I’m a PC: Why Transhumanism will Fail

Macs: solid, expressive, beautiful, ergonomic.  PCs: buggy, nerdy, clunky, boxy.

The brilliance of the Mac myth is that it’s self-reinforcing because it is steered by the great strength of Apple: smooth and stylishly geekish control of the message.  It’s monolithic and sleek, and folks either love it or love to hate it.

Within this simple marketing dichotomy lies two camps of computer consumer culture and the root of transhumanism’s ultimate FAIL.

Apple of course has it’s problems.  The box is locked down so tight that even loyal users have jailbroken iPhones to get the kind of apps they want, and to get the kind of hardware (bluetooth pairing with wireless keyboards, say) that they want instead of settling for just what Apple sends down the tubes at them.  You’re not meant to tinker with Apple’s stuff.  After all, it “just works” so why bother?

And PCs have a great many boons hidden beneath it’s flaky crust of power-user nerdom.  You can tinker with hardware.  You can add more RAM to the motherboard.  You don’t have to use the default Windows OS.  Like to run Ubuntu on a partitioned drive?  PC’s have no built-in bias against that.  But they don’t always “just work”, and PC use encourages, perhaps, a slightly more advanced level of computer user… which is another way of saying that it may discourage less-skilled users.

Transhumanism is becoming appropriated in fits and starts by popular consumer culture, and because it is about integrating technology deeply into human lives, it will fit into one of two rough modes — it’ll either be Mac or PC.

PC transhumanism is empowering.  It’s for tinkerers and body-mod types.  It’s for folks who don’t mind a bit of self-hack, who aren’t shy of needles, and who don’t get queasy over blood on their soldering irons. The problem (and it’s a big problem) is that PC transhumanism requires a lot of technical know-how.  Could you install a wireless locking arphid system into your forearm?  Would you be able to toggle channels between your phone’s bluetooth headset and the RF in your debit-grommet?  Maybe so.  But most folks will want something simpler, something pre-stamped, something intuitive that they don’t need a technical manual to make work properly.  Most folks will opt for Mac transhumanism — which means they’ll be left out of their own innovation.  If Mac-types were to get very serious about this stuff, maybe they’d be bothered to pop some kind of Cydia analog into their own bloodstreams.  We can hope.

Mac transhumanism is easy.  It’s slick and stylish and smart.  It’ll actually sells itself as it becomes a symbol of social status.  The pearlescent labret jewel with the tiny zirconium Apple logo?  You know, the one that transmits your lat/lon to OpenSocial and funnels coupons from shops near this BART stop to your inbox?  C’mon.

But Mac transhumanism is iTunes only.  You take what you get, you don’t make changes, you don’t hack it without losing your warranty.  Those pushing the services will have no liability for irregular heartbeats or newly-developed stutters should you break the Terms of Service.  When you’ve got ghost pixels floating in the bathtub, you’ll know you should have kept the apple whole.

We’re faced with two transhumanisms.  One is for power-users in bad flannel armed with Abso anti-static wrist straps and clip-on light pens (these, by the way, are the people who make the world work).  The other transhumanism is for the twee peeps who’d rather design and shop than arrange a set of socket wrenches (theirs is a white-on-white future written in iOS, laser-etched laptop echoing the oceanic theme of Gucci wallets or the latest Ben Harper album art).

Neither future works.  The PC people aren’t the greatest communicators, and Mac culture doesn’t like dirt under its fingernails.  Now here we’re in danger of oversimplification, of course, and might repeat the mistakes of C.P. Snow in spelling out “two cultures”.  But oversimplification and grand exaggeration are illustrative.

Transhumanism, then, if it’s an enterprise of promoting civil liberties by encouraging the free (as in freedom) use of advanced technology in our daily lives, has a lot of work to do.

Neither PC nor Mac culture is able to do what needs to be done with transhumanism, but it ends up in one of those two boxes.  And for all the punditry and gushing about the techno-social singularity, we’ll all be downloading Goo upgrades through iTunes and bitching about EULAs like we bitch about photo-enforced traffic tickets.

Get used to it.  The future runs on a Mac.

19 Comments

  1. Broken paradigms that will not be applicable.

  2. There are people who want a computer to look pretty and be user friendly and there are people who want a computer for the technology. Chances are the people in the first group aren’t really going to be on the cutting edge of transhumanism, just because if they want convenience, this isn’t the field for you. There’s going to be a lot of tinkering and probably a decent amount of pain in the future of transhumanism and I’d imagine that alone would be going to far for a lot of people, even with technological proficiency. Those who are informed that the technology exists and who have the tools, money and know how to get it are going to be the first. The ones that want a painless medical procedure for a stable user friendly augmentation are going to be last, after it has been marketed to a larger populace.

    But that doesn’t mean that the future has to be one way or the other. Why would transhumanism be any different from the wealth of different applications we form today? There are competing brands with different functions and different amounts of openness to modification. I can’t see the future being much different in this respect.

  3. i think when the PC is your own body, you will become a mac person.

  4. The problem with this analogy is that computing itself isn’t “Mac/PC only.” It’s both and more. Computing includes everything from supercomputers and mainframes to cellphones (smartphones ARE 2011’s “PC’s”), plus embedded software in appliances.
    The transhumanist toolkits will / already are reflecting this: drugs/meds “are” FDA plus organic herbs, abusable “recreationals”, and probably some other versions I can’t think of right now. Each of these, in turn, have their own continua. Other h+ toolkits have comparable sets of channels running in parallel.
    Maybe it will be worth figuring out the market-segments likely to co-evolve with each such toolkit; how the people in these market-segments per toolkit might interact with differing toolkits at the same time (biotech, neurotech, computing/networking, etc.), and what types of transhuman subcultures will/could thereby morph out of todays mix of cultures, classes, and so on.
    What’s good about this article is the spur to thinking it provides: defining the potential for such ruts is the first step to getting out of them, even if only by creating new ones.

  5. The author seems to be ignorant of the fact that Intel Macs can run not only MacOS, but also Windows and Linux.

    • Even when a Mac runs Windows, they are still separated in what they can do. The Mac OS still can’t run many of the PC programs. This would have been an excellent problem to address in the article.

  6. Let’s face it – Macs work, but just. I met people who use Apple stuff, and at the beginning there is the “Whoa, I know kung-fu!”-moment, but a couple of months later, they end up with half working (due to trying to make out something of the shiny boxes adding software, but without success) and slow devices. And they feel miserable. And are not afraid to show it.

    On the other hand, PCs have the enigmatic feel of a gizmo from a sci-fi flick, which can level a city or build one overnight, but only when the proper person is at the steering wheel. And suddenly this person’s phone is red hot with calls “what to do, it is blinking with that red light again?!”.

    My two cents are, that transhumanism will evolve pretty much like a distant descendant of UNIX – buggy and not very useful at the beginning, making your girlfriend ask you “Nice, but what would you use it for?”, but evolving slowly to something that will paint envy on the face of everyone who don’t have it later on. Everyone who ever fired up a recent version of Kubuntu would understand what I’m trying to say.

    And yes, I know that Mac is also an UNIX descendant, but heck, what use would we have of a transhumanist world without villains?:)

  7. Great article! Of course the right answer is combining the design and usability of the Mac world with the openness and hackability of the PC world (or even better the Linux world).
    Mac vs PC vs Linux
    Iphone vs Android vs… what?
    Mac transhumanism vs PC transhumanism vs… what?

  8. Ok, my heart has started beating again.

    I thought this was going to be about the whole “Mac vs PC” thing where the PC is Windows.

    Sounds like it’s more about open vs closed, which would imply Linux vs Mac/Windows.

    That I can get my head around.

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