Monday, August 8, 2011

PC versus Mac, the Debate of Our Age

It's been a while since I last updated - sorry about that!  In addition to a trip out of the country and starting a new job (hooray for both!), I recently bought a new laptop - a shiny new MacBook Air.  I love how thin and lightweight this baby is (two of my most important characteristics in choosing a laptop), not to mention fast!  Startup takes about 10 seconds.  In my free time, I've been playing around with it, getting the hang of MacOS.  As a longtime Windows user, and occasional Linux user, there are still some things I have to learn.  I've definitely made some silly, "Windows-user" style mistakes.

Before I bought the MacBook Air, I posed a question to my friends on Facebook about what my next laptop should be.  When I mentioned that I was leaning toward a MacBook, this discussion turned into a debate among my friends about which is better, Windows or Mac.  This debate has gone on for a while, perpetuated by the "I'm a PC.  I'm a Mac." advertising, where operating system is more than a simple preference; it is an identity.  Still, though other ad campaigns involve these forced choice paradigms (Coke or Pepsi, for example), few create such strong allegiances and even denigration of people who prefer the other option.  Why might this be the case?

Identity is very important.  This probably goes without saying - so why am I saying it?  Because identity is not only very important, it is an essential part of our lives.  Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst famous for his stages of psychosocial development, argued that the formation of a consistent, integrated identity is a necessary step in becoming an adult.  It's no coincidence that the "coming of age" story, the tale of the journey of self discovery, is so popular in literature, film, and a variety of other media.  It's a journey we all take, and struggle with on the way, so it's a story with which we can all identify.  Additionally, according to identity researcher Seth J. Schwartz, failing to develop a clear identity is associated with depression, anxiety, and aggression, and even risky behavior, like drug use.  Our identity is like our guide; so many of our decisions are influenced by "who we are".  There are few experiences more excruciating than identity confusion.

Our social identity - who we are in relation to others and our group membership - is also important, in terms of "who we are" and our self-esteem.  Many identify with a particular race or ethnicity, culture, gender, even baseball team (to my fellow Chicagoans, Cubs or Sox?).  The best known researcher and theorist on these effects is Henri Tajfel.  His research shows us that it doesn't take much for us to begin dividing people into groups, and that we hold a lot of beliefs, many completely irrational, about the group to which we belong, our "ingroup", and the other group, the "outgroup".  We ascribe certain characteristics to ourselves, based on our identified groups, and ascribe certain characteristics (often called stereotypes) to the other groups as well.  Discovering that another person is similar to us in some way can lead us to give that person preferential treatment, called "ingroup favoritism".  Furthermore, we can create "ingroups" and "outgroups" based on seemingly unimportant details, like preference for a particular painting.  Studies in social identity often use what is called the "minimal group paradigm" - these studies examine how much (or rather, how little) information about others is needed for us to begin categorizing them as like us, our "ingroup", or different, our "outgroup".  We show these tendencies even when we've been randomly assigned to a group (and even if we KNOW we've been assigned completely at random).

For a comedic take on this dilemma, see this XKCD comic.

Why, then, don't we see angry interactions between Coke drinkers and Pepsi drinkers?  What is so different about computer preference?  Arguably, computers are more integrated into our daily lives than our choice of beverage.  I'm not sure about you, but I spend most of my day seated in front of a computer, writing, conducting literature searches for manuscripts and grant applications, designing online surveys, and analyzing data.  Even my leisure time activity is spent in front of a computer or similar device (like a personal music player or ebook reader - notice my avoidance of brand/product names :D).  Furthermore, computer advertisements, which focus on this issue of identity, are a reflection of the design of the product itself.  The "Mac" from the commercial spends a lot of time on "creating things" - photos, videos, music - and many of the products that come standard on a Mac are also focused on "creating things".  Additionally, the "Mac"-guy is technically saavy in the sense that he is comfortable with using technology, but more in the "I don't care HOW it works, just THAT it works" way.  That is, he wants technology that is intuitive and completely user friendly. 

The "PC"-guy is portrayed as more professional, with a business and productivity orientation.  It's true that Windows machines really shine in this application.  I've worked in many large organizations, all of them using networks of Windows computers.  Could you have a large organization with all Mac users?  Probably.  But I've yet to see it myself.  While recent Windows advertising has focused on the "creative" side of Windows, this operating system and its accompanying software is still designed with this application in mind.

Of course, the landscape is changing.  In the past, having a Mac meant limits in compatible software, and this was the case for many of the programs I use as part of my job until very recently.  Now that software companies are increasing availability of their popular titles for both Windows and Mac, people will no longer have to feel married to a particular operating system.  Does that mean this identity division will go away?  I think not.  If anything, this might make advertising more likely to highlight the different identities.  If two products are very similar, how can you get people to commit to one over the other?  One way is by appealing to their sense of self.

So which am I?  In my opinion, each has its own benefits and drawbacks.  I have no issue with continuing to use my Windows machine at work.  I have to admit, though, every time I start up my work computer, and wait... and wait... and wait for the login screen before I wait... and wait... and wait for the desktop to load, I think of my MacBook Air and how much work I could have accomplished in that time.

Thoughtfully yours,

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