Suppose you dropped your phone — a real fall, like from the second story — and it broke. You’re picking up the pieces, cursing and trying to think of the last time you backed up your contacts, when you notice something. Deep within the phone’s hardware, hidden from everyday use, you find a message — etched right onto the chassis.
What kind of message? Let’s say you found a Darwin fish, or the letters YHWH? Or perhaps something a little more difficult to decipher — a code or symbol of some kind, not an inventory number, but still something meant to be seen and read? What would you make of it?
This isn’t actually a hypothetical situation or something out of a Neal Stephenson book. Apple has actually done this — and the symbol they’ve chosen is as arcane and ominous as it is unmistakable.
That’s the symbol at the top of the post, in case you haven’t guessed. Do you recognize it? No cheating, now. You don’t need any tools to identify it. It’s not a code, not binary or anything. Do you give up?
It’s a glider .
Conway’s “Game of Life” is one of the true legends of software, and a lasting monument to the power of procedural generation. The game is “played” on a grid of cells that turn on or off according to a few simple rules that imitate the real-life conditions of isolation, generation, and overpopulation. Each “step” applies these rules to every cell and the result is usually a very different-looking grid. Random messes of on and off cells will resolve themselves into shapes, expanding or contracting masses, islands, patterns, and so on.
It was played on some of the earliest computers, requiring as it did very little computing power and being both entertaining and mathematically edifying. It has produced some surprisingly complex behaviors, and is Turing complete. (If you’re curious, it is available for free in many places on the web, and indeed can be played on paper or with rocks, in the dirt)
One of the things the game produced was a number of arrangements of cells that could be relied on to propagate in a certain way. Some would spin, some would explode, some would neatly disappear. And some would travel; these were known as spaceships. There was one very simple spaceship, made of just five cells, that would move forever in a diagonal fashion. This was called a glider.
The glider could arguably be called the mascot of the Game of Life — that is, if the game ever needed one. It represents both the emergent complexity of the game and its extremely simple core nature.
There are certain symbols that are unintelligible to many, but instantly recognizable by a certain set of people, especially in certain contexts. A triangle stacked on the apices of two other triangles will to billions look like — some triangles (or a young Sierpinski fractal). But to practically anyone born in the 70s or 80s, it’s the Triforce, and it represents Nintendo, old school gaming, childhood, and so on. Or the number 42: just what comes between 41 and 43 for some, but for others, it’s a very important answer.
Certainly there are fewer who would find themselves affected by the arrival, as it were, of a glider outside of the Game of Life. But people who learned to code in assembly on monochrome screens, who soldered new contacts when the old ones burnt out, who count their Amigas among their treasured possessions, in short people who loved computing before you had to love computing to get by, — to these people, the glider is unmistakable. It is to them that the glider inside Apple’s computer is addressed, because it is only to them that it is even intelligible.
But there’s something else.
The glider, it was mentioned, is made from five cells. If you’ll scroll up, you’ll find that there is one more than that in Apple’s little frozen game. A stray cell, two rows over. Curious — what happens when you put this into the Game of Life?
The glider dies.
Yes, things can die too in the Game of Life. Groups of cells can reduce themselves to nothing, though this only happens under certain conditions and should perhaps be likened to extinction rather than death. More commonly, constellations of cells end up stagnating in shapes that could certainly be called stable, but are as distant from the constantly changing, fascinating dance of dots that defines the game as they can be without disappearing altogether. Technically the glider becomes a known static shape. But for this active and useful little craft with its wiggly diagonal propagation and useful character, it is as good as death.
Etched permanently into the body of one of the most advanced computers ever made, then, is a symbol of experimentation, tradition, and potential — being killed.
Can this really be the meaning of the symbol? Would Apple, or someone within Apple, really create such an Easter egg, loaded with strange and somewhat disturbing symbology? A tiny tableau frozen in a perpetual state of doom, like that of Laocoön and his sons? (His story is apt, even prophetic)
There isn’t enough information to lay it on Apple’s doorstep just yet. For one thing, there’s just the one Retina display that was taken apart, and maybe it is a tracking code that just happens to be in the shape of glider. Or maybe it wasn’t Apple that did it, but a sentimental coder at the aluminum mill. Or maybe the interpretation is wrong, and whoever drilled that doomed glider into the chassis was playing the Game at a higher level than this writer. Or maybe they had no idea.
Or maybe it’s deliberate, and someone is trying to say that this is the end of the line. But then who is that someone?
Am I digging too deeply into the meaning of this symbol? No. Symbols are like fractals, in that they bear almost infinite scrutiny. It is difficult to find the bottom of a symbol, because symbols are abysses of culture — attractors, not artifacts. The dying glider might be looked at from a hundred different angles and interpreted in a hundred different ways.
But whether it can be said to have significance in relation to Apple, the current trends in technology and culture, and the philosophy of consumption — to decide that is beyond the scope of this article, since the only evidence is the existence of the symbol in history and on this device.
What does it signify? Unless an answer falls out of the sky, this dying glider will remain an enigma: too purposeful to be meaningless, yet not explicit enough to be meaningful. But whether it turns out to be a manufacturing error or a declaration of war, it is not wrong to contemplate, though our contemplations be moot. As the nameless narrator of Poe’s “The Assignation” apostrophises his idealistic former comrade:
Who then shall call thy conduct into question? who blame thee for thy visionary hours, or denounce those occupations as a wasting away of life, which were but the overflowings of thine everlasting energies?
That it is food for thought is enough — that it has the potential to be subtly terrible is enough. For that matter, that it is an interesting history is enough. Read it how you will, and draw your own conclusions. But if you will, a moment of silence for the doomed glider.