This past week marked the 30th anniversary of the product launch of the Apple Macintosh. It was hard to miss the massive coverage devoted to this moment — much of it reflecting more mythology than history. We will talk more about the Macintosh and its place in the history of the personal computer later in the semester.
For the time being, I would like to highlight just one feature of this mythology, which is the famous ”1984″ advertisement that aired during the Superbowl XVIII. This commercial, which was directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Alien, Prometheus), is rightly celebrated as a triumph of modern advertisement and — most importantly for the purposes of our class — makes explicit claims about the role of the personal computer in enabling yet another “information revolution.”
Again, we will talk more about both the Macintosh and the 1984 advertisement. But the invocation of George Orwell’s Big Brother in this context is significant, and suggests a theme that we will pick up next week when we talk about the relationship between information, power, media, and propaganda. As Neil Postman and others have suggested, Orwell’s world in which information was controlled by the banning of books was only one vision of an information-driven dystopia. An alternative was presented in Huxley’s Brave New World, in which books were irrelevant because there would be no-one who wanted to read them. As Stuart McMillan, in his brilliant webcomic version of Postman’s argument (since removed for copyright reasons, but still widely reproduced on the Web), summarizes it, “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information,” while “Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.”
And I was reminded this weekend, while re-reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, that he believe in both versions of dystopia simultaneously. In addition to burning books, the masters of information controlled the masses by flooding them with trivialities:
Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.
As in the history of the early print revolution, we see an era in “information” and “disinformation” were both widely distributed, and it is only in retrospect that we can see some obvious progression from ignorance to knowledge, superstition to science, control to freedom.