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In this 37th year of 1984, what comes after?

Peter Coffee Profile picture for user Peter Coffee February 3, 2020
Apple told us 1984 wouldn't be like '1984'. Salesforce Peter Coffee has questions 36 years later...

Apple Ad

The Super Bowl Sunday of 2020, on February 2, happened 13,160 days after the only large-scale paid-to-play broadcast of Apple’s memorable TV spot based on themes of George Orwell’s 1984. That Macintosh teaser ad famously ends with the statement, “You'll see why 1984 won't be like ‘1984’”. What I’m wondering, thirty-six years later, is when we’ll finally see what comes after 1984 – because, in many ways, it feels as if we’ve yet to move beyond it.

Let’s consider four domains of “When will we get something more?”

  • Has any technology advertisement since had more impact?
  • Has any advance in user experience since been more of an immediate improvement?
  • Has any other company propelled as global a change of everyday life?
  • Will anything happen this year that we’ll still be using as an exemplar of thought leadership in 2056?

For those who don’t already know the story, the “1984” ad itself was hated by Apple’s board of directors – and was only aired because its 60 seconds of TV time was bought and (perhaps intentionally) not resold by Apple’s advertising agency despite their being told to do so. Conventional thinkers, at Apple and elsewhere, thought the ad was awful because it did not show the product.

That “Where’s the product?” objection, satirized in a famous parody video of redesigning the iPod package by committee, was flawed in the same way as the question asked by IBM salespeople, who demanded that “wardrobe engineer” John Molloy tell them how to follow his dictum to “dress like the product”. He answered them with research that showed people associating computers with cost, complexity, and unreliability – and thus was born the defining IBM look of simple, frugal and reliable-looking dark suit, white shirt and tie.

That IBM dress code did not accentuate the product’s positives, but instead alleviated the customers’ negatives – just as the “1984” ad told people, “It’s not going to be the impersonal and authoritarian future that you’ve feared.” And people showed up to learn more. Everyone in tech today can learn from both the Apple and the IBM examples: that it’s hugely important to get over one’s pride in the difficult work of what one has created, and instead to look through the eyes and to feel the emotions of customers who just want to be sure they’re not being hoodwinked, ripped off, exploited or otherwise abused.

Movies like “The Social Network” and TV shows like “Silicon Valley” promote a popular perception that people who “do technology” are all about squeezing money out of the wallets and the personal data of users. The Apple of today, with its focus on customer privacy and lifestyle, is still a company that gets this more than most. Thirty-six years after “1984,” shouldn’t this be more common? Why is Salesforce, if I may offer another example, able to say that “Trust is our #1 value” and have that still sound differentiating? Shouldn’t that be an “as opposed to what?” kind of thing?

User experience

What about the transformation of user experience? I’ve spent enough time with command lines that they don’t intimidate me, and enough time doing things like customize my keystrokes in (soon to be end-of-life’d) KEDIT that I can fully appreciate the power of that model. “In the beginning was the command line,” Neal Stephenson correctly observed, and he concluded that “If you don't like having choices made for you, you should start making your own.”

Even so, there was power in the WIMPy (Windows, Icons, Menus and a Pointing device) idea that all of the applications we use should share certain common affordances like File and Edit menus; common behaviors including point and (left-)click to select, point and right-click to inspect, and double-click to act. Has anyone in the past 36 years offered any comparable elevation of discoverability, consistency, and (thanks to the notion of “Undo” as a standard behavior) resilience against users’ untutored explorations and errors?

The next step in our experience, we might have expected in 1984, would be systems that were just as much of an improvement in predicting and/or guiding and assisting our actions. The technologies of Apple’s Siri, Google’s Smart Compose, and Salesforce’s Einstein predictions and recommendations have all made progress in this direction, but none of them has flipped the switch on our definition of normal and expected interaction as quickly as Apple did just by bundling MacWrite and MacPaint with its 1984 machines.

If I knew what could do as much for us now, as those primitive but transformative applications did then, I’d do it. I absolutely resist the idea that there is nothing more to be done.

No flying cars? 

Finally, the more subjective disappointments that I’m feeling in the 37th year of 1984 are pretty much in the same vein as “Where is our Mars colony and what happened to flying cars?” Science fiction analysts have noted a pivot away from the people-in-capes science fiction of Hugo Gernsback, what William Gibson described in 1981 as “a dream logic that knew nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuel, of foreign wars it was possible to lose… I imagined them thronging the plaza of white marble, orderly and alert, their bright eyes shining with enthusiasm for their floodlit avenues and silver cars.” What we’ve gotten since 1984 feels a lot more like “swapping out sci-fi’s intergalactic idealism for a gritty, street-level look,” to quote one commentary on the cyberpunk genre.

Crucially, that same commentary also notes, William Gibson himself “credits his talent as a sci-fi novelist to ignoring technological developments, instead training his focus on the conversations, the language, and above all, the human energy that drives programmers, hackers, game developers, and other cyberculture creatives.” It’s about the conversations. It’s what we’re evolved to do, what separates us most from other species.

One of these years, it would be good to achieve as much of an improvement in that as we have in the technologies that make it easier to ignore, than to engage with, each other. I’m looking forward to seeing that happen in the year after 1984 – whenever it finally comes.

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