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The Cult of Mac

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If the cover of this book, which depicts the Apple logo shaved into the back of someone’s head, doesn’t strike you as an extreme example of product loyalty, then you’re most likely a Mac owner. Leander Kahney’s hiply illustrated coffee table book, The Cult of Mac, is a guided tour of the world of Mac fanatics, a subculture of computer owners for whom the Mac long ago morphed from a tool into a cultural identity.

At the center of the Mac universe, of course, is Steve Jobs, and it’s clear from the thousands of devotees who scramble for seats to his annual Macworld keynote address that he drives the vision not only of the company but of the faithful. People camp out overnight to get seats, much the same as they would to get tickets to see a rock star. Jobs is the man who made it cool to be a geek. Kahney does a good job of placing the development of Apple in the social context of the time – it was the counterculture’s answer to IBM, which was seen as the embodiment of the establishment. Apple users were nonconformists, they were free thinkers, and they were out of the mainstream and out of the box in the best possible way. Even now, Macs appeal widely to artists, designers and other creative types. A good many of the people who started computing with Apple back in the day have remained in the fold, and subsequent new generations of Mac lovers have joined their ranks. While Apple’s market share is small, their customer base is solid and brand loyal in ways that most of us PC users could never understand.

In the first section of the book, we meet the people who inhabit this funky world. Here we find Mac addicts who wear their brand loyalty on their sleeve, or on their hats, or directly on their bodies in the form of Apple logo tattoos. People are apparently so enamored of their Apple windshield decals that they move them from old car to new car time and again. Other folks love spreading the Mac gospel so much that they spend hours of their time volunteering at computer stores in order to keep the Mac shelves clean and orderly and demonstrate Apple products to potential buyers. Perhaps the strangest ritual described herein is the iMac unpacking ceremony, in which you take delivery of your new flat-panel iMac and proceed to invite your friends to the unpacking, which is, of course, photographed step-by-step and eventually posted online at one of the numerous Mac communities and forums.

Any student of popular culture knows that the Japanese bow to no one when it comes to taking an obsession to its extreme, and their love of the Mac proves no exception. The Japanese version of the annual Macworld gathering is even more heavily attended than the one in the U.S., with attendance easily reaching upwards of 180,000 of the faithful. In addition to acquiring new Macs, Japanese users are extremely fond of the retro chic of older models and often spend a great deal of money upgrading the innards of these machines. The prettiest picture in the book is of a Powerbook G4 which was customized by its owner with a case painted in traditional Japanese style. Japanese Mac fans seem much fonder than their American counterparts of customizing their computers in dramatic ways, from painting them in custom colors to doing extreme case modifications.

The international obsession with Apple products old and new supports a thriving collectibles market. If you’ve ever owned a Mac, you might check your attic and basement to see if you have anything lying around, because retro Mac is pretty hot. In addition to the computers themselves, there’s a market for all sorts of related items, from t-shirts to promotional items like mugs and key chains, and there seems to be a group devoted to every flavor of Mac that was ever produced, like the folks who collect and upgrade Color Classics because they’re hopelessly in love with the machine’s small size.

Kahney brings Mac fanaticism into the present and future with a chapter on the ubiquitous iPod. He notes that the technical development of the iPod has largely been driven by the hackers who sought to expand the capabilities of the first models on the market and suggests that the current state of the hacker scene is likely predictive of the iPod’s future path. Inventive iPod owners use their little gadgets in a number of innovative ways, from the illegal (stealing software from machines at computer stores) to the entertaining (they are very popular with DJs, who use them to store and transport entire music collections).

In the book’s final chapter, Kahney attempts to describe what is at the core of every Mac owner’s loyalty, and one defining characteristic appears to be the perceived differences between corporate cultures, the Mac-versus-PC ethos. Apple’s brand identity is at the core of its success. Mac owners defend Apple as a corporation that is more devoted to people than to profits and view Microsoft as the evil empire, while simultaneously viewing themselves as part of a larger community (or congregation, as Kahney feels that the Mac community resembles a religion in many ways). While I don’t intend to defend Microsoft here, it seems unrealistic to assume that Apple is less driven by profit motive than is any other corporation, particularly one which has to hold itself accountable to stockholders. I’m sure that if Apple were to capture a major share of the desktop market, Jobs would be dancing on the tables. Also, Apple’s reputation as the people’s computer is a bit hard to swallow in light of its prices, which are considerably higher than those for similarly equipped PCs, even with educational discounts applied. Does Apple treat its customers any better than, say, Dell? Not in my personal experience, but that’s a small sample study that you can take for what it’s worth. This past summer, my husband and I spent way more money than we wanted to on a Mac for our college-bound son, a film student. It’s certainly prettier than the workmanlike Dell Workstation that sits under my desk at the office, but it was defective out of the box and needed to have both of its CPUs replaced. Dealing with Apple’s customer support hierarchy (on a brand-new machine, no less) was no more satisfying an experience than dealing with customer support in any other corporate environment, but for what it’s worth, my son, a lifelong PC user, is happy with his Mac and probably qualifies as a cultist-in-training.

As I mentioned earlier, this is an attractive book that would do justice to any Mac fanatic’s coffee table. While I realize that the target audience for this book is likely younger than me, the small type in which this book is set gives my middle-aged eyesight absolute fits, but that’s a minor quibble. Nonetheless, if you are a Mac cultist, or know one that you’d like to understand better, this is a very entertaining read.

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About Lisa McKay

  • Jim Carruthers

    When I visited Tokyo, I was able to use a Japanese Macintosh even though I have no understanding of kanji.

    Saying they are expensive is just silly because you aren’t talking about value. There’s a real difference. And the Mac is a durable brand, something Dell doesn’t have.

    I’ve used this exercise for several years. You have to spend $2K, and choose between two brown boxes. You don’t know what’s in them, but you have to choose one. One has the Apple logo on it, the other the Dell logo.

    Which is the better value?

  • Temple A. Stark

    Thanks Lisa – a well-crafted exposition on Being Mac.

    Let’s hope this doesn’t dissolve. People love their Macs – me included – because of quality, because of reliability.

    These same people might use PCS for other reasons. Luckily at work and at home, I don’t have to..

    Found a couple of links to the 1984 commercial. Here (streaming) and here.

    And for anyone who tries to make this into a Democrat/Republican political discussion, Rush Limbaugh uses a Mac.

  • Jim Carruthers

    I really need to dig out some old computer magazines from the mid 80s with columns about how Apple will never succeed with the Mac in the face of overwhelming threat of IBM and Compaq.

    You know? The two companies you buy all your home and office PCs from?

  • Bryce Eddings

    Nice review
    Listed at Advance