Anyone who's been anywhere near true computer geeks soon comes to realize that the driving ethic behind the Internet isn't pornography, technology or money-making. It's not even freedom.
It's the yen for cool stuff - designing it, programming it, acquiring it or trying it out.
This week, Apple unveiled its Mac G4 series, somewhat exaggeratedly described as the world's first supercomputer for the desktop, with TV spots that show a G4 being encircled by Army tanks while an announcer points out that this is the first personal computer so powerful that it's been declared a military weapon (translation: the federal government has declared certain technologies off-limits to specific foreign governments, including Iran and China, because of potential military applications).
Don't worry about the Pentium chip, adds the announcer. "It's harmless."
You could practically hear countless geeks and nerds inhale sharply and breathe heavily. Judging from Web chatter on tech sites from C-Net to Linux World to Slashdot, the G4 was an instant smash. Geeks are forever on the prowl for the coolest, fastest, most powerful new thing, and the G4, clearly, is it.
In America, corporations often become cultural or even political symbols that transcend the products they make. IBM, AT&T, Ford, Linux - all are icons as much as manufacturers, programs or communications giants.
With the possible exception of Bill Gates's Microsoft, no company embodies a particular corporate approach to the digital world more than Apple Computers; no individual personifies a corporate view more than Steve Jobs.
From the early days of the boom, Gates and Jobs have been the yin and yang of the computer world: Gates is intrinsically corporate, rapacious and big, ferociously competitive, monomaniacally focused, Jobs straight out of the alternative entrepeneurial wing that saw computing as a wondrously liberating tool.
His buddy Steve Wozniak grasped almost instantly that this philosophy was unlikely to withstand the looming capitalist assault on the computer industry and bailed out. Jobs was driven from Apple, but stayed in the game, before a desperately failing company asked him back.
In conventional financial terms, Gates was by miles the more successful, becoming the global poster boy for the Long Boom and the world's richest man.
Jobs, always more quixotic and, if such a thing is possible, even more egotistical than Gates, positioned Apple as the anti-IBM, and the anti-Microsoft, each, at different times, versions of the same thing. In so doing, he created a company that brought millions (including me) into networked computing. But in a corporate sense, he fell far behind and out of grace.
Now it seems the wheel has turned again. If there's an ideology at the heart of computing, it's to be forever on the lookout for the coolest, fastest, most powerful thing. The G4 clearly, is it.
At least for a while.
Apple has been enjoying a remarkable renaissance with the runaway success of the iMac, the G3 desktop and Powerbook series, and, more recently, the iBook. The G4, from early accounts, is an impressive accomplishment, an unprecedently powerful desktop machine that costs little more than the too-cutesy, candy-colored iMacs. Because it is new and powerful, it is cool. Because it is cool, they will come.
Although substantially more powerful than the G3s they will replace, the G4's price increments are the same: $1,599 for a Mac with a 400-megahertz processor; $2,499 for 450 MH available in September, and $3,499 for 500 MH, available in October.
The G4's microprocessor, co-developed by Apple, IBM and Motorola, uses a circuit called the velocity engine, (similar to the vector processors used in supercomputers), that allows it to process 128 bits of information per cycle, compared with 32 or 64 bits in most processors. It can, according to Jobs, tackle tasks, from encrypting Net messages to processing digital video, that are beyond most ordinary PC's.
Apple's engineers and designers have again radically changed public perceptions of computing, offering machines for non-computing professionals as well as loyal Mac-adherents that are colorful, portable, powerful, easy, and/or cheerful, depending on one's tastes.
Apple has always had the strange distinction of being uncool and cool simultaneously. To legions of professionals - writers, artists, designers - the Apple was a godsend, permitting creative work while eliminating the sometimes nightmarish process of struggling with computer mechanics. To geekdom's macho wing, Apples are for ignorant wimps who use graphic interfaces to avoid ever really coming to understand how computing works. For years, no self-respecting geek would be caught dead on a Mac.
Now the G4 signals the return of an Apple Age, or at least Round Two of the original Apple Age, though it's significance may be more metaphorical than real. The new Apple doesn't allow us to think differently so much as it enables us to compute more simply and powerfully, two very different ideas. For some years, Apple alone offered individuals an alternative to corporatism. Now that mantle belongs more to the open source and free software movements. (A telling example of the new, greedier Apple ideology is that the G4 was deliberately built so that owners of the new G3 can't upgrade to it - they have to buy a new one. Doesn't sound like very different thinking after all).
The irony of the Apple story, especially for people like me, is that these machines made it possible for us to use computers, but kept us perennially ignorant about how they really worked. In my own case, this was a mixed blessing. (For the past year, I've been struggling to learn and use Linux, in many ways the antithesis of the Apple experience. It's been rough, but I'm close. I have a working Linux computer and am getting lessons in how to use it. More on that later.)
The G4 is the crowning achievement to date of the Jobs-engineered Apple comeback, because he's not only created a machine the wusses will love; he's pounded the macho geeks at their own game and exposed behemoths like IBM and Microsoft for the clunky and unimaginative entities that they are.
For all that, apart from the fact that Jobs has calmed down considerably and sports a graying beard, this second Apple Age is sadly different from the first one. Mac made its national debut (remember the famous anti-IBM ad?) during the 80s. The computer was presented as an anti-Orwellian device, a revolutionary affirmation of individual creative spirit versus corporate domination.
The Macintosh, Jobs was saying, wasn't about technology, but creativity. It wasn't about big business, but about individual aspiration. Accurate or not, lots of people fell for the line, and the Apple brought part of an entire wary generation into computing. Even the most severely technically-impaired were able to approach computing and participate.
The new Apple Age is more consumer-oriented and profit-driven, and far less honest and idealistic. You have to wonder: Is the G4 really necessary? Do people actually need a desktop that's classified as a military weapon? Or portable computers that resemble translucent toilet seats? Will this generation of Apple computers, like the first, keep affluent computer users happy, more powerful and even more ignorant?
The good news is that the resurgence of Apple is a rebuke to the way big corporations do - or don't - think. No board of directors or mega-company with squadrons of vice-presidents would have come up with the G4, or with anything like the iMac.
Apple's comeback invokes the long-ago days when companies reflected the stubborn, idiosyncratic visions of individuals, instead of the tepid, amorphous conglomerates that dominate new and old media.
If Apple may no longer lay claim to its anti-Orwellian ideological roots - always personified more by Wozniak than Jobs anyway -- it has made computing fun and accessible again, and has provided consumers with more real choices and alternatives.
For that alone, the second coming deserves to be hailed.