This essay was originally published at Themillions.com, and is being reproduced as it appeared on that site, with thanks and appreciation to C. Max Magee and the rest of The Millions’ staff.
Craig Federighi stands on the minimalist, magic-screen-centric stage at the Apple World- Wide Developers Conference in San Francisco. The stage is a silent reminder of Steve Jobs’s protracted influence over the company’s image. But Federighi, unlike Jobs, or Tim Cook, is young and attractive in the Andersen Cooper silver-fox type of way that forces you to imagine that his house, which must be large and clean, probably smells like sandalwood. (This is, perhaps, the most significant departure from the Jobs-Gates era of computer moguls. The public face of the computer enterprise is starting to get the sleek, dazzling veneer of the yuppie class. Goodbye, Wozniak, helloZuckerberg).
What Federighi is wearing is definitively laid-back: dark wash denim jeans and a long-sleeve pacific blue silk dress shirt, untucked, unbuttoned at the top. And he’s not here to talk about the new iPhone, or the new Macbook, but rather to announce a new thematic era for OS X. The jungle cats have been put out to pasture. Apple has turned away from feline predators as the inspiration for its operating system, and Federighi has instead decided to look homeward, choosing California as the spiritual locus for future software updates.
Perhaps wisely, Apple steered clear of OS X Hollywood, Golden Gate, or the grizzly bear. Instead, as Federighi explains in the keynote, “we went just outside our backyard, just off the coast, to a place with some of the biggest waves and most extreme surfing in all of North America, OS X Mavericks.” The magic screen behind him then comes to life with the beautiful face of an enormous wave, whose white crest and shallow trough place the viewer, in a way, on the wave. And its color is the deepest blue on the bottom, raising up to a dark, though almost transparent, green, the sun shooting through the water. If the wave photographed is, in fact, breaking at Mavericks, it’s got to be one of the most pristine waves ever photographed at the location. For the most part, the monstrous waves that come in with the winter storms are rough, v-shaped forms, top-heavy and ready to collapse on themselves. The wave looks serene, placated — like a desktop background. The audience applauds, Federighi smiles a handsome smile, and we understand why his shirt is such a crisp and saturated shade of blue: everything about the presentation is meant to evoke the California surf life.
An entire essay could be written about the name “Mavericks” alone. It’s odd enough that it’s the plural form of a word about a person who refuses to conform. We assign it to politicians who break with the party line, or to jet-fighters from the 1980s with good hair and a reckless disregard for their own lives in pursuit of some thrill which makes their lives seem worthwhile. (“That’s right, Ice…Man. I am dangerous.”). As far as Mavericks in Half-Moon Bay is concerned, the spot is named after Maverick, a white-haired German Shepherd that belonged to one of the original three people to surf near the location. They surfed the inside waves, just a quarter-mile offshore, which are much smaller and less deadly than outside waves, which break near a half-mile out to sea, and can get anywhere from thirty to eighty feet. While they surfed, Maverick kept running into the water, and his owner would bring him back to the shore because it was likely that the dog would drown in the water. It was over time, and a result of the spoken-not-written language used by surfers to talk about good breaks, that the name switched from the possessive “Maverick’s” (the property of one sufficiently stoked dog), to “Mavericks,” the collective designating a place as well as anyone brave enough to surf the outside breaks. And now, the name has shifted meanings again, denoting the coolly current operating system of anyone wealthy enough to purchase a new Mac in 2013.
But this name might seem to the average consumer a strange choice. The history of Mavericks, as an icon of California-ness, is relatively new in our psyche. Outside of the surfing community, it’s pretty much unknown. “Mavericks” probably has name-recognition recently because of the Gerard Butler film, Chasing Mavericks. But the movie was such a flop that it seems like a gamble to reclaim the place-name from Hollywood, and reformat it for a different screen. In the lead-up to the film’s release, magazines including Surfer and Surfing ran articles expressing the pains that the film’s creators went to in getting an accurate depiction of surfing. Gerard Butler was professionally trained, and in fact he nearly drowned on set. Unfortunately, the authentication of surfing came at the expense of the plot, which failed to capture any of the truly human aspects of the characters’ lives. In any case, Apple’s serene image of Mavericks runs counter to the entire stigma of the actual surf spot, and it is this stigma that has The Guardian’s Alex Hern’s leash all up in a tangle.
In a recent article — “OS X Mavericks: is Apple’s latest operating system really that lethal?” — Hern asks, “why name software after a surf break that has killed two talented surfers?” Hern suggests that the developing team likely considered the romantic idea of “those timeless, artful shots of breaking waves and rolling barrels,” and he is right to point out that Mavericks cannot be accurately looked at in such a way. Mavericks is not so much the inspiration for a Beach Boys song as it is a symbol of Melvillian existential struggle. At Mavericks there is no endless summer, no beach-blanket bingo. And everyone who surfs Mavericks understands that what is at stake is your life, which could end in any number of miserable ways, ways that might give you a crushingly protracted time to think about what, exactly, went wrong, and why you are there, underwater, listening to a thirty foot mountain of hydrogen-dioxide and salt press down on you; and you look around, into and through but not beyond the ocean’s blue-green screen of impending death.
The cause of any death at Mavericks is always subject to some degree of speculation. When considering the demise of a pro surfer like Sion Milosky, the questions that arise have to do with the moment of death. We know he wiped out on a tremendous wave, but did the initial impact knock him unconscious, or was he alive, unable to discern sea-floor from air, trying to pierce an impregnable surface where the sheer weight and downward force of enormous waves held him down? Maybe he looked for light, or listened for any sound, or just waited one minute, two, three, until his mouth opened, involuntarily, and received no air; maybe he knew that that was it. It all happens beneath the surface, and the whole Greek tragedy of a death at the hands of one’s love takes place invisible to any and everyone. Then the corpse washes up on some distant shore, the board and the body entangled with the leash.
It’s this sort of dark imagery that Hern believes doesn’t gel with Apple’s goals. He claims that “even among surfing’s select group of big-wave riders — maybe 100 in the world — only a handful will take on the winter swells at Mavericks, where waves can reach 80 feet. Those that do need specialist equipment — helmets, sometimes lifejackets, jetski tow-ins and emergency backup. None of which makes for a comfortable marketing metaphor with a mainstream piece of computer software.” All of which is true. The very nature of Mavericks — open, wild, unpredictable — is ostensibly in direct opposition with the technological environment Apple cultivates in its operating systems. Techies call it the walled garden; to stick with surf metaphors, we might rather term it Apple’s private beach.
The success of Apple is in large part due to the highly restricted user experience. The App Store, OS X, iTunes, and the iPhone eschew third-party developers, and thereby keep at bay the turbulence of the World Wide Web. In a vast sea of freely exchanged information and cat memes, Apple has pioneered the digital private beach. Visitors here don’t have to worry about hobos or broken bottles. And despite being immersed and one with the oceanic Internet, it somehow manages to filter garbage and used needles before they wash ashore. Web surfers don’t have to worry about Hepatitis, and the shark nets keep predators out of snapping distance. You pay your dues, virtually sign on the digital line, kick off your Tommy Bahamas, and enjoy the view.
The real Mavericks is anything but a safe, closed, sterilized private beach. If Apple really wanted a shoreline simulation of itself, it would have been better off with Malibu or Huntington Beach. Though on further reflection, no place is without its faults. A location like Malibu elicits a sense of elitism that might not be palatable to the typical Apple clientele (Hern notes in his article that “Apple toyed with 10.9 Cabernet and 10.10 Syrah, but apparently couldn’t stomach a wine-related meme”). As for Huntington Beach (recently designated as Surf City U.S.A.), aside from just being a clunky name, it would have been scrapped after this 2013 year’s U.S. Open of Surfing, which devolved into a riot for no apparent reason beyond privileged teenage angst and the Vans corporation’s carnival of anarchy motif that was promoted throughout the event. But beyond these particular issues, I’m willing to bet that Federighi just happens to have the same Northern California prejudice that permeates most Bay Area inhabitants (even, or perhaps especially, those in Cupertino). Southern California is, to northerners, the land of the vapid and superficial.
Apple manufactures its own gated beach community without being able to directly acknowledge this desire. Or rather, perhaps the acknowledgment is that the Mavericks were controlled all along. Federighi stands on the Jobsian stage, in his California Technocrat uniform, the desktop background wave behind him, and the audience applauds, long and sincerely. Because what Apple has done is to once again appropriate a wild and deadly symbol — haven’t leopards and lions killed more people than Mavericks? — and contain it within the confines of binary. The awe-inspiring, near mythical behemoth of the California Coast is now situated, comfortably, behind your desktop icons and muffled by the quiet taps of your fingertips.