent Street is opening tomorrow. It’s apparently the largest Apple retail store in the world – and is employing 130-odd staff !!!

  4. I can’t imagine that this would interest anyone but I feel obliged to point out that Powerpoint was originally developed for the Mac and that the company that created it was subsequently bought by Microsoft to provide a version for Windows. My first proper job out of college was running a tiny colour output bureau for a firm in Putney. We ran out Powerpoint files to a fantastically dodgy slide printer – apparently made from cast iron battleship off-cuts and damp cardboard. It cost us tens of thousands of pounds and ran so slowly I used to spend half the night every night waiting for the fucker to finish. It was a skinny, desk-height box on wheels, with a CRT at the bottom and a cheap 35mm camera at the top. The CRT slowly exposed a roll of slide film in three passes (R, G, B) and then I quickly drove the roll of film round to Joe’s Basement in Wardour Street to get it processed in time for a morning delivery – usually at about three O’Clock in the morning. Then I would drink espresso in Bar Italia for an hour while the film was processed, then I would take it all home and get up and six to get the thing to the client in time for his stupid presentation.

  5. I still have my first love, SE30 from Goldsmiths’ computer centre 1988. I, ahem, borrowed it from a cupboard in the early nineties when I was working there. Lovely machine, I upgraded it to 4Mb of RAM and, I think, a huge 40Mb hard drive. Oh, and I added an ethernet adaptor to it. What a machine. Must get it down and give it a polish and a test drive.

  6. “it’s very difficult to imagine the displacement of iPod and the iLifestyle in general by a tech or consumer electronics brand like Microsoft or even Sony.”
    I note an advert in the Guardian today for the new ZEN 5Gb player, looking rather sexy and in an mini iPod-a-like range of colours. Don’t know how much or what it really does (has FM radio and voice recorder built in plus ‘mesmerising glow’, what?), but I WANT ONE.

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