The Cult of the Excluded Middle

John Gruber, who is the person to read for informed, incisive Mac advocacy, takes a piece by Paul Graham and spins from it a discussion of the appeal of Macs to either end of the techie spectrum, but not the middle. Here’s the money quote from Graham:

And open and good is what Macs are again, finally. The intervening years have created a situation that is, as far as I know, without precedent: Apple is popular at the low end and the high end, but not in the middle. My seventy year old mother has a Mac laptop. My friends with PhDs in computer science have Mac laptops. And yet Apple’s overall market share is still small.

Late in the development of Mac OS X, I could see something like this coming. Underpinning a ground-up redevelopment of what was already a fine user interface with a UNIX core seemed like a devastating pincer movement. The seventy year-old mother gets a clean, intuitive way to handle the simple; the geeky PhD gets his oily hands into command-line complexity; the whole thing is built to last. I’m not sure I’d have predicted that the pincer would only grab the extreme ends, however, and I think that has to do with a fundamental misconception of mine, which Gruber’s piece helped me to rethink.

Upon a time, Macs really were ‘Computers for the rest of us’. That was a boast, not an exclusion. They were ‘for the rest of us’ because they didn’t need a great deal of technie nous. They just worked. They weren’t for everyone, because the shiny surface was tricky to get behind, but that was fine. OS X’s single most important achievement, to marry the GUI polish with UNIX power and heritage without compromising either, blasted that old slogan of Apple’s out of the water, however. There was no longer any reason for anyone who was willing to assess their choices objectively to conclude that an Apple wasn’t for them. They’d become computers for all of us.

Or so I thought, quite incorrectly. The mistake was to look at OS X functionality, and to apply that to users’ needs. Doing that, it seemed to satisfy the seventy year-old mother, and the geeky PhD, and everyone in between.

But people don’t assess their choices objectively, of course. They’re driven at least as much by prejudice and laziness and ignorance and inertia and fear. Better the DevilOS they know than the Mac OS X they don’t. Approaching the matter in terms of user psychology, rather than operating system functionality and usability, I think the missing middle is much easier to explain. The seventy year-old mother has no preconceptions to be adjusted, no learning to unlearn. She settles into OS X because it’s just very well designed, and because the complexity underneath which holds everything together doesn’t rise from the depths every so often like a tentacled monster to scare the crap out of her. The geeky PhD, on the other hand, might have some prejudices, and might have plenty to unlearn, but he’s quite prepared – eager, even – to try new stuff, and he knows enough to apply a critical eye.

The Man in the Middle, however, is in a far less comfortable position. He knows just about enough to get by, and has enough experience to have invested himself emotionally in whatever he might have been using, but however aware he is of its shortcomings – and he’s aware of them pretty much every day, viruses, spyware, frequent crashes – the idea of moving to something else is just too hard to contemplate. I imagine this man literally in the middle: he’s a middle manager, who tolerates computers, finds them useful, but leans heavily on his company’s tech support, because when things go wrong he’s lost, and he’s deeply insecure about that. He calls them ‘gurus’, when perhaps all they’ve done is read the manual. He is the Excluded Middle.

All this assumes, of course, that Macs are objectively better, and that the only question is why some users get that and others don’t. I believe they are, but then there’s no zealot like a recent convert.

Though, hang on. Rewind past zealot, because I want to say something about that too. It’s an article of culturally-received wisdom that Mac users are akin to a cult. They show extreme devotion, loyalty. Their machines are given names, personalities, places of honor.

I used to lazily buy that portrayal myself, but I think it’s mistaken. It confuses two fundamentally very different things: that which is believed (and, connected with that, the justification for believing that which is believed); and how that which is believed is expressed to the world. Look at the devotion of Mac users and you will indeed see something that’s superficially cult-like. But it’s only superficially cult-like. What we see in the devotion is merely the expression of belief, and not the belief itself. Look behind the expression, to the core of that which is believed, and things look much less culty: that Macs are great machines to use; that they repay loyalty with good user experience and reliability; that they’re fun. All of those things are, I would contend, objectively true. And what’s less culty than a community based on that which is objectively true?

In fact, if cultishness has anything to do with a community sharing support for that which is not only not demonstrably true, but often demonstrably false, then isn’t the Cult of the Excluded Middle of those trapped by ignorance, inertia, fear, into claiming that their Windows PCs are the best choice for them, more apt? Just because it’s a huge community, doesn’t mean it’s not cultish.

Perhaps if the Cult of the Excluded Middle were more celebratory, in the manner of the so-called Mac cult, its cultishness would be far more apparent. The lack of any such celebration, devotion, loyalty has little to do with lack of cult, though. Expression of belief in the Cult of the Excluded Middle has more to do with defensiveness, stubbornness, stoicism in the face of adversity. It is truly a faith, whose priests are the gurus of tech support, whose sacraments are Service Packs. Always the promise of better things.

Let them pray.

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