Roving thoughts and provocations

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Faith and Works at Apple

John G.Mabanglo/epa/Corbis
Apple CEO Steve Jobs during a speech, San Francisco, California, June 28, 2004

Great institutions thrive on internal contradictions and irresolvable divisions. This has always been the case with governments and universities, and especially with religions. The Christian church survived for two thousand years partly because it never resolved its often bloody conflict between faith and works—between the parts of itself that value private belief and inner light, and the parts that value collective worship and public ritual.

This is equally true of the modern commercial quasi-religions, which, like traditional ones, embody whatever it is that a person takes most seriously. As T. S. Eliot wrote, “bishops are a part of English culture, and horses and dogs are a part of English religion,” and, as everyone knows, the world-religion of the educated and prosperous in the twenty-first century is Apple, with its Vatican in Cupertino and its cathedrals in the light-filled Apple Stores that draw pilgrims gripping iPhones and iPads like rosaries. Apple’s flock is secured against heresy by censors who rule the online App Store; only applications with Apple’s imprimatur are allowed on an iPhone. Programmers risk excommunication—with all their works condemned to being listed in an Index of Prohibited Software—if they violate canon law by bypassing Apple’s banking system or ignoring its infallible doctrine. Rebellious heretics can “jailbreak” an iPhone and induce it to accept software anathematized by Apple, but a heretic’s phone is refused communion when presented for repair at the Apple Store.

The closed world of the iPhone and iPad is, however, only one branch of Apple’s empire, the branch that values centralized doctrine, visible works, and universal rituals. This same branch rules over most—but not all—of the world of Apple’s desktop and laptop computers, its MacBooks, iMacs, and other varieties of Macintosh. Though the OS X operating system that drives these machines is very different from the iOS system that drives iPhones and iPads, it performs many of the same functions, such as sending mail and navigating the Internet, and it incorporates the most important rules and protections that keep iOS secure against heretics and intruders.

But OS X also contains a little-known region of individual freedom and personal vision named AppleScript. AppleScript, a simple-to-use programming language (purists call it a “scripting language”), is unlike anything else in the digital universe, even in the lawless Wild West of Linux and Android. AppleScript gives any individual worshipper much of the autonomy and freedom in using a computer that is otherwise possible only for the priesthood of programmers—and in iOS is limited even for programmers, in part through the design of iOS itself, in part because of Apple’s watchful, restrictive eye.

AppleScript is protestant with a lower-case “p,” as iOS and much of OS X is catholic with a lower-case “c.” Like the Protestantism of the Great Reformation, AppleScript emphasizes autonomous individual thought; most AppleScripts perform actions that only the individual author of the AppleScript might ever want to perform—something as simple as, say, switching on an Internet radio station and switching it off at midnight, or as complicated as the paradigm-shifting example I’ll describe later. Like Protestantism, AppleScript relies on the spare, unillustrated medium of printed text; while iOS and much of OS X, like Roman Catholicism, emphasizes visual imagery and strict canons of behavior and belief.* AppleScripts are visible only in the form of plain words—ornamented only with color-coding that identifies words as nouns, verbs, or other forms of speech—but with none of the icons and animations that enliven (but do not enlighten) the rest of Apple’s world. (Steve Jobs said of OS X, “We made the buttons on the screen look so good you’ll want to lick them.”)

My inclinations are strongly protestant, but my digital religion is eclectic. I work at a Windows computer when I need to, but I worship at Apple’s shrine by choice, checking my mail and reading the news on a MacBook when I rise in the morning and retire at night, and much of the time in between. I own more Apple laptops than I ought to (three in current use; a half-dozen older models in a closet), but I don’t own an iPhone or iPad (despite my family’s mutterings against my monastic isolation) because I dislike the ways in which iOS demands conformity and obedience, while offering an illusory freedom to choose among a million apps that do only what Apple lets them do.

AppleScript, in contrast, encourages freedom and rewards initiative. In the Macintosh operating system, programs communicate with each other—for example, giving a command to display a picture or send an e-mail message—by exchanging signals called Apple Events. Before AppleScript existed, only trained programmers, writing in languages as priestly and obscure as medieval Latin, could generate Apple Events. Then, in 1993, Apple devised AppleScript, which made it possible for any literate person to generate Apple Events by writing a “script” that contained a series of commands. A simple series of commands could perform, in seconds, complex, repetitive tasks that would otherwise require hours of tedious labor, or would be impossible for anyone but a programmer to perform at all. Like the Protestants of the Reformation who translated the Bible into the vernacular, AppleScript put the means of salvation into the hands of the laity. Unlike vernacular Bibles, some of whose translators were burned at the stake, AppleScript arrived without bloodshed: Apple nailed its Ninety-Five Theses to its own door.

AppleScript was invented during the Great Schism of 1985-96, when Steve Jobs was banished from Apple and building a rival computer system called NeXT. When Jobs reclaimed infallible authority in Cupertino, he killed off most of the projects begun in his absence, but he had the good sense to preserve and encourage AppleScript, perhaps because it recalled his own countercultural beginnings. Unlike the dignified messages typically displayed by Apple’s software, one of AppleScript’s error messages reads: “Way too long, dude.” Today, in the advertising photos on Apple’s web site almost all of the faces belong to beautiful, generic teenagers ecstatically networking with their posses. In contrast, the only face visible on the web page describing a recent AppleScript offshoot, Automator, belongs to the gray-bearded, broad-cheeked, and admirable manager of both Automator and AppleScript, Sal Soghoian, looking pleased to be his middle-aged, jazz-playing self.

Almost all computer operating systems now include scripting languages more or less comparable to AppleScript. What makes AppleScript unique is its almost plain-English syntax. A typical command in AppleScript reads something like this:

tell application “TextEdit” to make new document

In Windows, the closest equivalent to AppleScript is Visual Basic Script (VBS), which requires expertise in the arcane syntax of a priestly language. In VBS, the equivalent of my AppleScript example looks like this:

Dim WshShell
Set WshShell = WScript.CreateObject(“WScript.Shell”)
WshShell.Run “Notepad.exe”, 1

AppleScript’s simplicity can be misleading. As in vernacular bibles, where plain words like “love” and “life” have complex meanings, AppleScript uses words like “copy” and “file” in ways that leave stumbling-blocks for the unwary. Yet AppleScript makes it possible for amateurs like myself to use a computer freely in ways that Apple never intended or anticipated—and in fact discourages wherever else it can. For example, I write my first drafts, including the first draft of this post, in a deeply protestant word-processor, the archaic WordPerfect for DOS, with plain white letters on an otherwise black screen. Thanks to some AppleScript that I cobbled together, combined with open-source software called DOSBox and GhostPCL, I can click on a file in my MacBook and edit and print it in WordPerfect for DOS, exactly as I did in 1993—a feat forbidden on the iPad, awkward or impossible in current versions of Windows, and contrary to the whole sensuous experience of OS X. (Protestantism, including my own lower-case-“p” variety, likes to think of itself as preserving ancient truths even while it turns a world upside-down.)

The Macintosh OS was nine years old when AppleScript divided it against itself and—I like to think—helped to assure the later triumphs of OS X. iOS is now six years old, and has so far resisted any such division, and its position of world-domination may suggest that it doesn’t need it, that it can repel barbarian invasion and prosper forever without internal reformation. History says otherwise. The ways in which iOS evolves in the next few years may place the fate of empires—today’s empires are corporate, not ecclesiastical or national, neither holy nor Roman—in the balance.


*I made a similar comparison between computers and religions in 1988; Umberto Eco made the same point, independently, six years later. 

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