The World's Most Function Mystery Box

a minority report on the state of laptop design

by by Michelle Snow

In the curios shoppe of my retired personal electronics, commingling in a drawer among exhausted AA batteries and grimy Tamagotchis, are two black hunks of plastic. First is a now-defunct Sony Walkman that sits inanimate among a motley assortment of tangled headphones; I'd throw it away if it weren't for my sentimental attachment to the unique constellation of stickers plastered to its casing. Second is my first laptop ever: a sturdy IBM ThinkPad with a bright red cursor-control button I once wielded with grace and precision. Of course, its onyx shell is smudged with fingerprints to a dull slate; its memory is full, its processor sluggish; and it possesses an annoying penchant for overheating under the slightest duress. The state of general disrepair that characterizes this archive of my growth as a technology consumer would offer no clue to suggest that its owner now regularly polishes her 17-inch silver Apple PowerBook with zeal.

Like so many converts to the Mac gospel of style and function, I met the first sight of my laptop with ardor. Nothing in the world seemed unreachable to me, nothing incompatible with my thoroughly modern machine. So I felt profoundly deflated when, during a semester abroad in Copenhagen, I found that my language class's instructional CD-ROM--Danish for Ducklings--was written in a format my Mac couldn't read. I told my professor about this woeful CD-Wrong, and instead of offering me apologies and solutions, she patted my laptop's shiny surface and told me a story: "You know, all the young people in Denmark are catching on to Apple computers," she said. "If you go into the University library, you'll see lots of boring PCs, but if you look around for someone with a Mac, you'll usually see lots of other young people gathered around him or her, throwing their phone numbers at them and asking for dates." When I asked for the reason behind the trend, she answered, "It just looks good."

A machine for living
To my Danish teacher, owning an Apple computer was a kind of social currency, the apparatus itself a symbol of taste and means. Here, on a campus like Brown's, where the sight of a MacBook's single, iconic apple glowing promisingly is more ubiquitous than our own university mascot, these associations have become commonplace and naturalized. Indeed, in any discussion about the general look of Apple computers, their monolithic 'coolness' has become inescapable fact, a sort of catch-all term for everything that makes them attractive.

Over the years, we've witnessed Macs morph from bulbous, candy orange or teal lava lamps into the smooth, streamlined computers of choice for academics, writers, artists and designers. MacBooks are among the most heavily placed products in commercial television; our favorite stars open the lids of their skinny laptops to tap out their thoughts, flirt with their peers or solve crimes. A cursory glance from any Starbucks vestibule captures the typical spectrum of trademark whites, blacks and silvers. More neutral than neutral, cleaner than clean, these three color choices stand out like the alien porcelain of a new toilet. Apple computers, with their polycarbonate or brushed aluminum cases, are made to look new in every sense of the word, until they're no longer new, in which case you buy a new one.

In its own way, a MacBook is the perfect crystallization of the vestigial edicts of modernism, with its clean slate politics, and borrows from its aesthetic vocabulary of readable shapes and clean composition in service of function. With softened right angles and bright lights, Apple's design is antiseptic, invoking the sanitation and salvation of electricity itself. It is anti-urban; it is suburban, as open as it is contained, efficient. Its pristine shell would have us believe in its power to organize chaos and challenge us smugly to conceive of a more egalitarian framing device for the access to total information and the tools of creative production. What passes for mere description of a MacBook's seemingly essential qualities is really mired in the visual rhetoric of modernism and its problematic citation of the capital T and D of Truth and Democracy. Apple products position themselves as perfect reductions of mobile technology, as true Corbusian machines for living the iLife. Acknowledging this, we are left at a familiar impasse: how do we improve upon perfection?

Vanish into thin air
Nowhere is this conundrum more apparent than in the wake of the two latest additions to the Apple family, the MacBook Air and the iPhone, which take diminutive to new levels. According to Apple's website, "The thinness of MacBook Air is stirring. But perhaps more impressive, there's a full-size notebook encased in the 0.16 to 0.76 inch of sleek, sturdy anodized aluminum. And at just 3.0 pounds, MacBook Air is more than portable--it's with you everywhere you go." This computer is meant to be at hand during keynote presentations the same way the iPhone is ready to navigate for you on the way to a new restaurant or obscurely situated gallery opening. Underlying the design is the science of intuition, of creating perfect machines and programs that work in tandem with users' daily lives. The synchronized Apple family of inventions hopes to synchronize with your needs and desires. It can contain all of them, parade each across your screen, in and out of your life at your will, which is the swish of your finger or the tap of your thumb. Any criticism is absorbed in the hypnotic refrain the website offers at every turn: "It just works."

Shrouded in the discourse of innovation and progress, the design of both products is foregrounded to evidence Apple's forward-thinking. The website articulates these values, echoing industry cries of the impossibility of devices so small only to shatter the doubts with the shining fact of their creation. The MacBook Air is the "result of rethinking conventions... of breakthrough design... Mobile computing suddenly has a new standard."
But this ceaseless pattern of standards broken and reset is tired. Apple is just one company whose practices are symptomatic of the general technological moment. It and other companies, such as its famed cohort Google, employ a goal-setting model of innovation consistent with young, post-Silicon Valley business. In a January New Yorker article, Ken Auletta paints a portrait of the personal business behaviors of Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Auletta recounts a management meeting he attended, saying that "Page and Brin are like a tag team, taking turns as they chide employees for devising something that is merely a 'cute' solution, not a fundamental one." He goes on to quote one high-up employee, Eric Schmidt, who elaborates further on the Brin-Page duo: "They think about what should be, and they assume it is possible."
This assumption of possibility is undoubtedly one of the most laudable aspects of laptop design. Apple designers set themselves the challenge of the smallest laptop they could imagine, and made it. But applying this productive assumption toward the end of making laptops smaller, while fascinating and convenient, is extremely limited in vision. This obsession with ultra-mobile micro-computing has become a myopic focus of design, equating the personality of the machine with the personality of the user who carries it, but ending up blurring and paralyzing the two altogether at the hands of a very modern, universalizing uniformity.

All in the name of function, the attractive materiality of the slight MacBook Air is its very immateriality, which therefore makes it the ultimate commodity. The name of the MacBook Air itself announces its elementality, not only to show its lightness, but also to situate it as necessary as the stuff we breathe. It requires only a little stretch of the imagination to envisage a Mac store filled with the latest MacBook Fires and MacBook Waters, warming our collective cockles and quenching our manufactured thirsts.

Ideas worth spreading
In a recently posted Ted Talk--the kind of Idea-heavy event that Apple enthusiasts go gaga over--JJ Abrams, creator and writer of hit TV shows Lost and Alias, developed his lecture around the figure of the "Mystery Box." As a child, Abrams and his grandfather shared a mutual passion for amateur magic and frequented a local magic shop. One day, Abrams purchased a "Mystery Box" filled with a complete set of tricks, enough to put on a whole show. But Abrams never opened the box, at first thinking of preserving its value. Eventually, after the death of Abrams' grandfather, the unopened box itself accrued a kind of sentimental value. The box went on to be a fixture of Abrams' psyche and a driving conceptual force behind his work, the creation of elaborate mysteries that unfold almost indefinitely. But throughout his work there was the perpetual presence of some ineffable, mysterious core. In fact, he capitalized on the entertainment value of this unknown. During the presentation, Abrams unfolded a tissue box to show its component parts and conspicuously pointed numerous times to his beloved MacBook.

For Abrams, the discussion of his unopened Mystery Box and the plug of his wondrous laptop had nothing to do with one another. But that this spinner of mystery plots would point to his MacBook and praise its obvious function as his preferred tool, his indispensable right hand in the creative process, is ironic. The MacBook's very principle is its ability to dispel mystery, to be an exemplar of intuitive computing, to be as open to any use and as transparent in delivery as possible. The MacBook, in other words, is a means to an end. Here is where the Mystery Box might serve as a useful metaphor for caution in blind acceptance of any laptop's perfection. A restoration of the mystery of the MacBook, of its role as a personal artifact, a renewed understanding of it as a box with gears and circuits, might work to unravel some the tyranny of gloss and refinement.

Heed Helvetica
We are not without our historical precedents. The font Helvetica has been exalted, dragged through the mud and redeemed in the eyes of the design community over the years. It was to be the perfect font, the most readable, the clearest, the most transparent. It was redemptive in these capacities, a way of forgetting the traumatic past of wars and forging ahead to a time of clarity, democracy and capitalism. It was the culmination of rational thought, the typographic manifestation of logic. It then became the font of choice for America's age of the corporation, shaping logos that became obtrusive in their unobtrusiveness. That any corporation, no matter its product or mission, could find its reflection in Helvetica is a telling point. The critical backlash was harsh, the postmodern critique swift to replace it with chaos, with random flourishes of handwritten type that bore the mark of the maker.

A movement has emerged to confront the hegemony of sleek contemporary technological design: Steampunk. Steampunk Magazine's manifesto is nostalgic for a time long past: "Before the age of homogenization and micro-machinery, before the tyrannous efficiency of internal combustion and the domestication of electricity, lived beautiful, monstrous machines that lived and breathed and exploded unexpectedly at inconvenient moments." Steampunk populates Internet aggregators like Boing Boing because it falls in the category of Cool Internet Find. Most recently, Datamancer, a popular Steampunk artist, customized a laptop with Victorian brass and ornate wood. The craftsmanship is stunning and presents a direct, literal opposition to the complacent minimalism of the MacBook.

This report comes at the heels of a personal, demoralizing Apple fatigue. I am stuck pondering how, short of whittling myself my own self-destructive laptop, to operate within and against the instinctual pleasure I derive from the modern friendliness of my PowerBook. The search for improvements on perfection is a misguided tour through decoration and kitsch. Looking around me at the countless others who hold exact replicas of my beloved computer, I see hardly any expression of individuality, the hero common, however complicated and fractured, to both modernism and its post-. I long for the days when I could exclaim "Cool!" at the latest touch technology, fancying myself Tom Cruise in Minority Report, handling information tactically, just lights and seamless swishes. All I can imagine now in the haze of my mind is a call for employing new science fictions in order to relish the absolute potential before design turns these into science truths. I imagine a computer that retains its portability and its portality--that is, its function as a gateway to information and creation. I imagine screens and dataclouds, the stuff cultural theory tells me is the way of the future. I imagine a Genius bar of my peers, not employees; that a laptop's natural deterioration over time--the wearing of keys, the smudges of fingerprints, the indentation of palms after years of wear and weight--were not a detraction from it, but an asset, a beautiful product of use. I imagine screenshots as graffiti, as stolen moments in the history of personal computing. I imagine laptops like Chia pets, growing to give oxygen back to the atmosphere; a copper computer that oxidizes to mingle with its environment; exteriors as mutable and ecstatic as its wired content. I imagine a laptop that does more than look good; a laptop so indispensable to me, such an expression of my character, that it is the one and only object I'd think of taking with me if my plane ever crashed on a desert island.

One bad MICHELLE SNOW B'08 don't spoil the whole bunch, girl.