Umberto Eco on the Mac vs. PC Debate

Umberto Eco and Cardenal Carlo Maria Martini receive the Prince of Asturias awards in 2000. (Reuters) ( )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Umberto Eco, the Italian intellectual, died on Friday at the age of 84. He was a best-selling novelist, a medievalist, a semiotician, and a media historian—the kind of ranging intellectual that can seem lost, for good or ill, to a more self-confident time.

Or maybe not. In one obituary, the translator Giovanni Tiso writes that Eco’s career foreshadowed the writing world that was to come. “He exhibited the kind of encyclopedic intellectual interest that is almost a default, standard setting of the current reader/writer, covering the most disparate of topics like a one-man Twitter or Facebook timeline,” Tiso writes.

I like that thesis, especially because—like any good social-media user— Eco held gloriously trollish opinions about modern technology. Thanks to Twitter this afternoon, I remembered his brief essay on the difference between the Macintosh and Microsoft operating systems. As he wrote then in another era (1994!), Microsoft Windows was still new, so Eco refers to the more common “MS-DOS.”

The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers,” Eco says. “I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant”:

Indeed, the Macintosh is counterreformist and has been influenced by the "ratio studiorum" of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory, it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach - if not the Kingdom of Heaven - the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: a long way from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

His thoughts, from an English translation of an essay that originally appeared in Espresso magazine, continue on Simon Grant’s website. Thanks to them, I’ll now always imagine Windows 95 as the software equivalent of the King James Bible: an Anglican adaptation that took over the world.

Update: A reader writes in with news that Edward Mendelson, a Columbia English professor (and the author of this recent, excellent set of mini-biographies), beat Eco to the “Macs are Catholicism” observation by six years:

In the realm of the Apple Macintosh, as in Catholic Europe, worshipers peer devoutly into screens filled with “icons.” All is sound and imagery in Appledom. . . . A central corporate headquarters decrees the form of all rites and practices. Infallible doctrine issues from one executive officer whose selection occurs in a sealed boardroom.