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. Allen Walters

    I don’t think that Apple has ever prosecuted anyone for hacking or unlocking their iPhone and now the iPad. They do say that if you do, it violates the terms of their warranty. So experiment away.

    Is it unreasonable for Porsche to say that when you buy their car and want the performance and useability that they promise, then you should use certified “Porsche” parts and you should install them with an authorized or certified “Porsche” mechanic or service facility?

    I don’t think so. I buy Apple products for their design, the pleasure they give me, their quality, industry-leading customer satisfaction, the useability (interface), simplicity, longevity of use, and even value held at resale. Also, I buy them for convenience, freedom from hassles, and for their ability to save me time…which makes me more money. I had decades of hassles with computers and viruses and I’m tired of the hassles and just want things to “work” without all the hassle.

    Frankly, I am grateful to Apple for insuring that the apps I buy from the app store are Apple-approved. I am not concerned at the few issues that I have with the capabilities or features of my iPad, because in their products, they continually introduce improvements in software, firmware, and (when necessary) hardware. The answer to many criticisms of the iPads is that “that will come”, just like cut-and-paste and multitasking.

    I don’t feel the iPad is all that limited, as I can use LogMeIn on my ipad, with wifi, to remotely control the desktop of my MacBook Pro, and run Photoshop when I need it, or remotely retrieve files when needed. By the way, you are not restricted to iTunes to transfer files, as MobileMe allows wireless transfers of files just fine, for use or backup. So far, when I need my laptop, that is solved by using my laptop at home, and it looks like I won’t have to lug my laptop around anymore, just to have access to my email, address book, calendar, forms, etc. If it doesn’t work for you, then shop around and I hope you find something that does.

  2. Dave Pentecost

    Somehow I think Corey and other neo-Luddites will still go out and buy the new Macbooks with i5 and i7 processors, the best generative computers ever made. As anyone can do.

    Thanks for your observations.

  3. Carlacasilli

    I appreciate your honest attempt at rationalizing the direction of progress; however, your overall premise is incorrect. Progress does not happen on its own in some inexorable way sans the human touch; actual people manifest progress. To remove the human element from the equation which you do when you write, “But I’m not under any illusion that progress gives a damn about what I want, ” and “In the end, progress doesn’t care about ideology,” is to surrender the idea of any human agency. You suggest that we are mere bystanders at the parade of technological progress, but this is to mistake the argument entirely.

    Whether or not the human agency that instigates progress coincides with one’s personal interpretation of good, or fair, or worthwhile is at issue. But it’s best to remember that this argument represents a human vs. human question, not a human vs. technology question. Human agency is the only thing that moves progress along. And while Robert Frost may have written “We love the things we love for what they are,” e.e. cummings wrote, “Humanity i love you because you / are perpetually putting the secret of / life in your pants and forgetting / it’s there and sitting down // on it.”

  4. Nick Carr

    You suggest that we are mere bystanders at the parade of technological progress

    As individuals, most of us are bystanders when it comes to the broad sweep of technological progress, though, yes, of course, all technology comes from a human hand – though the technology’s influence often diverges from, and sometimes contradicts, the intent of the maker.

    Whether or not the human agency that instigates progress coincides with one’s personal interpretation of good, or fair, or worthwhile is at issue.


    But it’s best to remember that this argument represents a human vs. human question, not a human vs. technology question.

    That’s too simplistic – an example of what McLuhan called somnambulism. Many of the most important effects of technology have been unintended byproducts and side-effects. Technology itself encourages certain ways of living and thinking.


    Hi Nick,

    Bit late to comment on this but I really enjoyed the debate. Have put some thought into the whole issue as a result and think that “generativity” means different things depending on the ‘lens’ you use (hardware, platform, business model).

    I believe that from a hardware perspective the iPad might reduce “generativity” in terms of screwdrivers and soldering irons – which is probably a pretty niche activity given the complexity of today’s devices anyway – but it certainly has the potential to put computing power into the hands of more people and thus enable them to be more “generative” in a broader sense.

    From a platform perspective it appears that the iPad is a net enabler of “generativity” as it allows more people to access applications to perform “generative” activities in domains outside of IT whilst also opening a new channel to these people from application developers.

    I think the issues start to appear when you look at Apple’s business model and the way in which they have created a closed system across a number of different business types. As well as limiting competition and stifling innovation to the detriment of consumers and partners I also believe that this is to Apple’s own detriment as they are sub-optimising the different components of their ecosystem in order to lock everyone else out. As an example a platform business is generally based on economies of scale (and should therefore pursue broad adoption) but Apple limits access to the platform to their own devices.

    As a result I feel that from a technology perspective (hardware and platform) there are both good and bad elements to what Apple has produced but that neither has any impact on “generativity” per se; from a business perspective, however, I think that Apple is stifling innovation and limiting potential exploration of other business design spaces. As a result “generativity” seems to be impossible at the business model level. I think this may be some of the angst that people are feeling but not able to articulate when talking about the technologies themselves.

    Anyway, a much fuller response here:



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