What do we mean by a "general tool"? The process of transferring "skills" from human to machine is essentially done in stages. The first stage involves a craftsperson building a prototype machine which consists of the craftperson's brain/hand skill being broken down into its component parts and each process being assigned to a specific element of the machine. A good example of this process would be the metal turning lathe. The lathe itself consists of several elements. The first is motive power (this emulates muscle power), the second is measurement (which embodies generational experience of the physical environment), the third is the process of transforming the raw material into a useful product (this represents the actual tool-using capability of the craftsperson).
In the development of the lathe the process of synthesizing these elements may take place as follows: Power in the form of rotational motion must first be transferred to the chuck (the chuck represents a discrete, artificial form of hand for holding the work in place); a method of transferring measurements to the material to be worked on, and finally the cutting tool itself and its interaction with the material to be transformed. In the initial development of the lathe the cutting tool had to be brought in contact with the raw material manually and the measurements for how much metal to remove were also done manually (with calipers and later micrometers). But as more and more expertise became embedded in the lathe, the operator could simply set vernier dials on the machine and eventually even the act of cutting was automated via a screw-driven feed connected both to the cutting tool and the rotating chuck (it is here that we begin to see the emergence of feedback systems of some complexity, e.g. the lathe has to "know" when to stop cutting). The act of developing the lathe then is a two part process, first, the job is broken down into its discrete parts which are then "re- united" via the interaction of various forms of generalized feedback (as in the above example).
The end product of this process is the emergence of what I refer to as a "general tool," that is, a tool whose basic principles embody not only the specific skills of the craftsperson, but more importantly, the "skills" are embedded in the lathe in such a way as to "mask" not only the craft origins of the process in terms of the skills needed by the operator to use the machine, but more importantly, the tasks are standardized via specific elements incorporated into the operating system of the lathe. This is done by "pre- setting" the lathe as much as possible for a single task or series of tasks. In this way the operator need only know, firstly, how to load the lathe with the raw material, then how to turn it on, and finally, how start and stop the sequence of operations that results in the end product, the finished article.
Downloaded from New York On-Line Submitted by Brian Goldberg of Drift Distribution Published here, as well as in the HyperStatic Database, without the Author's Permission (Anyone know his address?)
But what makes the Macintosh so different from other kinds of personal computer? Aside from the raw power of its main processor (equivalent to a room-sized machine of say 15 years ago), the operating system represents a radical departure from the essentially "science" based systems of such machines as the Apple II or large mainframes. By this I mean that in order to interact with earlier forms of the computer, some considerable knowledge of the computer itself is necessary in the form of a computer "language" that the user must first master before being able to make use of the machine's computing power.
In this sense virtually all computers prior to such machines as the Macintosh represent the formative stages of the development of computer technology as it is expressed under capitalism.
The account above is an accurate if abbreviated description of the nature of the technical transformation brought about by the advent of the industrial system. That machine tools are now many orders of magnitude beyond the originals in complexity and versatility does not alter the fundamental concepts that they all utilize. Indeed, until the advent of the computer, basic machine tool design has not fundamentally changed since the 19th century, and even with the addition of computer control, such tools still use the same basic principles.
The slogan "the computer for the rest of us" is extremely misleading (and probably has a lot to do with why Apple dropped it), but buried in the idea is a kernel of truth, for indeed if, and it's a big if, some kind of standard for using computers were to be adopted by all computer makers, then the promise in the slogan could have read, "The Macintosh, universal tool, the computer for all of us." There are heavy ironies on many levels, which are not only interesting to pursue simply as ideas, but also relevant to the direction society is, or could be taking.
The market economy as it is now constituted presents many obstacles to the adoption of a general tool such as I have described above. A corporation like IBM, of course, has the clout to try and force its standard on everyone else, but in fact it is more likely to be the State in the form of the IRS or some other large bureaucracy that decides what the standard should be (simply by virtue of sheer numbers bought and the need for a common protocol of communication).
In a sense, the Macintosh operating system is a form of "State Socialism," in that its effective operation depends on absolute adherence to what are euphemistically known as "the Macintosh guidelines." The user interacts with the operating system via a command structure that is the same regardless of the application. While I have no fundamental quarrel with this approach, for it to work effectively everything must be "in" there; that is to say, every possible contingency must be planned for.
This after all is what the Toolbox is all about (note the description of the sub-routines or "mini-programs" as Tools). It parallels very closely the kinds of standards developed in machine tools, for as with the industrial tool, the operating system effectively "masks" the "real" operation of the computer by interposing itself between the user and the Central Processing Unit. The operating system then is itself the "general tool" that I referred to earlier. This approach has other drawbacks for it means that all applications written for the machine must conform to the rules or "guidelines." Apple even suggests that the application be sent to them for "clearance." What this means is that they check it to see that it doesn't "collide" with some other application that may be co-resident with it, or parts of the operating system itself (which in turn may have already been "harmonized" for some other application already loaded into the machine). This further suggests that one fundamental error was made in the design of the the operating system, namely that it is not a true multi-tasking machine, for a multi-tasking machine is inherently designed to accommodate different applications concurrently.
Even this modest scratching of the surface of the Macintosh reveals the incredible complexity of such a general tool, not so much because it has so many disparate functions, but because they can be combined in a never-ending array of permutations. It also illustrates just how much expertise and labor is actually embedded in the machine's operating system.
The Macintosh then is a multi-purpose graphics-based computer which has a built in set of "tools" for manipulating the Central Processing Unit (as well as the auxiliary processors) which interacts with the user through a set of choices represented by words or images. The icons are simply generalized signs for objects or functions (the use of language independent images for universal communication is well known to us through for example, international traffic signs). For example, the "undo typing" command in Macwrite doesn't know what typing it's undoing, it just does it, the command itself is a "generic" term, which in turn acts on certain "assumptions" made about the command.
But with all the talk of icons on the Macintosh, it is the Word that has become the real icon, in that by generalizing English words, the operating system has been "colloquialized," or opened up to the speech of everyday interaction. In other words, "any fool can use it" And it is a fact that the Macintosh really is easy to use (as well as being extremely frustrating at times), and anybody can master the basic system in a very short time.
By contrast, many people have raised serious objections to the "black box" approach used by machines such as the Macintosh, arguing that by making the machine into a closed system it not only reduces the range of choices open to the user, but perhaps more importantly it encourages a particular attitude towards machines in general by mystifying the processes involved. This in turn leads to a state of unquestioning acceptance of the supremacy of technology. This is, of course, a process which began with the industrial revolution.
A comparison between products of the first industrial revolution and the revolution we are in the middle of illustrates the difference. The first products of the machine age were essentially simplified versions of the craft original (simplified because the machines themselves still reflected on the one hand their craft origins, and on the other because they were still relatively crude machines their powers of "resolution" were limited). What this meant was that the products of the early machines were still accessible to craft worker, they could be repaired or modified by hand, but perhaps more important than that, the processes embedded in the products were comprehensible to the worker. Inevitably as the techniques used in production got more and more complex and the sophistication of the machines grew, so too the products became more and more inaccessible to the ordinary individual. In this sense then, the Macintosh reflects the general trend of industrial production to further alienate the worker from the processes s/he is involved in.
There are obviously a variety of forces at work that result in this development which reflect on the one hand, the nature of productive relations (increasing complexity), and on the other, the drive to increase profits (which in turn has an important effect on such things as complexity, repair versus replacement). It obviously benefits the manufacturer to replace rather than repair a product (the tag, "no user serviceable parts inside" is by now well known to us). The issue is however more complex and reflects a much larger problem, that of the relationship between consumer and producer, which in turn is predicated on the level of education.
Elsewhere in this essay I mentioned "general education" as a reflection of the generalizing effect of industrial production on the labor process. The specialization necessary for modern science-based production methods is predicated on the existence of a stratum of the work force who possess unique knowledge of the processes involved. This technocratic "caste" is indispensable to modern productive forces, but even this highly trained segment of the work force is under threat from developments in the field of so-called "expert systems and Artificial Intelligence."
Each round of technical advances has heightened the contradiction, by making production cheaper and cheaper, which means that in order to make a profit, you have to squeeze more out of the consumer, who is also a producer (or at least some of them). The time lag between the introduction of a new technology and its eventual absorption by society grows ever shorter. Hence technical change is forced on us with greater frequency. Eventually however, it must "bottom out." There is a finite limit to the amount of production the world economy can absorb, at least as it is presently set up.
Taylorism, for example, does for the actual integration of the production process what standard units of measurement does for the machine tool itself. The invention of the telephone initiated the process of the standardization of communications protocols. Ultimately then, it would follow that the introduction of computers into production and distribution would eventually arrive at the same destination, that of standardization and the extraction of general principles of use. General principles would be laid down about, for example, the way computers relate to production processes. We already see such things in the field of electronic communications, but the process is of course, fragmented and uneven in its development and application.
It is interesting to note that Apple has, so far successfully, squashed all attempts to imitate its user interface (the so-called desktop, pulldown menus, etc.), threatening to sue any company that comes close to imitating the "look and feel" of the Macintosh environment. It is tempting to speculate about what kind of long term view Apple have of the development of the computer/human environment (for good or bad). It would appear that Apple have recognized the necessity for a "universal" means of accessing the computer. If, in one form or another, a set, standardized way of accessing computers can be established that enables the "de- skilled" and "unskilled" to access computers and the dead labor they contain, the complex problem of maintaining society can be handled without resort to educating everyone to the level of the university.
But for this to happen, for a critical period of time, one system must dominate! This is obviously what Apple is banking on happening. AT&T has done it in telecommunications. IBM has already done it in the "business" environment, but that is the land of the Nabobs: we are talking about the domain of Burger King! As office automation accelerates, and virtually all forms of commercial interactions are "standardized," the problem of utilizing a deliberately under-educated work force to handle extremely complex tasks, becomes a "manageable" one. The standardized interface of the Macintosh lends itself well to dissolving the difference between "factory" and "office" work. The old, artificial hierarchy of blue and white collar work is on its way out, to be replaced by the generic, general service worker, who has enough skills to work a slick automated terminal like the Macintosh, and dispose of the output in some way (i.e., post it, stuff it or shred it), but a person who has no control over the work being done! For proof of this we need look no further than the cash register of a typical fast food chain. The only numbers you see are the final bill! All the cashier need do is punch a button marked "cheeseburger," or "coke," and the built in processor handles all the addition and taxes. MThe Macintosh that I sit writing this on runs in a similar way to the fast food cash register, in that in order, for example, to change the font that I am using, all I need do is move the cursor to the "button" marked font, and select one! The old way would mean knowing a set of commands that would load a different font into memory, and then only when the document was printed. They might be, "ESC E-56, ESC-CTRL L," and further, they would have to be inserted in the text at precisely the right point and then turned off at the appropriate point by another yet another set of commands.
The languages that computers use reflect this process, for the first languages were specialized tools of mathematics and logic (again reflecting the "craft" origins of computers), but arcane and abstruse, understood only by the select "few." Further, the very nature of the