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The Rodney O. Lain Archive

Confessions of a Mac Bigot: a Meditation on 'The Matrix'

Rodney O. Lain - 1999.07.06

This article was originally published on The iMac.com, a site which no longer exists. It is copyright 1999 by RAC Enterprises, which also seems to no longer exist. It is thus reprinted here without permission (which we would gladly obtain if possible). Links have been retained when possible, but many go to the Internet Wayback Machine.

The matrix has you.
 - A message mysteriously being typed onto Neo's computer screen

I can't tell you what the matrix is; you must be shown.
 - Morpheus, The Matrix

Nothing is real.
 - John Lennon

Windows everywhere.
 - Judge Penfield, this is Microsoft's number-one business strategy

If I never have need of my university education again, I will still be grateful for having gone to college - if for nothing else but the fact that it was in graduate school that I learned how to read.

By reading, I don't mean the mere act of mouthing the words that appear on a page in front of me. Rather, I mean the ability to read a piece of writing and to interact with that writing, to interpret the intended meaning of that writing, and even to extrapolate that interpretation to other, unrelated trains of thought.

This is nothing new, nor do I purport to be an expert on the topic; I just feel familiar with the experience, having done it for several years (whether or not my resulting interpretations are valid remains ever open to debate). Anyone who takes the time to stop and do this can also think deeply about whatever topic that they set their minds upon.

Nevertheless, I was in such an interpretative state of mind last night when I decided to go and see my muse for this column, the movie The Matrix. A sucker for good story telling, I saw the movie for the third time. Another carryover from college is my habit of reading (or in this case, viewing) something more than once, even if I understood the plot/story/meaning the very first time. This habit has actually helped me to appreciate the nuances and various shades of meaning present in any good piece of writing (or, in this case, a good piece of cinematography). It has conditioned me to be more prone to view not only literature and movies, but also life itself, from a far more mature perspective than I would have otherwise.

Extrapolating this feeling of maturity to other spheres is new to me, especially in terms of the Macintosh/PC debate (I say "feeling of maturity," because I remember all too well the observation made by Margaret Thatcher about grandiose self-assessments: "Being [mature] is like being a lady; if you have to tell people you are, then you are not"). In other words, like some Mac users, I often defended the Mac with my heart instead of my head. Therefore, the point I want to argue today is this: I believe that a call for more maturity is needed among us Mac users, in light of the fact that Apple is once again becoming a reckoned force in the PC industry.

Now, I know some may have thought that I was going to draw the obvious, hackneyed analogy between the movie's characters and the Wintel/Mac dichotomy (a dual-sided problem), like, say good versus evil or "1984," revisited. I don't intend anything as pedestrian as that. It's actually a bit more introspective. I don't want to "preach." Rather, I want to think out loud about my journey from being a Mac bigot to being a kinder, gentler Mac user. Forgive me if I write a little wordier than I usually do, for I want to address this topic that has been on my mind for some time now, and the way I have been thinking borders more on the philosophical than the tangible - hence the language. Instead of calling Mac users to storm the gates (or is that "Gates"?), I want to plead for a kinder, gentler Mac defense of things Macintosh, a defense that not only Thinks Different, but Acts Different in terms of how we deal with Wintel users. Our actions should be based on understanding the state in which the average computer user interacts with their OS of choice.

Excuse me as I wax philosophically.

What is The Matrix?

If you haven't already, go and see "The Matrix." It's a movie that contains something that's rare in this summer's movies, IMHO: good action coupled with a good story. The only drawback I had to overcome about the movie was the fact that every time I saw Keanu Reeves, I immediately thought of "Ted," as in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure." Other than that, I found the movie to be a cut above the Adam Sandler's that we've had as recent viewing choices (okay, I admit that I actually liked the gross-out humor of "Waterboy" and "Happy Gilmore." Sue me :-).

"The Matrix" can be summed up thusly: Keanu Reeves plays a mild-mannered computer programmer who leads a not-so-mild-mannered double life. On the Internet, he is infamously known by the hacker name "Neo." His cyber dealings lead him to figure out the truth about the existence of the human race: nothing is real. He discovers that every person on Earth is living in a virtual reality overseen by a master race of Artificially Intelligent machines. Each person thinks she works, sleeps, and plays in the real world, but in reality functions as literal batteries that fuel the master race (it was upon my third viewing of the movie that I noticed "Switch" actually calling Neo "coppertop"). People are jailed in a goo-filled pod that keeps them unconscious and in a dream state/living fantasy. Neo is eventually recruited by the Resistance (led by Lawrence Fishburne), subsequently being disillusioned by the truth that he's been a slave all his life; he then goes on to save the world.

The Truth

While watching this movie, I was often reminded of parallels here in the real world. For example, in order for people to escape the matrix, the movie's characters had to think different, to look at the world and see it for what it is. I thought of how many people hate and fear to think different, as well as hating and fearing those who do. Given the choice, many choose to live with a comfortable lie than to face the unpleasant truth. Lawrence Fishburne emphasizes this point: "most of these people," he counsels Neo, "aren't ready to be unplugged [from the matrix]." Even Neo barely makes it through his "unplugging," vomiting in disgust and screaming in denial after being shown the true reality, a reality in which man is not the in-control, free moral agent that he thinks he is, but is an unknowing participant in the matrix's Machiavellian enslavement of humanity.

For me, the strongest lesson for Mac users that can be extrapolated from this understanding of human motivation (preferring the comfortable over the uncomfortable) is repeated at the movie's ending, where we find Keanu Reeves assuming his role of "The (Chosen) One." We see that the world is still enslaved to the matrix, but there is a core group of people thinking different, strong enough to take the road less traveled in order to make the world a better place for all.

Many Windows users don't want to be unplugged from Microsoft's OS and applications; in many ways, they don't have to unplug, for the OS war is over in their minds. Just like the denizens of the matrix, they don't realize that the enemy has them pacified. It's sad.

I know people who try to get a rise out of me by making disparaging comments about the Mac. They don't realize that I've grown beyond arguing for or against computing choice - in light of my knowing they're all still plugged into the Redmond matrix. Besides, I prefer to quietly observe their situation. I watch others deal with Windows NT in the workplace. It's amazing how much crap people put up with (it reminds me of the person who has a lover who beats them continually, but still stays will the jerk, confusing abuse for love). Restarting your computer several times a day is not even considered unusual. No one even blanches when their applications crash unexpectedly. People discuss weird error messages, Windows inconsistencies, and Microsoft's sloppy programming with the banality you'd expect when someone checks off a grocery list. I marvel at the level of difficulty that is part and parcel of Windows (it's not a bug; it's a feature), especially when these same people make fun of my audacity to bring a PowerBook into an all-PC environment. In the past, I would normally counter by pointing out the hell they have to deal with to get their PC to behave, but nowadays I'm less inclined to do so. All I do is remember the PC users who will bash "Microsoft's Folly" far more eloquently that I - Stewart Alsop for example, tell us (again and again!) how much he hates Windows, and why he has reason to be hateful.

I deal with Windows during the day and then come home to a far better computing experience. I'm always relieved to come home to consistent interface standards. I remember how at work I have to remember separate sets of keystroke shortcuts for every application ("Select All Text" is "Shift + A" in the Windows program PaintShop Pro it's "Control + Shift + L" in the program Visual Source Safe, yet it's "Control + A" in most other programs. On the Mac, it's always the same keystroke. Why the inconsistency? How much time is wasted with such insanity?).

But, alas and alack, I trust that a better world is a'coming . . . I hope that the people at Apple realize that they are one of the world's only hopes. They can't give up on their mission to make the world a better place. More is at stake than foolish pride and bragging rights. Consider the alternatives. There has to be a better computer out there than the Windows PC.

People are trapped, and they don't know it. They think the world revolves around Control-Alt-Delete. They think a system crash is a normal thing. And they think Bill Gates is The Chosen One. But deep inside, they, like Neo, are looking for a better world. One in which choice and freedom are the order of the day.

Stewart Alsop says it best:

You know what? I really wish there were a computer out there that could give me basic PC applications that work fluidly with the World Wide Web and networking. I really wish that the computer industry wouldn't give up right now and leave us holding the Windows bag, just when we've got this new Internet economy opening up for us. I'm dreaming again about being freed from the [Windows] experts.
 - from the on-line Fortune magazine column, "Have I told you that I hate Windows?"

But we can't rush this better day to fruition. Several things must be accomplished before the matrix can fall. Apple has to do a lot of the vanguard stuff, but the rest of the industry will follow. Open Source must become a reality. The computer manufacturers must get their marketing away from obsession with things like megahertz and year designations behind the names of products (Windows 2000, Quicken, 98) that force people to feel they have to upgrade. Computers must be wrested from the hands of the MIS staff and into the hands of the lay people. In others words, software developers must learn to program for the proletariat.

This is a call for everyone to think different. The computer industry and computer users everywhere. Apple Computer and Mac users can't be the only ones who do this. In the 21st century, it will take more than a few to excel the human race forward. It's time to change things. If we don't, then the world truly is doomed to exist in a mire of Microsoft mediocrity.

God, that's a depressing thought. It's a fate worse than death. With "Windows everywhere," life would become a nightmare from which no one would be able to awake.

Rodney O. Lain, a former university English and journalism instructor, works full-time as a software developer and works part-time at a local CompUSA Apple Store Within A Store. A card-carrying member of the local Macintosh User Group Mini'app'les, Rodney writes this column exclusively for theimac.com. His greatest desire is to become an African-American Guy Kawasaki. A self-professed "workaholic writer," he waxes prolifically about race, religion, and the "right OS" at "Free Your Mind & Your Behind Will Follow", his unabashedly pro-Mac website. When he's not cranking out his column, he collects John Byrne comic books, jogs, and attempts to complete his first novel. He lives in Eagan, Minnesota, a southern suburb of St. Paul.

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