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6th October 2011

On Macintosh

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The Mythology and Metaphysics of the Macintosh

by John David Ebert

The Myth

The great myth of Western civilization, then, is not, as Oswald Spengler insisted, that of Faust; neither is it, as the American mythologist Joseph Campbell once suggested, Prometheus, or even the Grail quester of Arthurian legend; it is not even Lewis Mumford’s ‘myth of the machine’; it is none of these. Rather, the great myth of Western civilization—and it has been the great myth since the days of Minoan Crete—is that of the Wonder Child’s struggle against the Elders.

Its first great literary manifestation was, of course, the Iliad, whose protagonist, the twenty-something Achilles, has been suggested by some scholars to  have been a late innovation added to the mythos of the Trojan War by Homer himself.[1] His magical powers of invulnerability give Achilles more of the feel of a folk hero than any traditional hero of a literary epic, and the fact that he is absent from most of the book’s action implies that he was never necessary to whatever its original structure may have been. Also, he is too young to have been one of Helen’s suitors, for the Greeks at the time the epic opens have already been fighting in Troy for ten years. The other heroes—Diomedes, Odysseus, Agamemnon—had all pledged themselves to the rescue of Helen if ever she were abducted; Achilles alone among these heroes is too young ever to have made such a pledge. In short, he may have been an innovation of Homer’s to an already traditional epic of war and battle.

Which is important because the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon is certainly not over a girl; it is, rather, the conflict of youth against age; of reverence for the cult of the Wonder Child with miraculous abilities who will, from henceforth, become the central fetish of Greek religiosity from the grave statues of its beautiful young Kouros boys to Alexander the Great himself, the youngest world conqueror in history. There are no old men depicted in Greek art until the Hellenistic Age, and this is not an accident, since the Greek reverence for youth was tantamount to an orientation toward innovation, novelty and all things new that would characterize Classical civilization from Homer on down to the Romans.

In the Medieval period, European art was haunted by the persistent reiteration of the Wonder Child in the form of the Infant Christ and his Virgin Mother at the expense of representations of Yahweh, the old man and the Old God of the bygone age of the Jews, who appears less and less often in this art as it evolves through the centuries. The child represents the future; the old man, the past. And along with an orientation toward the future comes a willingness to experiment and try new things that has been characteristic of the Western attitude toward technology to the present day.

Indeed, in the climactic battle scenes of Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker’s fight against Darth Vader and the Emperor—crippled, deformed old men both—is not just about Freedom vs. Tyranny, or democracy against totalitarianism, but more specifically, it is an echo of the Wonder Child’s struggle against the ways and traditions of the Elders that was first announced in the Iliad and has been characteristic of the Western mentality ever since.

And it also happens to be the central myth of Apple Computer.

The Commercial

On January 22, 1984, Apple debuted its commercial for the new Macintosh computer on television, a commercial directed by Ridley Scott, who had just then completed Alien and Blade Runner. The commercial, one of the most famous ever made, begins by showing a single-file line of drab, shaven-headed men marching through a glass tunnel on their way to a meeting with Big Brother who appears before them, as in Orwell’s novel, on a gigantic television screen. A woman dressed in a white T-shirt imprinted with a schematic Macintosh computer and wearing red shorts runs, carrying a sledgehammer, while in pursuit behind her is a group of helmeted police, face shields drawn for combat mode. The woman runs down the center aisle of the meeting room where she hurls the sledgehammer at the giant video screen with its talking head spouting ideology, which then explodes into white phosphorescence as the words appear onscreen voiced by a narrator: “On January 24 Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll understand why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”[2]

Steve Jobs, who co-founded Apple Computer with Steven Wozniak, was a kind of anti-executive executive who refused to hire anybody who showed up for an interview wearing a suit and tie, since he himself never wore one, and often did not even wear deodorant. He and Wozniak created the first affordable personal computer with the Apple II in 1977, and by the end of that year, they had also introduced the first floppy disk drive. They were millionaires by the age of 25.

Jobs identified IBM, Apple’s primary rival, with the dragon to be slain. In ancient myth, dragons were often killed by thunderbolts hurled at them in the form of hammers, swords, spears, etc. and in this light it becomes clear that the role of the woman in Ridley Scott’s commercial is that of a dragon slayer hurling a thunderbolt at the staid old establishment of IBM, a conservative East Coast corporation with its roots in the Cold War. Big Brother, in the Mac commercial, is IBM, which Jobs made clear in the keynote speech that he gave near the end of 1983 when he first unveiled the commercial to a live audience.[3]

The hammer that the woman-as-dragonslayer hurls, furthermore, is a signifier for the Macintosh computer itself, Apple’s response to the IBM PC which IBM had put out in 1981, a computer based largely upon the technology of the Apple II. If Apple lost the computer wars then, according to Jobs, a Dark Age would settle over the industry. In his own words:

’If, for some reason we make some big mistake and IBM wins, my personal feeling is that we are going to enter sort of a computer Dark Ages for about twenty years. Once IBM gains control of a market sector, they always stop innovation. They prevent innovations from happening.

If you look at the mainframe marketplace, there’s been virtually zero innovation since IBM got dominant control of that marketplace fifteen years ago. The IBM PC fundamentally brought no new technology to the industry at all. It was just a repackaging and slight extension of Apple II technology, and now they want it all.

Apple is providing the alternative.’[4]

And that alternative was, of course, the Macintosh computer, the sword drawn from the stone of the Wonder Child’s worskshop which, once forged, would become the means for the Old Man’s undoing.

The Subtle Body of the Text

The first Macintosh computer, known as the 128k, introduced a revolutionary new idea: that of the so-called graphical user interface, in which images became simulacra of things. This was inspired by the visit of Jobs and some other Apple personnel to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1979, where they first saw a demonstration of graphical user interface software. As Young and Simon, Jobs’ biographers, describe it:

What Apple saw that day was a display on which the user made selections, not by typing out cryptic commands, but by moving a pointer to designate the desired onscreen object. And individual windows for different documents. And onscreen menus. Today, this is the standard way that most people interact with computers, but then it was extraordinary. Up until that time, computers were controlled by typed commands, and the screens generally displayed nothing but letters and numbers. Here was a graphical user interface (GUI, as it would later become known) unlike anything ever seen on a computer screen before, and better yet, it was working.[5]

The computer’s ‘pointer,’ furthermore, was called a ‘mouse,’ a technology which had been invented by Douglas Englebart at Stanford Research Institute in the 1960s. This was all revolutionary new stuff, but Xerox turned out not to be interested in their own technological innovations. However, Apple was, and so they implemented it with the introduction of their Lisa computer in 1983, which was too expensive for the average user but became affordable with the Macintosh in 1984.

The Macintosh is a machine for the transformation of physical objects into light. The graphical interface overlaid upon the computer screen—hitherto a black screen with commands typed in green characters—a secondary stratum of images of coded flows of information: physical objects such as desktops, manila folders, paintbrushes, file drawers, pens, pencils and typewriters were all encoded in the form of “icons.”

Thus, with the creation of desktop publishing—invented with the Mac—one could now see a virtual image of a page of text, together with all its graphics, exactly as it would appear before being printed out in physical form. In other words, a subtle form of the document or text began now to precede and displace the visualized idea of the text held in the mind’s eye before it was created as a piece of physical matter.

The Macintosh, then, has a dematerializing effect upon the physical world, an effect not all that different from the magical child’s abilities in ancient myth to transform physical things into luminous visions. When, for instance, the boy child Krishna—a true Wonder Child, indeed–lifts up Mount Govardana with one hand in order to shield the cows and the gopis from the rain, the mountain is no longer a physical object at all, but a visionary image from the realm of myth and dream.

Luminous Technology

The evolution of the Macintosh taken as a whole, from the 128k in 1984 to the iPad in 2010, is a tale of the gradual victory of forms of suksma technology over sthula technology, a gradual and inevitable absorption of the physical by the luminous. It is a tale of the transformation and dissolution of the very idea of the computer into something more akin to a piece of electronic stained glass.

If the evolution of Western art from the Medieval period to the nineteenth century is a tale of the unfolding of the physical and the concrete at the expense of the realm of the subtle and the visionary, then the evolution of the computer via the Macintosh is a narrative that reverses the physical back into the world of the subtle, of the realm of ghostly visions and phantom forms.

The One Non-Negotiable Element of the Personal Computer

The personal computer, as it was invented by Apple in 1981 with the Apple II, was basically a crossing of the typewriter with the television.[6] The phantom realm of the CRT screen, that is to say, was crossed with the linear rows of type arranged on the typewriter (a miniaturized printing press which enabled everyman to be his own printer) in such a way as to begin to dematerialize typed words themselves, which were no longer inscribed upon a sheet of actual paper, but now existed virtually in the form of pixilated bytes on a computer monitor. The words, that is to say, began to attain a new status of virtuality: they might exist, but unless they were printed out, they might also just as easily disappear like thoughts in the mind withdrawing into some secret reservoir of consciousness never to be heard from again.

With the advent of the Macintosh computer in 1984—preceded by the Lisa in 1983, the first to actually feature GUI–the idea was that one could now begin to manipulate images with a mouse and a typewriter’s keyboard the way one had previously, with a typewriter, manipulated typed words on a page. Images could be typed, moved, fused, dissolved, etc., exactly like thoughts in consciousness.

To draw once again from Indian philosophy: consciousness is known there as citta, mind-stuff, which has the spontaneous capacity of moving around in the mind and taking on the shapes of whatever the senses perceive in the outer world. A liquid crystal display does almost the same thing as it takes on the forms of the electrical impulses that pour through it as data. The Macintosh computer, then, comes very close to the technological replication of consciousness—or at least, the consciously controlled thought forms of waking consciousness—closer than any other technology hitherto.

As the evolution of the Mac unfolded throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the computer monitor tended to remain as a separate unit from the hard drive and the keyboard and mouse. The Macintosh was basically a four piece unit.

But when Steve Jobs rejoined Apple in 1997 (after having been forced to leave in the mid 1980s), and created the iMac, the monitor and the CPU were fused together into one unit, while both the keyboard and the mouse still remained separate. The iMac was the first computer to be specifically designed for Internet usage, coming equipped with an internal modem and the first USB port. The floppy disk drive, which Apple had invented, was now gone, replaced by a CD drive.

Over time, it becomes evident that the essential component of the computer, the one piece that is non-negotiable, is the screen (together, of course, with its CPU). It is to the computer what Goethe’s idea of the Leaf was to the archetypal plant: the central informing Idea of which all the other parts are but extensions and transformations.

This is finally proven once and for all with the introduction of the iPad in 2010, in which the computer is stripped down to the screen and everything else is subordinated to it, including the keyboard, which is now transformed into light in the form of a digital simulacrum of the keyboard. Thus, the keyboard, the main element which had survived from the computer’s descent from the typewriter, is finally dissolved and etherealized to become an internal organ of the computer itself. All that remains of the hybrid of typewriter and television is a flat, luminous screen that glows with the internal self-radiance of a piece of stained glass.

Thus, with the iPad, the destiny of the computer is revealed, as the transformation and etherealization of all its component parts into organs made out of light.

A Brief History of Invisible Worlds

The Macintosh computer, then, opens up a window into a luminous, non-physical world. And what, then, is the nature of the world that it reveals?

To answer that, we must look back at some earlier windows to alternate realities opened up by ancient cultures. Let us start with the Paleolithic: according to David Lewis-Williams in his book The Mind in the Cave, the walls of the painted caves were not conceived of merely as solid surfaces upon which painted animals cavorted like primitive graffiti, but rather as windows opening onto another reality altogether, a world of phantom animal spirits that the painter, using his paints as a medium, was able to break open the rock in order to see, a world of ancestral beings and eternal forms upon which the physical world had modeled itself since the beginning of Time.[7]

Upon the walls of Egyptian tombs, likewise, the painted images opened up a world of magical spells and eternal beings, a world that could be manipulated by the dead person’s ka only if he knew the proper utterances that would unlock its various gates and thresholds and move him past their demon guardians into an eternal Afterlife.

In the world opened up by Greek statuary, a realm of eternal Acts of Men in Motion was visualized, a realm of Platonic essences and archetypes upon which all men in the accidental world were to model their actions. The key to this world lay in the mastery of philosophical concepts—not magical spells—which, once known, would gain one entrance into the eternal Academy of Great Men and their Deeds.

For the Christians, as Gilles Deleuze has pointed out, Essence began to be identified for the first time with the accidental by way of the myth of the avatar of God, the Being who came down into this world.[8] The forms of Byzantine art, then, are concerned more with the earthly, with transitory men like Justinian and the incarnated Christ than with Eternal Forms. This paved the way for the Western preoccupation with the accidental and the ephemeral at the expense of substance and essence.

On the analogy with the metaphysics of these other parallel realities, then, we might say that the world opened up by the luminous window of the Macintosh gives us access to the current Western episteme, which is a realm of coded flows of information and data caught in a flux of perpetual change. You can’t step into the same Information river twice in this society, for the subtle realm structured by its software and its Ideas is one that is always subject to revision, in accordance with its dominance by the myth of the Wonder Child who has no reverence for the teachings of his former masters, but wishes only to shape the world in accordance with his own mind.

When you are using a Macintosh, you have entered inside the mind of Steve Jobs, a realm composed of subtle images and graphics not structured around the power of the Word—Jobs was a college dropout—but around the Image as all-encompassing signifier which has swallowed up the Word, just as his iPad swallowed up the keyboard and turned it into an icon.

Digital Hub

On January 9, 2001 Steve Jobs gave a keynote speech at the Macworld Expo, in which he articulated his vision of the personal computer as the center of a “Digital Hub,” in which, far from becoming obsolete, the personal computer was destined to become the nucleus of the digital revolution in which all other digital gadgets could be jacked in like so many drones subordinated to the Queen Bee.[9] The vision Jobs was articulating, then, was an image of the subtle, luminous reality configured by his Macintosh swallowing, absorbing, digesting and engulfing all other gadgets and physical components, just as the Mac via the iPad would gobble up all the components of the computer and transform them into organs of light.

With the introduction of the iTunes application at this same Macworld Expo, followed by the iPod in October of that year, the CD as a physical object was effectively eliminated and dissolved, transformed, that is, into an object made out of light. With a single stroke, the iPod rendered the portable CD player obsolete. Now one no longer had to carry around one’s favorite CDs in order to listen to music. You could, as Jobs pointed out, keep them all, your entire library, in your pocket, inside of a gadget the size of a deck of cards.

With the introduction of the iTunes Music Store in April of 2003, furthermore, which Jobs conceived as the first legal rival to illegal music download sites like Napster and Kazaa, and for which he received the blessing of the entire music industry, he further dematerialized the industry by eliminating, not just the CD, but the music store itself as a physical entity. It was not long after this—in 2006, to be exact–that Tower Records closed down. “Between 2003 and 2006,” as Andrew Keen writes, “800 independent music stores closed their doors for good.”[10] Music stores are now a thing of the past, for they have been translated and transformed by the Wonder Child’s wizardry into components made out of light and shadow located not in any real physical three dimensional space, but in the subtle realm of the Internet.

And where is the Internet?

Nowhere and everywhere.

Just like the astral plane.

Subtle Matter in Cyberspace

The mythology of Apple Computer, then, is that of the myth of the Wonder Child who befuddles and mystifies the Elders with his magic tricks, just like the Christ child when his parents found him lecturing to an astonished audience of Pharisees in the Temple. The metaphysics, furthermore, is one of the transformation of three dimensional objects located in physical space into the self-radiant images of subtle matter in cyberspace. Light on gradually gives way to light through.

Consider the iPhone, introduced by Jobs at the Macworld Expo in 2007: this is the first phone to eliminate the keyboard by virtualizing it with touch pad technology. Not only that, but with the iPhone, the cell phone itself is dematerialized and absorbed into the Macintosh computer, for every iPhone is essentially an avatar of a Macintosh computer made small enough to fit into one’s pocket. There is very little that a Macintosh computer can do that an iPhone can’t. The iPhone absorbs the cell phone, takes it inside the virtual reality of the Macintosh, and then extends it out into physical space as an avatar of itself, thus rendering all other cell phones effectively obsolete. At once, the other phone companies begin copying it by introducing their own versions of touch pad phones. (Google’s Android is its primary competitor).

Thus, it is the goal of Apple Computer to absorb and transform all physical electronic objects and turn them into extensions of Mac computers precisely by eliminating their physical components and etherealizing them into phantoms made of so much light and shadow.

What we are witnessing before our very eyes, then, is a technological drama played out upon the capitalist proscenium, of the victory of suksma technologies over sthula technologies, of the transformation and destructuring of the entire physical world-space created by capitalism during the Newtonian Age into a Manichean economy dominated by technologies of Light.

By the time all of this is over, you can expect to witness not just the disappearance of things like CD players and DVD players, or even record and book stores, but of the entire mercantile world of capitalism configured by stores located in three dimensional space altogether.

The victory of suksma technologies means the inevitable virtualization of capitalism taken as a whole.

The retail store is becoming a fossil soon to be buried deep in the archaeological strata of archaic forms of capitalism. Future Walter Benjamins engaged in Arcades-type projects will write books with titles like: The Origins and Extinction of the Retail Store or The Rise and Fall of the Shopping Mall.

Mark my words.

–Excerpted from The New Media Invasion by John David Ebert (McFarland Books, 2011)


[1] Caroline Alexander, The War That Killed Achilles (NY: Viking, 2009), 95-96.

[2] Ridley Scott’s Macintosh commercial can be found here:

[3] Jobs’ keynote 1983 speech in which he first unveiled Scott’s commercial and slammed IBM in the process can be found here:

[4] Jeffrey S. Young and William L. Simon, iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Show Business (Wiley, 2005), 81.

[5] Ibid., 61.

[6] The first personal computer was actually the Altair 8800, introduced in 1975 by MITS. The difference was that Apple’s was the first personal computer that came preassembled and was not marketed primarily to hobbyists.

[7] David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004)

[8] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (London and New York: Continuum, 2005), 87.

[9] Jobs’ “Digital Hub” keynote speech from January, 2001 can be seen here:

[10] Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture, (NY: Doubleday / Currency, 2007), 100.

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  1. 1 On April 23rd, 2012, Daniel O'Connor said:


    This is a pleasure to read and certainly resonates with some of my interpretations of trends in technology, economy, and culture. The entire life cycle of production and consumption is evolving toward the “ethereality” of light such that most everything we have taken for granted in the physical, human-built world is likely to be deconstructed in the coming years. Certainly the blighted landscape of suburban shopping malls are already on the way out (and good riddance).

    I am really intrigued by your focus on the Wonder Child struggling against the Elders as the defining myth of the US. Do you see this myth under pressure by the current economic-political-social-ecological crises? Or might this myth be essential to the necessary resolutions? Is this myth limited to Gebser’s mental structure and therefore likely to be replaced by some form of integral-aperspectival mythology, perhaps more dynamic, procedural, and multivocal?



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    For more John Ebert books and lectures…Get it on Google Play






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