Poison Apples

Thirty years ago, Apple Computer launched a new product with a messianic commercial in which legions of blank-faced, coverall-clad workers march, as if in a trance, through a strange industrial world. They arrive at a bright screen, which they sit in front of in homogeneous rows to watch a Big Brother–like figure announce the triumph of a mind-controlling monoculture. An athlete speeds toward the massive hall. Her sprinting power, her golden skin and bright red shorts, and even her gender stand in contrast to the zombie shuffle of the male figures.

The ad cuts back and forth between this vivid, supercharged woman in color and the bald ghost-workers in black and white. Pursued by faceless police in riot helmets intent on stopping her, she nevertheless finds time to spin her sledgehammer round and round before hurling it at the screen, where it smashes the image of Big Brother. The screen explodes in brightness, like an atomic blast, before the video cuts to a shot of the audience’s illuminated faces, their mouths open in shock. Then comes the famous tagline: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’ ” It’s perhaps Silicon Valley’s first announcement that they don’t just make tools; they make culture. But what kind of culture?

This minute-long movie was made in an era of considerable anxiety about the future. Alien (1979) postulated the usual hostile invaders, with better effects; Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) showed a chaotic world of post-peak-oil car mania; Blade Runner (1982) was set in a Los Angeles that was a weird mix of post-human and post-white, two qualities that were regarded with what seemed like equal dismay; and The Terminator (1984) worried about smart machines. This little Apple film was made to pep you up about the future, not to scare you, back in the days when the power of computers was puny compared with now, and nuclear threats were huge.

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December 1, 2014