Some people would say the first real glimpses into our future as a totalitarian state, where the Thought Police and rampant surveillance have become the rule rather than the exception, came in the form of George Orwell’s novel 1984. As the main character, Winston, moves throughout his days, at home and at work, he is constantly watched by Big Brother, and his thoughts and actions carefully controlled by the oppressive and rigid control of the “Party.” Sure, this level of systematic government surveillance reads more like science fiction than reality, but when examined closely, many of the technological features within Orwell’s story have coincided alarmingly well with the the real-world innovations of the 21st century, like the telescreens and speakwrites we now see in the form of omnipresent public screens and computers that recognize human speech.
Although Orwell crafted the novel in 1944, when the beginning of TV news was just taking off and rotary phones weighed about eight pounds, it was impossible to imagine a world where computers could see everything and record everything about the human life around them. But as the decades passed and technological innovations grew, Orwell’s science fiction tale began to take on more significance and an almost portent-like quality of not only describing a fictional future but, in fact, predicting the future of the digital age we now face, an age that has been largely formed through the creation of the basic computer. So, when Steve Jobs and his ingenious team revolutionized the entire computer industry by putting out the the first Apple Macintosh machine made for ordinary people, rather than experts, in the year 1984, it seemed as if Orwell’s voice could be heard calling from the heavens, “Look people, the future is here!”
During the initial stages of the Macintosh release in Cupertino, California, Jobs himself seemed almost tongue-tied by his own enthusiasm, calling the invention “insanely great,” and went on to quote Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin” to reinforce the reality that this new move had opened up a brand new trajectory for the future of technology.
In the early 1980s, Apple II had become the world’s most popular computer and the company had grown into a multi million dollar enterprise, one of the fastest in all of American business history. That said, Apple did have IBM as their competition, who had also entered the personal computer market in 1981 with its first IBM PC. This invention stole some of Apple’s limelight and established a bit of a tech rivalry between the two businesses who now appeared to be in an “arms race” to find the perfect personal computer model.
As the two hopeful tech companies began their race to become the industry’s best and brightest, each selling approximately one billion dollars worth of personal machines in 1983, other tech computers were teetering on the brink of failure and sinking altogether, their losses overshadowing the combined profits of both Apple and IBM. And so, just like a scene for Orwell’s book, IBM and Apple squared off against one another to design a computer with a mouse and graphical interface for users, establishing the industry question, “who will dominate the information age and revolutionize the computing world?” The time was right and Orwell was surely watching with great anticipation.
While IBM’s machines tended to be bigger and less attractive than Apple’s sophisticated look, they were able to do some pretty important things like spreadsheets, word processing, and database work, which put them ahead in the minds of many. Macintosh had just flopped with the invention of “Lisa,” a personal computer with a price tag of $10,000 and not enough power to support its graphical interface. But the year was now 1984 and Apple not only recognized the significance of the year and what they were trying to accomplish, they seized upon it by creating a memorable advertisement (directed by Ridley Scott, no less) about a dystopian world controlled by Big Brother.
The commercial aired to almost 100 million people during the third quarter of the Super Bowl XVIII and set the stage for the unveiling of Apple’s Macintosh personal computer just two days later. It was a brilliantly choreographed promotion, on the year of Orwell’s notorious prediction, and with a machine that did ultimately change the world of computing forever. It became a watershed moment for the worlds of both advertising and technology, not to mention a major moment in Apple’s overall history—and quite possibly the history of the world. And since that moment in 1984, the world has never been quite the same—just as Orwell predicted.