We are all the sledgehammer, Apple does like to tell its fans. We are all disruptors hurtling toward one great screen, breaking the iron-fisted hold that other tech firms want to impose on us. The hellscape dystopia world of Apple’s famed “1984” commercial modeled after George Orwell’s seminal dystopia 1984 never really came to pass. As silly as it is to say, Apple was right. We didn’t win some nebulous liberation, exactly. We won a whole different soup of tech-based dystopia.
Despite what your perpetually online uncle rails about at the dinner table, we have not yet landed in a mass, totalitarian regime of doublethink and newspeak (though the jury’s still out about Big Brother). Instead, Apple, and the other major tech companies, have offered us a different flavor of big tech dominion, one both more insidious and less in-your-face than Orwell’s take. That’s right, it’s the old Huxley-Orwell debate your English 101 professor mentioned in passing back in freshman year of college.
Today, tech companies pander to people’s worst impulses to siphon as much money from their users as possible. It’s a model envisioned by Aldous Huxley. His 1932 novel, Brave New World, describes how average folks would seek their own oppression for the simple, mindless pleasures of drugs and technology, reducing their capacity or even desire to fight back against that which took away their autonomy. Yes, as much as it sounds like doomerism, today’s current tech environment tracks much more closely to Huxley’s crapsack vision than Orwell’s.
During the 1984 Super Bowl, just 40 years and a day before now, Apple and newcomer director Ridley Scott shared its vision for the future with the original Macintosh computer. A woman in bright red running shorts and a tank top with a Macintosh logo emblazoned on the front escapes jackbooted police down a long, moody hallway. She assaults a large television screen running a “Big Brother”-esque authoritarian figure with a sledgehammer. As it bursts into pieces, all the captivated, braindead denizens of this bunker can only stare open-mouthed as the screen bursts into a blinding light.
“On January 24th Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”
It’s a real curiosity by today’s advertorial standards, and it was seen as strange and awkward even from inside Apple, but that $900,000 advertisement later proved to be a success. Apple released the Mac on the following day, and the company sold 250,000 Macintosh 128Ks by the end of the year. Though the estate of George Orwell contested the commercial as copyright infringement, Apple later brought out the same commercial again in 2004, though modified to promote the iPod. Scott later called the commercial “devastatingly effective.”
We keep coming back to this commercial even 40 years later. Apple’s original target, IBM, is a shell of its former self whereas Apple is easily one of the biggest tech giants on the planet. There have been so many parodies and retreads of it released over the years, that the ad itself has lost all effective meaning.
That’s fine, because the meaning behind the confused ad is already dead, as broken as a massive TV screen with a sledgehammer-shaped hole in it. We instead have social media apps and their user-as-product model pushing products both organically and artificially. Apps like TikTok and Facebook take and sell users’ data to advertisers. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, these apps make money by offering a chance of human connection in exchange for your data.
Apple is not directly in the business of social apps, and it does like to point to its own privacy settings and app mandates (ignoring the other privacy issues inherent with Apple devices). Still, its devices created the app ecosystem as we know it. The company is now pushing its own anti-metaverse with the Vision Pro. We don’t know how popular it could get, nor how many apps folks are expected to engage with when strapped into the headset.
What Apple and CEO Tim Cook want now is full AR glasses. Those devices seem designed to take us away from the isolation of social apps by forcing our feeds directly in front of our eyes to the point we can’t see how isolated we are. It would be a boon to Apple, already a company that really, really wants its users to remain in its app ecosystem. That now-routine form of invisible, enforced surrender to Apple’s products and services does seem pretty totalistic. Still, Apple isn’t the only one vying for users’ dwindling attention span. Apple is guilty, but it’s debatable if it’s any more liable than the other major tech companies. Still, the children of Apple would probably say something like “we learned it from watching you.”
Has Apple become “the man” that needs smashing with the force of a hurled hammer? Yeah, definitely, though no more than any of the other largest big tech companies. Even back then, the anti-authoritarian message of Apple’s now-famous commercial was taken down by the obvious consumerist intent behind it. Other computers are marching you toward blind acceptance. Don’t be a brain dead sheep. Buy a Mac instead.
The irony that people paid Orwell for the sake of his writing was never lost on the writer when he was alive. That same sense of irony could translate into the several attempts to bring 1984 to the big screen, but a commercial based on his work is a strange apparition that necessitates a whole load of skepticism. Apple and Scott had to ignore how Eric Blair, AKA George Orwell, was an ardent socialist who criticized colonialism, industrialism, and capitalism for his entire life before penning 1984 in 1948. This was the same ardent anti-fascist who was wounded fighting against fascists in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the anarchists (you can read that history in his personal account Homage to Catalonia). He wrote several essays like The Lion and the Unicorn where he explicitly criticized ads in newspapers and how they work as part of a system to divert their attention away from modern problems.
There are a million and one ways to critique Orwell’s views, and even the man himself. He was notoriously hard to get along with, and he wasn’t exactly the epitome of a good father. Still, Apple’s 1984 commercial is an artifact of artifice. We keep referring back to it with nostalgic reverence, but its message was just as confused then as it is now. I’d rather not pretend there’s anything more to the commercial than being one big joke about sledgehammers and screens.