The iPad Luddites

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.

55 thoughts on “The iPad Luddites

  1. KiltBear

    “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 …”

    And this would be different from when? The ubergeeks have always gone to the cutting edge raw systems. You can still build your own PC, you can still put darwin on it, or any other flavor of Unix. You can still create the “next big thing”. However, if you want to put it in front of 90% of the people instead of the 10-20% represented by the holy geek-hood, you will have to put it on a device that the average person will want to and be capable of using…

    What they uber-geeks fail to realize is that what they are pining for is actually the exclusivity of power and ability available only to those who gave up their lives to their geek driven avocations.

    If anything the iPad puts creative possibilities in many more people’s hands. Just the wonderful and fun photo apps on the iPhone should be telling.

    It’s the software stupid. The entry price for creating something amazing is lower than it has ever been, and the ability to get it in front of as many people as possible is easier than it has ever been.

  2. Monk KBFR

    The iPad is a media consumption device, like a TV. It’s not made for Corey or the rest of the Digitera. It’s for, literally, the unwashed masses.

    It would be great if everyone was as creative and curious as the 140+ IQ crowd but the bell curve of IQ shows us that most people just don’t care to create. They want to consume.

    As ‘crass’ as making a product for the majority may seem to the elite, it’s damn good business sense.

    The good news is it will create a market demand for real tablets, including I’d bet one running Android that’s infinitely configurable and that you’ll be able to run damn near anything on.

    So, Bad on Apple for making a device for ‘just average’ people, but Good on Apple for creating the market where others can compete with better targeted to 140+ IQ folks products.

  3. Bruce Warila

    Average humans spend six hours a day with a dumb TV clicker in their hands. If the iPad can replace the clicker whilst making these people a whole lot happier, smarter or productive, it will be a hit.

  4. ampressman

    I think the anti-iPad hobbyist crowd has it exactly backwards. The iPad is certainly more limited in some ways than a PC but it is open to far, far more content than, say, a television set in your living room or the radio in your car. Once upon a time, a novelist who couldn’t get his or her work into Barnes & Noble couldn’t sell a book, radio was reserved for a few professional folks and forget about television.

    Today, my family enjoys reading self-published ebooks and ezines, listening to all manner of niche podcasts and watching boatloads of amateur video on Youtube. The proliferation of slick, OPEN media-consumption platforms not limited to your desk is a great development for supporters of non-traditional, small-scale and niche media of all kinds. A couple of people in their garage can have the same reach as Rupert Murdoch, James Cameron or John Grisham.

    p.s. Although you may need iTunes to put content directly on an iPad, you can put just about whatever kind of content into iTunes yourself without buying anything from Apple, including self-created and indie stuff.

  5. Out In Sun

    Citrix has released an iPad app that lets you access a hosted virtal Windows machine. If Amazon did the same for EC2, you could use your iPad to control an entire cloud-bank of wildly inexpensive Linux machines. Sounds like “generativity” to me. I think the Luddites still think that “the computer is the computer”. Think of the iPad as a screen, not an entire computer.

  6. jesse calderon

    Some of the comments above reflect this, but the iPad isn’t for computer geeks. I am a software developer and feel like our industry has failed to provide the proper solution to a large segment of the market.

    My parents and grandparents would love to be online and use the internet but they can’t figure out their computers. They are constantly struggling with viruses, upgrades, patches, etc. They want their computer to be like a toaster. They don’t care how the toaster works, they just want to eat the toast.

    The iPad will be great for them because they can turn it on and access email and web content without the noise and overhead of the computer. For this audience, the full power of the computer is a barrier to entry, not a benefit.

  7. alsomike

    The existence of computers for different people with different priorities is not elitist. What is elitist is saying that one way of using a computer is better than how someone else uses it. The big contradiction is that Cory Doctorow stands for freedom and autonomy, but only his kind of freedom, the kind of freedom that privileges people like him, and perversely, he wants to impose those freedoms on other people.

    You must be creative. You must hack your devices. You must not be a consumer. You must be an entrepreneur. These aren’t freedoms, they are obligations, and Doctorow wants people to feel ashamed for failing to live up to his standard. This is authoritarianism, pure and simple, there’s absolutely nothing revolutionary about it.

    This is supposed to be an anti-consumer message, but that’s laughable. Has he seen any advertising in the last 20 years? Corporations today want to empower us, they want us to be creative and express our unique personalities, live life on our own terms, be individuals, customize, accessorize and hack everything. If you don’t, you’re letting yourself down. Funny how Doctorow’s “anti-consumerist” ideology is indistinguishable from consumerism.

  8. Pierce Lamb

    I had a similar reaction to all the anti-iPad writing going on in tech-savvy circles. Although put much less eloquently here is what I posted on buzz:

    “I haven’t bought an iPad, but from reading a lot of the criticisms forming in the tech circles I run in, i must say this: once computing devices became worthy of B2C business, the history of computing became a story of abstracting away technical details so to appeal to larger and larger non-tech savvy crowds and allow more and more people to enjoy some of the benefits of a computing device (and therefore make more money). I think a lot of tech-savvy people falsely believe Apple has some desire to appeal to them… the truth is in making computing both easy and VERY nice looking, they appeal to a much larger crowd where a lot more money lies. The average computer user doesn’t really care about being able to multi-task etc, what they do care about is being able to access their favorite websites/applications very quickly and have the user experience of doing that be very easy on the eyes. This is probably why the iPad will enjoy success among the mass majority of people, because it appeals to them.

    But don’t worry my tech savvy friends, we have Google to make us feel better. And the future of Apple/Google battle will be the answer to the question: does appealing to the wealth of 3rd party developers eventually win the war against appealing to the everyday consumer? My sense is that it will. (This is of course assuming that developers will be more inclined to develop for a developer-friendly environment and not for one that boasts mass market appeal, which is not a trivial/obvious/safe assumption)”

  9. Keith Shaw

    Great post, Nick – I’d like to add two points. First, the iPad exists in a world where PCs and Macs already exist, which do allow for content and other creation. Users have the option of creating on those devices to their hearts content. Second, I’m seeing services being offered that would let “everyday” users to easily create apps that could go onto an iPhone or iPad – the creation aspect still exists out there, and you will soon be able to create apps for the iPad and iPhone. There’s still the issue of “Apple approving” the app, which does make it seem more Big Brother-ish (imagine the 1984 ad today?), but then of course there’s always Android :)

  10. Mike Drips

    “But I’m not under any illusion that progress gives a damn about what I want.”

    The iPad isn’t progress Nick, except in the minds of Apple fanboys. It’s a very closed tablet, nothing more, nothing less. Tablets have been done before and will be done again in the future.

    Failing to fawn over the iPad doesn’t make one a Luddite.

  11. Nick Carr


    Redefining progress that you don’t like as nonprogress is a nice way to make believe you’re not a situational Luddite, but it doesn’t wash.


  12. Bratton

    Nick, the point about technical evolution tending toward a reduction of generativity is an awfully broad brush-stroke, and I can look around my home and see several examples of the opposite tendency. For example, television. Books. And too lots of examples that would, in a modern world of increasingly segmented division of labor, prove the opposite: furniture, food, and, as you have shown in Big Switch, electricity.

    Perhaps we could say that as technologies become ‘infrastructural’ and move lower down the Big Stack of everyday digital life, that they ipso facto become less generative. Though not always.

    In any event, my chief disagreement is in the definition of the iPad as the culmination of an historical arc of PC’s, that it is a “late” computer. It is not late, it is if anything a half-baked public prototype of a new mode of ambient computation that we do not yet understand, can’t properly visualize and will have to invent as we go along.

    For that reason, that the iPad is an early and not a late technology, it’s generativity should be high not low.

  13. len

    It’s a boombox.

    In so far as those are progress over owning a decent recording deck, I guess so but this purely comes down to the uses one has for technology. As a content consumer device, it’s fine. It is a game changer in the same way a boombox was. For break dancers, it was. For songwriters, it could be helpful. For serious recording, it was just another way to preview.

  14. Aditya

    Every thing should come from somewhere, should have an integral story for it’s existence.

    The iPad, more than any other touch-device so far, at a software level re-imagines what the web and media should look like for real. When you think about it, it is also the first “computer” designed not keeping a typewriter in mind. It’s a device designed for a kind of usage that doesn’t exist yet, and that’s the beauty of it.

  15. Seth Finkelstein

    So many threads here …

    1) There are different types of Geek Gods. Bill Gates is Hades. Google is Athena. Cory Doctorow is Hephaestus.

    2) “progress that goes down a path they don’t approve of” – that’s a question-begging, or question-assuming, way of putting it. Almost by definition, anything which is opposed can be described that way.

    3) “If Ned Ludd had been a blogger, he would have written a post similar to …”. I think he was much more focused on worker’s rights and a living wage.

    4) “But that’s just coincidence. In the end, progress doesn’t care about ideology.” – this conflates too much in terms of technology versus business models versus legal changes.

  16. Sam Penrose

    A consistent flaw in your always interesting work is the lack of quantification. According to, Apple did not sell it’s 1Mth Apple ][ until 1983. It will sell that many iPads by June. There are ~150K *apps* distributed for iPhone OS so far, a number sure to explode. More to the point, the number of hackers, including young hackers, is much, much bigger than it ever was in the 70s, especially outside of the US. A few hundreds are writing Objective C to Apple’s APIs instead of assembler to its registers; many thousands are writing Javascript and Ruby/Java/Python/etc., not to mention vast amounts of HTML . In short, there has been an explosion in hacking. It may be dwarfed by the explosion in Facebook browsing, but in turn it dwarfs the 70s enthusiasts both in scale and in scope of usefulness and ambition.

  17. Nick Carr

    It’s funny that this post is being attacked by some for being anti-iPad and by others for being pro-iPad. I guess it depends on where you stop reading.

  18. timjones17

    When people want their real human agency removed, they do it in front of a 52″ LCD TV with 1080p Full HD and kickin’ surround sound. This iPad is a pathetic imitator. Apple has been trying with its Apple TV and now the iPad- pretty sad really.

  19. Kevin Kelly

    Nick wrote: “What tends to distinguish the advanced device from the primitive device is the absence of “generativity.”

    That’s an admirably broad and sweeping theory, Nick, but it is unclear whether you are talking about all devices, or just modern devices, or just modern media devices, or what? In any case, I don’t see the evidence for your theory. What’s more generative, a primitive piece of charcoal for drawing on a cave wall, or a decked out Mac with Photoshop, Illustrator, and Maya? What’s more generative, an incandescent light bulb 100 years ago, or a more advanced LED bulb today? I don’t see the correspondence between generativity and primitiveness. Maybe you can explain this clearer.

  20. Richard Smith

    Keith Shaw’s point is important. I was sympathetic to Cory’s criticism but we have to remember that the iPad is a media device and media devices rarely if ever entirely displace the entire media ecosystem – they fit in. People have lots of other tools at their disposal, and you can’t even really use an iPad without an iTunes-running computer to connect it to. In other words, if the entire world of media and technology were to be absorbed by the iPad that is one thing, but adding iPads to the mix is quite another.

  21. Charles

    Gee Kevin, that’s funny. Really. Back in the 70s, I got kicked out of art school because I kept telling my professors I was sick of taking drawing classes and doing charcoal drawings. That was the same thing primitive man did by pulling a burnt wooden stump out of a fire and scratching on a cave wall. But this newfangled 8080A microprocessor kit I just built showed me the way and it was computer art. I wanted a new artist’s studio more like a laboratory, with mysterious electronic devices that spit sparks and countertops laden with bubbling beakers. No wonder they kicked me out.

    But unlike some other pretentious twats (yes I mean you, Doctorow), I grew up. I even went back to art school to finish my degree, after working in computer graphics for years. I refused to do any CG in art school, I was sick of it. I wanted to reconnect with the reasons I wanted to make images in the first place. I finally fell in love with drawing.

    Well anyway, what is the point of all that stupid personal reminiscing? When I finished art school, I finally found out what people really want to see in this impersonal world, and in impersonal media. Art historians call it “the hand.” People want to see visible evidence of the personal touch of the artist as he created the work. A smooth mechanical object seems cold because it doesn’t have any personal touch. A rough drawing shows the results of millions of tiny decisions as the artist’s hand moves the charcoal across the page. This connects them with the artist, they relate to it just as if it was their hand that made it.

    And that’s what’s so brilliant about the iPad. It is nothing BUT the touch of the user. Applications to take advantage of this have yet to be made, because people don’t understand the concept yet, they haven’t touched it. Maybe the best example of this is the iPhone application “Brushes.” It’s coming to the iPad, I hear. There are expensive LCD panels with pressure sensitive stylus inputs, so when you paint in Photoshop, the paint appears right underneath the point of your stylus, it’s like painting with a real brush. But this is so expensive and difficult to set up, the technology just gets in the way. But apps like Brushes disintermediate, they remove all the technology that gets between you and your results, and makes it invisible. Your finger is the paint, the screen is the canvas.

  22. paulj

    When GUIs first appeared some of my colleagues in a university computing support department couldn’t stand them. You just couldn’t do as much as you could via the command line. I soon realised that what they really meant was that most of our users could do what they did without learning all those strange commands with mostly meaningless parameters. They stayed with MS-DOS and CP/M for years and managed to distance themselves from our users. This slagging off of iPhone/iPad-like devices reminds me of those days.

    You can’t get lid off an iPhone/iPad. How many ordinary computer users have the nerve to get inside their computer? Even when they do these days there’s not a lot that you can do, the geeks can look up what a component does and where it was made… A colleague tweeted recently that he won’t buy a device that he can’t get inside. I asked him what he can do when he gets inside his Android phone. Change the battery, add memory, er, er…

    You can’t make your own apps for an iPhone/iPad without paying Apple. Forget Objective C, write webapps. You have almost the same functionality as in an app and with a small effort it will work on a number of platforms.

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