September 24th, 1999

How The Mac Changed The World: Telegraph Road
by Del Miller

"And the birds up on the wires and the telegraph poles, they can always fly away from this rain and this cold. You can hear them singing out their telegraph code, all the way down the telegraph road."
Mark Knopfler
from the song "Telegraph Road" from the Dire Straits album, "Love Over Gold"

Clickety clackity click. The dots and dashes of the telegrapher were the binary hum of the nineteenth century's internet. A worldwide web of copper wire and telegraph keys shrunk the world of the industrial revolution as no technology had ever done and it fired a technical and social revolution that continues to this day. From transoceanic communication at a clipper ship pace to global messaging at the speed of light there has never been such a radical leap in the ability of humans to reach one another from across the miles.

Yet for all the staggering impact of that invention, the telegraph never captured the soul of the public. It was seen as a marvel but it was thought of as being only a tool; just part of an industrial infrastructure that changed the larger world but did not directly impact the everyday life of most people. The problem was Morse code, the language of telegraphy, forever unknowable to everyman, it required intermediaries, in the form of telegraphers. The man that keyed the switch was the user interface for that ancient internet, and all of the wiring and technology between formed but a vague and soulless machine.

The ability to speak with another person across great distances, in one's own voice, would seem to be the spark to make humanity one with the technology, but telephony too, has never been more than another infrastructural component of our century. Again, the impact on our culture was stupendous, and the telephone drastically changed the way that people viewed the world, but it never changed how people thought of themselves. Then, as the decades of the television era rolled by, we again saw a profound impact on the world, but it too was a technological and social force, people were not touched by the machine. Television was simply a conduit from the few to the many, and the passive role of the viewer forever limited television's promise as a vehicle of the mind.

The nineteen-seventies brought the hesitant appearance of the personal computer, but at first it was merely a hypothetical answer in search of a rhetorical question. We struggled to make it fill the role of a typewriter or an adding machine. Some games were played, some checkbooks were balanced and some individuals even bothered to delve into the machine itself through programming, but for the many, the computer sat across a great divide of understanding. To the average person the computer, like all those technologies before it, was just another esoteric machine.

In fact the only computer ot the time that made an impact was the mainframe, where governments and corporations stored their records, processed their accounts and ran the immense calculations that drove their decisions. The relatively few people that actually interacted with these behemoths did so through glorified typewriters in mechanized transactions as distanced from human feeling as was the factory worker of the industrial revolution.

The step from telegraph key to dumb terminal was a technological advance; but a hollow one, for any faint, trace of humanity in the machinery was either lost or purposely ground to dust under the heel of industrial efficiency. For all our progress, the collective consciousness of the human race was still stuck in the nineteenth century, still struggling to find its own identity within the callous march of progress. We seemed incapable of applying newfound knowledge to existing problems without simply scaling up those problems in a spiral of increasing intractability. The history of the mid-twentieth century is one long tale of misapplied, counterproductive technology; the cold-war, nearly catastrophic environmental disasters, the total surrender of mass-media to the lowest common denominator and the grinding momentum of a factory based education system that had long outlived its era.

So naturally, we turned the computer into our master, what else could we expect from a society that had been forged in a crucible of immense, faceless technology, where humanity was merely an economic term in someone else's equation. Of course we would build a ziggurat, what else did we know? For over a century, mankind had walked in lockstep behind the pied-piper of sheer, bloody-minded industrialism. We were merely the wagging tail of a monstrous dog that we pretended was our loyal servant.

Read for yourself the headlines from twenty-five years ago and you will see a world gripped by a mistrust of technology and a fear of the future. There was a palpable, pervasive sense that events had taken on a momentum of their own, that we were not masters of our fate, only fragile little creatures lost in a chaos of our own device. Orwell's hellish vision of 1984 loomed on the horizon, the warning signs too real to deny and too terrifying to ignore.

This was the society into which Apple Computer was born. From the the very beginning, the company seemed to laugh at our industrialized straightjacket. From the rainbow logo, to the cheerful optimism that a computer could change the world, everything about Apple said that there was room to make things better. Those simple, happy machines were fun and empowering and they made their way promptly into the schools where an entire generation began to retake the reins of technology -- to make it work for them. It was a wonderful, marvelous reversal, but in retrospect, Apple's early years were only a harbinger of things to come, for when 1984 eventually arrived, Apple released the Macintosh.

It is easy to claim that the Macintosh was a revolutionary computer but it was much more that that: It was a tool for the mind. Everything about this new machine spoke a different message to the user than did any information technology in history. It was approachable, understandable and through the intricate, well thought out interface, it told us that its creators cared about us, they wanted to help us, to empower us, they wanted this little machine to be our friend.

Yes, amazingly, a friend.

The true value of a friend is as a mirror in which to see who we really are. When our friends listen to us, when they talk to us, when we simply enjoy ourselves in their company, it is an essential process of self-discovery and affirmation. We cannot be complete as a person without a friend to offer us that essential give and take, that feedback which defines our self image and guides our personal growth. In the mind-numbing technological advances of the last century and a half, we had never had machinery that asked to be our friend and it showed in the love-hate relationship we had with our technological world.

Here, finally, was that machine. The Macintosh met us halfway in our interaction, speaking a human language and encouraging us to open ourselves to our potential. Possibilities appeared before us, not as obstacles to surmount, but as a welcoming, forgiving environment for experimentation and discovery. It was the foundation of what we called "The Macintosh Way" and it became part of our lives and soon part of the entire culture. Every aspect of what we've come to know as "the personal computer," even from the Mac imitators, grew from the rich subliminal philosophy of The Macintosh Way. Without the grand new paradigm of the Macintosh, we would still think of the computer as simply the extension of a mainframe, as a taskmaster instead of as a portal to a better world.

If Apple had never existed, there would still be computers and we would still be processing words, crunching spreadsheets and building databases. Our driving records would still be stored in giant data-processing installations and public utilities would still issue billings from their mechanized systems. But our world would be far different. There would be no World-Wide-Web nor email in any publicly available sense. Desktop publishing would not exist and computers would never be thought of as entertainment. Few people would operate a computer outside of the workplace and our only dealings with them would be through the cryptic, empty commands of an industrial computing model. Our documents would be unadorned and typewriterish. Everyday people would not operate computers, certainly not for fun. Computers would not be tools for expressing ourselves, enriching our lives, or opening our minds.

The Macintosh, and the computing model it began, has been instrumental in finally taking the human race beyond the industrial revolution, into a revolution of mind. Our interaction with technology is once again falling under our control and all of us, even ordinary people who haven't devoted themselves to the study of computer science, can use their silicon muse to shape the world. Humanity is interconnected in a global community unimaginable without the seminal contributions of the Macintosh. But the larger impact, has been within us, for in the process, the friendly little computer has served as a mirror to our own selves, helping us to know ourselves and to advance our own possibilities.

If Apple had never been, the personal computer would be little more than a latter-day telegraph; but because of Apple it is the singing wire of a new millenium.

Other columns from How The Mac Changed The World

How The Mac Changed The World: Making It Look Easy
by John Martellaro - October 8th

How The Mac Has Changed The World: The Gift of Time
by Bryan Chaffin - October 1st

How The Mac Changed The World: Telegraph Road
by Del Miller - September 24th

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[Editor's Note: This marks the first of a special series of editorials about how the Mac changed the world. The first of this series is by Del Miller, a columnist from MacOPINION. You can read more of Del's excellent work in his column called The Difference Engine.]

Copyright 1999, Del Miller. All rights reserved. Published with permission at The Mac Observer.