In the middle of the third quarter of the 1984 NFL Super Bowl, Apple aired a commercial that has since evolved into legend. It introduced the Macintosh; however, the new product never made it on screen. It didn’t need to. 

The commercial opens to a grey-hued world, zooming in toward a tube labeled “14,” where people with shaved heads are marching inside, single file. They all wear identical, grey clothes. A voice blares through loudspeakers claiming, “Today we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives.” The camera cuts to an unnamed blonde heroine, clothed in a white tank top and orange shorts, running with a sledgehammer in hand. Camera cuts continue, from the heroine being chased by men in riot gear, back to the people marching through the tubes toward a huge screen, linking the words of the loudspeaker to a stern face with glasses. Rows of indistinguishable people sit entranced by the face on the screen and his words, like drones awaiting orders. The heroine runs into the room and hurls the hammer toward the screen. “We shall prevail!” are the face’s final words before the hammer explodes the screen, and the commercial cuts to black.

The commercial concludes with an allusion to George Orwell’s unsettlingly pertinent dystopian novel, “1984,” casting the Macintosh as a tool for intellectual freedom: “On January 24th Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won't be like ‘1984.’” Beyond the grim visuals, the looming face’s harsh voice and words project a much more disturbing image. The commercial continues with, “We have created for the first time in all history a garden of pure ideology, where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests of any contradictory thoughts.” 

Unlike in Orwell’s “1984,” the Big Brother figure in Apple’s commercial is not the government, but IBM. The then leader in personal computing had a nickname of “Big Blue,” making the parallels between the two hard to mistake. And while there are at least another 750 words I could write regarding the government’s antitrust suit against IBM from 1981, the pertinence of the commercial lies in examining the Big Brother substitute of today: cancel culture, the latest incarnation and evolution of political correctness.

Elite universities, where cancel culture runs rampant, have seemingly all strayed from an original culture of debate and civil discourse toward a “unification of thoughts,” as the commercial put it. Speakers with beliefs deviating from the tides are turned away. Yet the issue of ideas against the grain –– the issue being the complete intolerance of any intellectual nonconformity –– stretches beyond college campuses. David Shor, a data analyst at progressive firm Civis Analytics, tweeted an academic paper arguing that non-violent protests have been more effective than violent ones since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. His tweet coincided with the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent violent protetsts. A week later, Shor was fired.

It is one thing to accuse, and potentially rid an institution of, an individual intentionally purporting false claims. But to vilify any and all who appropriately express contrarian beliefs is both a slippery and remarkably dangerous slope. Consider again the line from Apple’s 1984 commercial, “where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests of any contradictory thoughts.” Recently, we have been witnessing a shift in politics toward the extremes, not only in the degree of the beliefs but in the lack of any representative middle.

Both the ideological left and the right have adopted a binary with-me or against-me mentality, leaving behind the rational person whose convictions have halted any unconscious ideological shift. And when ideology extends so far to these extremes and does so while its leaders demand the utmost dedication and “unification of thought,” who is left to challenge a slide toward tyranny? If we don’t question the dogma being shouted from the rooftops, how will we stand wary of false premises? I believe in our democratic republic and in the two-party system particularly because it necessitates conversation and compromise. We bemoan a split Congress because “nothing gets done” and laud a party in complete control for their ability “to get things done,” despite both notions being equally absurd.

Contrarian opinions led to the founding of the United States, the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage. Courageous men and women fought for their convictions and enacted tremendous change. Every year, college graduates embark on the world, idealistic and ambitious. And every class possesses the potential to transform the world, so long as they may each think for themselves. Crucially, it was rigorous, respectful debate that taught burgeoning young adults how to think critically, and characterized universities as places of higher learning. Intellectual indoctrination, manifested as a disdain for compromise, is the wrong way forward.

In 1949, Orwell published “1984,” concerned for a future plagued with wars, omnipresent government surveillance and denialism. In its commercial, Apple retools Orwell’s work for the times that were at hand, warning of a future dominated by a single, omnipotent technology company in IBM. Today, perhaps Orwell’s masterpiece must again be refactored for our new times, to warn of a future inconceivable a short time ago. A future in which a single intellectual dogma reigns unchallenged, standing upon the shoulders of a moral debasement of compromise, from which any divergence serves as grounds for canceling. Big Brother’s face on the screen praised a “garden of pure ideology.” I hope, for myriad reasons, that such a garden of homogeneity and false providence may never triumph. 

David Lisbonne can be reached at lisbonne@umich.edu

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