This post will go a lot of places, so apologies in advance. I’m going to talk about the movie Thor (there’s a slight spoiler, so be warned), Apple and myths. Bear with me.
Thor is a great movie. I thought it was a perfect blend of science fiction and mythology, much more complex than the usual superhero fare. The title character is a bit like Superman, in that he’s an alien from another world who comes to Earth and has super powers, but he’s also one of a race of ancient being who mankind have formed all sorts of stories about (presumably thanks to Snorri Sturluson and his ilk). The movie has that interesting motif of featuring advanced technology as ancient magic – something that has worked forever, and some take for granted, and is inexplicably miraculous and rudimentary at the same time.
Bifröst is a magical rainbow bridge which the main characters use to cross the cosmos and visit various points in the universe. I don’t have my copy of the Prose Edda in front of me, but I believe in the original myths it only connects Asgard with Midgard (“our” world) . The Asgardians in the film use it to go to Jötunheimr as well though, and it’s maintained by Heimdallr, who in the eddas merely keeps watch there for Ragnarök. The film makes Bifröst look like a cross between the light bridges from The Dig and Spock’s transwarp beaming from Star Trek.
Simultaneousness advanced and ancient technology exists today. The Pyramids are just a solid-state device, one example of architecture which hasn’t been replicated today. Celestial navigation is another piece of prehistoric tech which seems like magic to anyone who can’t respect the thousands of years of astronomy it took to develop. Today, we take it for granted. But will our decedents feel the same way about our technology? While we perceive future tech as magic, the devices in Thor are like future magic. And if we forgot how to maintain the technology we’ve developed (like Greek fire), it might as well be magic. We may still know the techniques of navigating by the stars, but if we forget why those techniques work, it’s very much like some mystic talent. And mystic talents are usually defended by orders devoted to their practice: alchemy gave girth to secret societies, the methods of financial institutions have their roots in the Knights Templar, and most historic and modern religions are birthed from various psychoanalytic exercises and artifacts (i.e. spiritual practices and teachers).
Today, I took a trip to an Apple store, because I am considering purchasing a MacBook Pro for my graduate studies at The New School. When I stepped inside, I felt like I was in some strange, hollowed temple of a cult like Scientology. Priest and acolytes-like employees in blue shirts guarded relics like the iMac and MacBook Air and used other devices to establish their social significance within the store. One employee with an iPod touch told me she needed to check in with “a hub” before she could help me. She proceeded towards an elder who used his iPad to defer instruction upon her. Shoppers seemed to congregate towards the rear of the store, nearer the rood screen counter and the alter of the registers.
After waiting like someone in line for a confessional, someone met with me to discuss my questions (will a 2.3GHz Macbook Pro run Final Cut well?). I’m no programmer, but I feel as though I understand computers fairly well. However, the Theology of Apple as it was presented to me was confusing. Dual and quad core were like “lanes on a highway,” and the more room meant more traffic. Again, I am not an expert on hardware, but I knew enough to say she was using low level jargon and not real technical language. I felt as though a strange spell was being sung that would lull me into the same somnambulist-state in which other browsers were lumbering contentedly about the store, happily burbling about each holy totem laid out like shewbread in the temple .
If you’ve never seen Objectified, it’s a great documentary about industrial design, and the film’s creators were lucky enough to visit Apple’s labs. In a roundabout fashion, John Ive makes the point that good design is about functionality, not elements masquerading as features. Apple’s method is to approach the vanishing point of utilitarianism as close as possible for consumers. As I explained it to my wife on the way there, the iOS community seems like a communist society versus the wild libertarianism of other operating systems, and Mac desktops/laptops are similarly designed with casual users in mind.
I’m not trying to suggest that people who use Macs are not tech-savy. A major reason I’m looking to switch to a Mac is convenience: I’m used to performing regular maintenance on my PC, downloading drivers as needed, keeping up with constant updates, but I’m also tired of it. However, when the salesperson begins talking about AppleCare covering the cost of a tech support call that would otherwise cost $50 “if my iTunes isn’t synching,” my first thought is, why can’t I Google it, work on the problem and figure it out myself?
It seems pretty obvious that Apple markets its products to people who are enthralled by the technology, but have no interest in maintaining it. My thought is, when you buy a car, you don’t have to become a mechanic, but you should know how to change the oil, the battery, etc. Apple has decided that people should never have to look under the hood (and why would they want to?). This encourages the rift between knowing the techniques by which we use technology, versus a deeper understanding of how and why it works.
Is that understanding important? No. It’s possible Heimdallr knows everything about the Bifröst. But when it’s destroyed, is it just me, or does he have a really forlorn look on his face as he stares off into the void beneath his feet? Elites should not be the only stewards of technology. The survivalist fantasy is how to survive on stone age tech, because it’s a given that the only science the layman can easily replicate is stone tools and boy-scout tricks. Today’s gadgets are like assembly-line mythical objects, Cintamani and Yata no Kagami, the bone of Ullr or any of the Tri Thlws. They provide incredible functionality which is both perplexing, wonderful and sometimes seemingly useless (The Coat of Padarn Beisrudd will be the right size for a well-born man who wears it but won’t fit on a churl. Really?)
I think Apple is encouraging passivity for its consumers and Mac users, in the same way that traditional media encourages passivity from its audience. Lets face it; television networks can no longer command the voiceless market share it used. People expect to be involved. We usually aren’t content to listen to our cultural shamans tell our stories, we sometimes come up with our own (from socialization or by originality). While many can accept the “party line” of the establishment, there is enough dissent that other views are out there.
On one hand, Grandma and other casual users may now be able to use computers on a rudimentary level thanks to Apple’s concepts. But Grandma is still watching Fox News. And chances are, she’s still playing Solitaire too. Should we turn personal computing into a Bifröst before it’s time? It may seem like magic, but we shouldn’t treat it like such until it is ancient.