The times they are a-changin' in the Macintosh web. Whether these changes are for better or for worse I cannot say...but let me tell you a little story about motorcycles.

 

The Macintosh Web and the Motorcycle Salute

by Del Miller

January 29, 2000

 

Not long after the end of the last ice-age, I bought my first motorcycle. The machine in question was a Honda 50, really more of big wheeled scooter than a genuine motorcycle and one noted both for its putt-putt performance and its amazing ability to malignantly oxidize into rust faster than a nail in a bottle of Coke. But for a fourteen year old boy in need of transportation, validation and peer approval, it was the brightest light in my pore-challenged youth.

Back in the sixties, a motorcycle of any sort was a "Think Different" conveyance to be sure, due to their relative nonexistence on America's highways. One could travel for days without sighting one of those two-wheeled contraptions and when a "motorbike" did appear, it was a neck-craning oddity. This very rarity, though, was part of the attraction that I felt for motorcycles; I wasn't part of a herd, I was special, and that specialness was like a drug. When I rode through town, there was no question of who sat behind those goggles.

In the weeks following my purchase, I rode gallantly alone among the legion of automobiles, smug in my uniqueness. Then one day, as I buzzed along, a speck appeared on the horizon and grew before my unprepared eyes into another motorcycle. I was so excited at the sheer novelty that it was upon me before I gathered my wits enough to wave a cheery hello to my fellow cyclist. But before I could even raise my arm, the other rider raised his, in a well-practiced, boldly clenched fist of two-wheeled solidarity. He was past in an instant, but he left me with a new feeling, a knowledge that I was now part of a brotherhood.

Over the next few years I traded up to more powerful machines, motorcycles as a whole became far more popular and sighting one on the road became commonplace. I felt a certain satisfaction in this popularity, taking some small, internalized credit as a charter member of a movement, an elite club that understood the tradition of motorcycling. Meeting another cyclist on the road was a moment of elation and, with their increasing numbers, the clenched fist greeting became as frequent as a turn signal. It made no difference whether you rode a trail bike or a chopper, an American bike or a foreign make, we were all motorcyclists.

Then one day I met another motorcycle on the road and I flashed the usual brotherly greeting, but the other rider only looked at me quizzically. I was surprised and disappointed in a vague sort of way but over time, as the number of bikes on the road increased, my salutes became more frequently ignored. There was a new generation of motorcyclists on the highways, riders who never experienced the thrill of living in the vanguard of a movement and the show of solidarity held no meaning for them. To them, a motorcycle was just a thing, not a symbol of individuality and frontier spirit, not a tradition that was part of their personal identity. Soon the newbies outnumbered us oldtimers, the salute was seldom returned and I eventually stopped even trying.

It was saddening to see part of the fun of motorcycling just fall out of fashion and my satisfaction at being one of the pioneers in this fast growing motorsport was laced with a touch of bitterness. Things turned around some when I bought my first Harley-Davidson -- at least Harley riders still kept their esprit d' corps -- especially during the days when American made motorcycles seemed to be an endangered species.

But when Willie G. Davidson rose to the helm of Harley-Davidson Motor Company, he turned the ailing company into a marketing powerhouse and the burbling Harley rumble came to be a yuppie status symbol. Milwaukee turned out millions of motorcycles, mostly to a new generation with no link to the pioneering days of old. The tight society of motorcycling became fragmented and cliquish, divided by type, make and national origin of the machine we rode. Riding a motorcycle didn't mean what it once did. Slowly the biker salute faded away, even among the Harley crowd, and another chunk of the remaining soul fell out of motorcycling.

 

Two-wheeling down the information highway

I don't think it's difficult to see the parallel to the computing world. As someone whose first experience with computers was keypunching FORTRAN into some distant mainframe, I've been around long enough to see this same scenario repeated in the freakishly compressed history of our computer culture. From kit computers to mass-market game machines, from CP/M to MacOS X, from character mapped screens to QuickTime, from eight-inch floppies to the internet, I've watched ever larger waves of new computer markets crash upon the digital shores, washing away the sense of community that bound together those that came before.

Times change. I realize that, but it seems a shame that so much feeling is lost in the rush of expanding commercialization. Those of you relatively new to the computer world may think that the first decades of the computer age were a sterile, boring time, a technological paleolithic devoid of the exciting developments here in the dot.com present. But you would be wrong. Whatever was lacking in technical sophistication was more than balanced by the sense that we were the elite, alone on a frontier that the larger world would not and could not understand. There was a seat-of-the-pants feel to everything we did; the computer revolution was so young that there were too few data points from which to extrapolate the future. We were lost in a sea of possibilities, struggling to make sense of where we were going.

Out of this uncertainty grew a sense of community that bound us together. Like motorcyclists of bygone years, our uniqueness bred a passion that brought us together. Communities sprang up around dozens of companies and then vanished with the next wave of popularization. When the Macintosh debuted in 1984, a new community sprouted that grew more strongly than any before -- because the Macintosh was more than just a computer, it was the vision for the future that we had been looking for.

The Macintosh transformed the personal computer from a simple tool for manipulating data into a means of expression and creativity. Computer literacy became more than just programming knowledge or facility with a commercial software package. Art, music, literature, even the arcane lore of typography, were now connected, and at the center was the Macintosh. Artists could relate to musicians and authors could speak the lingo of publishing in a common language because of this new, digital common ground. It became rare to talk of computers without involving the creative process and vice versa; and because of the ease and universality of this new tool, people who considered themselves neither artistic nor technical were now part of the same, creative world.

There was a new freedom in the computing community, like the wind in a motorcyclist's face and the feel of the road through the pegs. It wasn't so much about hardware and specifications as it was about the feeling of individuality and self expression that the machinery allowed us. But that vision became threatened by the emerging economics of the industry and its slavish, all-important, dependence on marketshare. Apple Computer Company began to struggle and it seemed that it too might go the way of so many before it.

The fear that the Macintosh, our vision of the future, might disappear bound the Apple community together more strongly than ever before and the Macintosh following became an army. That dedication formed a communal bond, a society of people who shared a vision, and fought for it with their own, clenched-fist salute. Those of us who evangelized for the Macintosh for all those dreary years can feel proud of our determination that is in no small way responsible for Apple's survival through a time of terrible trouble.

 

A time of change

But Apple is no longer in trouble. It is selling Macintoshes in record numbers and the ranks of Macintosh users are growing ever faster, and in the process becoming less of an elite. The market segments drift apart across ever greater divides of narrower and narrower interests and the forces of conformity blur the differences between individual platforms. New users see their computers as tools for their own particular application and the machine itself is not seen as the bridge to others that it once was.

I smell change in the air. It is the same discomforting sensation I've felt so many times before when the passion of the dedicated few is finally rewarded by commercial success -- a sense that what we've fought so hard to preserve will be made moot by our victory. As the Macintosh becomes a mainstream computer, and Apple Computer Company becomes a rich and mighty Apple Inc., our evangelism seems ever more pointless and our passion for a vision of the future becomes irrelevant when that future has finally arrived.

My unease is strongest when I look at the Macintosh Web and the palpable change that has seem to come over it in the last few months. If measured only in the number of new Mac oriented sites, the Mac web is stronger than ever, but the mood has changed. The volunteerism of old is being replaced with a commercialized approach that mirrors the changes in the larger world of personal computing. There seems less cohesiveness and more friction and sparring between sites that must now compete for advertising revenues and, without the common fear that Apple might suddenly disappear, there is no restoring force to keep us all together.

Cracks have appeared within our community as more and more of the Mac web seems devoted to a narrow, commercial interest in Apple Inc. and its products. News sites clamber over the same news, redundant press releases appear by the million, and more product reviews are issued than a gainfully employed individual would ever have the time to read. While this is a sign of a burgeoning Apple market, the creative community seems to be distancing itself from the Macintosh web, making itself a separate world, leaving Mac fans to argue among themselves about the latest rumors or complain about Apple's recent moves. Mac sites trying to carve out a space in the limited bandwidth, criticize each other as they fight for hits. We are focused inward, becoming more like the standard, personal computer crowd, more interested in the computer itself than what the computer enables us to do.

In this new age of Apple ascendancy, the Macintosh web seems to be searching for its purpose.

 

Why I wrote this...

Please forgive my self-indulgence, but my point here arises out of my own selfish interests. I write these essays for the Macintosh audience because I want to, because I value this community of people that have for so long been dedicated to a higher principle. There are many ways to contribute to this cause, such as writing technical articles, news stories or product reviews, but there are so many other writers that do these things better than I ever could.

Instead, I write these sometimes loopy digressions from the strict subject matter of the Macintosh; I tell droll stories, make long-winded jokes, engage in unabashed boosterism and I sometimes talk about subjects only vaguely incident to the Apple world. I do this on faith that there is an audience on the other end of these wires that appreciates this seemingly tangential approach, that finds it informative, thought provoking or at least entertaining.

But if the purpose of the Macintosh web is limited to only hardware, software and the latest stock market reports, and if the audience is splintered into a thousand isolated groups with their own special interests, then I'm afraid there isn't much room for me. I find it increasingly difficult to write in a way that appeals broadly to such a fragmented readership.

I want to believe that there is a larger purpose to the Mac community, that the benefits of the Mac paradigm should translate into what we do with our computers. Art, science, education, literature or whatever; these creative products of the Macintosh are the whole point of the Macintosh's existence and they should be the unifying force of the Mac web.

 

Back to our roots

The Macintosh web needs the news sites, product reviews and technical pages - even the rumor sites fill a need. But it seems to me that we are forgetting why the Macintosh community arose in the first place. It wasn't for the glorification of a machine or to protect the interests of stockholder's of various corporate entities, it was because the Mac was a vision of how the right computer could make us all more productive, creative and how it could knock down the walls between people with differing interests, somehow uniting them through the computing experience. That was what our closefisted salute was all about, that was what we were trying to protect.

The solidarity of the motorcycle world crumbled because there was no higher purpose than the enjoyment of the individual rider, and so the increased popularity of motorcycling only diluted the passion of the original pioneers. If the Macintosh community is to survive as a cultural phenomena, we have to keep our higher purpose.

If there was ever a real value in that crusade, it would be a shame to abandon it now simply because Apple's future finally seems secure. Now is the time for us to build upon our victory by using the Mac web to celebrate what we really wanted in the first place -- the creative, productive and unifying results of the computing paradigm that is the Macintosh.

I propose that the Macintosh web's work is not yet done and that we should rededicate our efforts to its original goals. The content of these pages should spread the original, noble intentions into the wider world by demonstrating the difference that creativity, intelligence and beauty can make in the otherwise sterile world of computers. We need to show the world that it isn't just the computer that makes the difference, but the people who use them.


Copyright 2000, Del Miller. All rights reserved.

 

Del also writes the "Difference Engine" column at www.macopinion.com

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