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A Mac's Life
tech failure
catvalente
Relishing our new living room arrangement (painted a wall, rearranged furniture, pics to come), I started knitting a new wrap last night, and put on MacHeads, a documentary that had been languishing on my instant queue and I was mildly interested in. I kind of love documentaries anyway. And today is new iPhone day, (we can't be sad today!) so it seemed apropos.

I expected a somewhat incisive look at either why people love Macs so much and so fanatically, or a critique of Apple and the way they manipulate their customer base (I almost typed "audience" there, which I think is probably more apt, since a lot of what Apple does is a kind of capitalist high performance art) via high prices, status items, and ad campaigns that appeal to the smugly superior in all of us. I'm interested in this sort of thing because I find myself, without setting out to, owning two Mac computers, an iPod and an iPhone. I'm not a MacHead by any means. Each of the Apple products I have I either purchased because it did something no other product did (hello, Scrivener, you enticing trollop) or I was gifted with it. I don't evangelize, or really care what other people use. My husband is an avowed PC user and I couldn't care less, much less, as the horrid Violet Blue says horridly in the film: I've never knowingly had sex with a PC user. Seriously? That's the stand you want to take in this fucked-up world? That's your third-wave feminism? That's your Waterloo? This far, no further? I cannot begin to express my disgust with that statement.

On the hand furthest away from Miss Blue, I will say I've had my laptop for a year and a half now and it has not crashed once or had any problems at all, contrasting the cavalcade of PC laptops I went through in the four years previous. But my iPhone was glitchy from Day One.

Anyway.

What I got was neither of those things. MacHeads is half Apple commercial and half LOLHIPPIES poking at the geeks who've been with Mac since the start and started usergroups and the like. The film has a deeply uncomfortable relationship with these people. On the one hand, it wants to highlight how wacky and obsessed they are, since that makes good movie, but on the other, there is a genuine mourning for the loss of those communities in the internet age where you can troubleshoot your machine on Google pretty easily. Having witnessed my own older friends eulogize their time on Usenet, I sympathize, and the film seems to as well, with their only genuinely insightful sequence, flashing back and forth between older users talking about building their lives around Mac, about it being a kind of home for them, and young people who admit to owning an iPod and no other Apple products. (The kids were interviewed waiting in the midnight lines for the 2007 iPhone launch. Now, what I really want is an examination of the ourobouros of those kinds of events and how they create each other: there are lines because people heard there would be lines and thought they couldn't get their phone any other way. They heard there were lines because of Apple's relationship with the media and media reporting on artificial product shortages, which create rumors of long lines, which mean people will start lining up out of fear of short supply. Around and around. Alas, no dice here.)

There are some half-hearted attempts to critique Apple, but they mostly come in the form of one unnamed guy bitching and a couple of ex-Apple employees saying George Bush Apple doesn't care about Apple customers. There is absolutely no commentary on the iconic series of commercials (only a brief flash of the famous 1984 ad) that did so much to bring Apple back into the public view and also polarized the PC vs Apple conversation. (I loathe the Justin Long/John Hodgman commercials so hard, one of which I recall implying strongly that PCs could not be used to get photos off of cameras. I may be a Mac user now, but COME ON. PCs are perfectly functional and usable machines, and for a user of my level--which is higher than most people, honestly--there is just not much of a difference between operating systems. I'm not looking to hack my box or whatever. And most users are not. Someone who is interested in such things I would imagine either uses Linux or can use either product just as easily. If anything, Macs these days are geared toward people who don't know how to mess with their computers on a deeper level than switching the desktop image. Frankly, for the longest time, those commercials made me say: fuck you, I'm not using a Mac, you smug fucks.)

Mostly, I kept waiting for them to ask the obvious question: why do you like Macs so much? Why is the operating system better? Why do creative people use Macs, or is that just an urban canard? In the age of photo manipulation programs and word processors being mostly the same across the board, are creative people still the majority of Mac users? Why?

But they never asked any of those questions. They had a wholly obnoxious scene of a Mac user aping a PC user and talking about how long it takes a PC to boot up and how often they crash. (Yes, I find this to be true. HOWEVER. I owned a Mac in 2002, and no laptop has ever given me more grief. There was an endemic issue with that year of iBooks, and mine had it. Let me tell you, Macs can and do crash, and take forever to boot up. that my current one is a loyal steed is mostly luck, I think.)

They never discussed what made these machines superior, or really got into it with any one user about why a machine should have such a high place in their lives. Or went into how Apple and hipster and geek culture collided in the early 2000s in part because of the high-price/status/self-image relationship, and how Apple has essentially positioned itself as a purveryor of luxury goods that say something about the owner. What they say depends on the observer, I suspect. I seriously doubt that the presence of an Apple logo says creative and fascinating loner who bucks the system these days. Yet that's all the documentary has to say on why Macs are awesome. It certainly skirts the issue of fashion. I mean, the single most instantly recognizable difference between a Mac and a PC is how they look. Apple has cared about fashion and aethetics in a way hardly anyone else has. But that's not what a bunch of greying silicon valley pioneers want to talk about, I expect. It doesn't fit with their self-image as hardcore technophiles. But to ignore that that attention to design is a huge part of why Apple is no longer in danger of going out of business is somewhat disingenuous.

In the end the film seems to uneasily settle on: "it's all about the people." And that's probably true--in any small fan community, the value ends up coming from the connections you make with other humans rather than the object of fan interest itself. But it's not only the people, because as the movie points out, those MUGs are not happening the way they used to, yet Apple products are more popular than they have ever been. There is something about the stuff itself that makes people love it--much like Volkswagen, and as an avowed Bug-lover (I've had three, old and new) I can tell you all about why I love Bugs and what is different about my life when I have one.

In fact, Bugs and Macs are quite similar. justbeast  used to call my new Bug the Mac of cars. They both have a dear and old incarnation adored by hippies and students and a shiny, expensive, new incarnation adored by hipsters and students. They are both smoothly designed status markers that are actually pretty great below the surface of their advertising, though probably not as great as their price tag. They both have a fanatical community, and a company who deeply misunderstands that community. I could go on. When I owned a Bug, I was never stuck on the side of the road (even though, like Macs, the much-vaunted durability of an old school Bug is mainly dependent on your ability to hack it yourself, and being on the side of the road, both literal and metaphorical, is an unavoidable side effect) because someone, either a young student or a grizzled old Berkeley poet, would always stop and help me, specifically because I had a Bug. It was the people, yes, who played SlugBug, and paid your parking, and left Tolkien quotes under your windshield wipers (yes, this actually happened more than once) and passed around tattered copies of How to Keep Your Bug Alive, but it was undoubtedly also the car itself, which looked friendly and kind and fun, which had a sort of face, with headlights and smiling curves, which had unusual features like a trunk in front, and which broke a lot. I think breaking a lot is a secret feature in this kind of subculture. If they never broke, you wouldn't need a club of people who knew how to fix it to keep functioning.

But MacHeads wasn't interested in any of that. To be honest, I'm at a loss to tell you what it is interested in, other than gawking at people who have the audacity to be dorkily passionate about something, and not hide it. Is it weird that it's a computer company? Yes. That's why it's interesting enough for a documentary. Too bad this one seemed bored with its own topic.
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Violet Blue thinks being peed on is a political act.