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A History of Apple & Innovation: The social price of technological innovation; what would Orwell think?

Sci-fi can often provide a very good illustration of how philosophical, ethical, and even religious ideas evolve under the influence of new technological opportunities and their impact of the structures of society, the effects of their possible longevity, and the nature of human reaction and satisfaction.

When looking to the future it is often wise to consider society’s past concerns to provide a framework for contextual analysis. Considering tablet style computing in general conjures up thoughts of George Orwell’s dystopian science fiction masterpiece, 1984. In the novel Orwell depicts the struggle of society as it finds itself in a state of increasing social and economic cohesion with that of machines.

Of particular relevance and interest to me is the way in which Orwell’s work provides a social analysis of surveillance culture. It depicts the use of networked “telescreens” which one could compare to modern computing and the internet. These “telescreens” served as a way for the fictional state, to observe and control opinion through the transmission of fear.

“The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.” - (The Complete Works of George Orwell, 2003)

However the “telescreen” as Orwell thought of it could be avoided or escaped by Winston, he could move to new areas of the room to avoid its glare, much like that of the desktop computer or television. Consider what Orwell would have written regarding the “innovation” of Apple’s mobile computing devices? No longer can one be removed from the on looking eye of the screen, society finds itself increasingly reliant on machines as we take them everywhere with oneself to remain plugged in to our evolving human consciousness.

“And that is the second difference between this window and the past devices: the tablet window goes two ways. You watch; it watches you. Its eye can remain on all the time, watching you as much as you like” - (Kelly, 2010, p. 123)

How ironic is it then to find that the commercial used to introduce the original Apple Macintosh computer depicted a young woman, who can be likened to Orwell’s character Winston, in a cinematic depiction of Orwell’s 1984. The female character, symbolising Apple, is shown hurling a metal hammer through a large “telescreen” in an attempt to remove the presence of the on-looking overseer and herald a new epoch of technology. The advert concludes with a message;

“On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984.”” – (The Guardian, 2009)

Considering the intended symbolism of the advert some decades on, one could summarise that as successfully as Apple has been able to define its values to its audience over time, that in retrospect Apple are quickly deviating from their own historical moral message and ethical stance as demonstrated so aptly by the advert. One would boldly conclude that despite Apple’s arguable ability to innovate, in many contexts of the word, that were Orwell alive today, he may be heeding new warnings as a result of such innovations.