Is it possible for a Geek God to also be a Luddite? That was the question that popped into my head as I read Cory Doctorow’s impassioned anti-iPad diatribe at Boing Boing. The device that Apple calls “magical” and “revolutionary” is, to Doctorow, a counterrevolutionary contraption conjured up through the black magic of the wizards at One Infinite Loop. The locked-down, self-contained design of the iPad – nary a USB port in sight, and don’t even think about loading an app that hasn’t been blessed by Apple – manifests “a palpable contempt for the owner,” writes Doctorow. You can’t fiddle with the dang thing:
The original Apple ][+ came with schematics for the circuit boards, and birthed a generation of hardware and software hackers who upended the world for the better. If you wanted your kid to grow up to be a confident, entrepreneurial, and firmly in the camp that believes that you should forever be rearranging the world to make it better, you bought her an Apple ][+ ...
The way you improve your iPad isn't to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps. Buying an iPad for your kids isn't a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it's a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.
Doctorow is not the only Geek God who’s uncomfortable with Apple’s transformation of the good ole hacktastic PC into a sleek, slick, sterile appliance. Many have accused Apple of removing from the personal computer not only its openness and open-endedness but also what Jonathan Zittrain, founder of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, calls its “generativity” – its capacity for encouraging and abetting creative work by its users. In criticizing the closed nature of the iPhone, from which the iPad borrows its operating system, Zittrain, like Doctorow, invoked the ancient, beloved Apple II: “a clean slate, a device built – boldly – with no specific tasks in mind.”
Tim Bray, the venerated programmer who recently joined Google, worries that the iPad, which is specifically designed to optimize a few tasks and cripple others, could lead to “a very nasty future scenario”:
At the moment, more or less any personal computer, given enough memory, can be used for ‘creative’ applications like photo editors and IDEs (and, for pedal-to-the-metal money people, big spreadsheets). If memory-starved tablets become ubiquitous, we’re looking at a future in which there are “normal” computers, and then “special” computers for creative people … I dislike this future not just for personal but for ideological reasons; I’m deeply bought-into the notion of a Web populated by devices that almost anyone can afford and on which anyone can be creative, if they want.
What these folks are ranting against, or at least gnashing their teeth over, is progress – or, more precisely, progress that goes down a path they don’t approve of. They want progress to, as Bray admits, follow their own ideological bent, and when it takes a turn they don’t like they start grumbling like granddads, yearning for the days of their idealized Apple IIs, when men were men and computers were computers.
If Ned Ludd had been a blogger, he would have written a post similar to Doctorow’s about those newfangled locked-down mechanical looms that distance the weaver from the machine’s workings, requiring the weaver to follow the programs devised by the looms’ manufacturer. The design of the mechanical loom, Ned would have told us, exhibits a palpable contempt for the user. It takes the generativity out of weaving.
And Ned would have been right.
I have a lot of sympathy for the point of view expressed by Doctorow, Zittrain, Bray, and others of their ilk. The iPad, for all its glitzy technical virtuousity, does feel like a step backwards from the Apple II and its progeny. Hell, I still haven’t gotten over Apple’s removal of analog RCA plugs for audio and video input and output from the back of its Macs. Give me a beige box with easily accessible innards, a big rack of RAM, and a dozen or so ports, and I’m a happy camper.
But I’m not under any illusion that progress gives a damn about what I want. While progress may be spurred by the hobbyist, it does not share the hobbyist’s ethic. One of the keynotes of technological advance is its tendency, as it refines a tool, to remove real human agency from the workings of that tool. In its place, we get an abstraction of human agency that represents the general desires of the masses as deciphered, or imposed, by the manufacturer and the marketer. Indeed, what tends to distinguish the advanced device from the primitive device is the absence of “generativity.” It’s useful to remember that the earliest radios were broadcasting devices as well as listening devices and that the earliest phonographs could be used for recording as well as playback. But as these machines progressed, along with the media systems in which they became embedded, they turned into streamlined, single-purpose entertainment boxes, suitable for living rooms. What Bray fears – the divergence of the creative device from the mass-market device – happened, and happened quickly and without much, if any, resistance.
Progress may, for a time, intersect with one’s own personal ideology, and during that period one will become a gung-ho technological progressivist. But that’s just coincidence. In the end, progress doesn’t care about ideology. Those who think of themselves as great fans of progress, of technology’s inexorable march forward, will change their tune as soon as progress destroys something they care deeply about. “We love the things we love for what they are,” wrote Robert Frost. And when those things change we rage against the changes. Passion turns us all into primitivists.