David Pogue’s NYT review of the iPad seems to have captured perfectly the polarization it’s causing. Techno-geeks tend to hate it, while the masses love it. Laura Miller’s Salon piece spells out what I intuited about why I’d love to have an iPad: it makes reading text on a computer pleasurable. Excerpt:
So, while even before it went on sale Saturday the iPad was disparaged as a mere “media consumption” device, that description is exactly what piqued my interest. I know that my laptop can do just about everything the iPad can, but it’s not designed to be curled up with at the end of long day; it’s the long day’s main battleground. I find it hard to entirely relax with it, to enter a more receptive state of mind. Your desk at work can hold up a plate as effectively as the sidewalk table at your neighborhood cafe, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll feel as happy eating lunch there.
The iPad may not be ideal for what the tech industry calls “productivity,” but it’s well-suited for the purpose I had in mind: absorption. Even the most creative individuals will tell you that they have to spend some time simply soaking up the world around them, including the work of other creators, or ultimately the well runs dry. Much techno-utopian rhetoric implies that devoting your whole attention to someone else’s creation, sans interactivity, is necessarily a sad, incomplete, merely passive experience. Not only is that incorrect, it reflects certain troubling psychosexual attitudes about surrender and control that I don’t even want to get into here. When people complain nowadays about not being able to think or read as deeply as they used to, they’re not just acting like a bunch of old fuddy-duddies: They’re noticing a genuine lack of substance, the threadbare sensation of living in a culture where everyone’s talking and nobody’s listening.
Nick Carr delves into techie loathing of the iPad, and finds that these technologically advanced folks are actually … neo-Luddites. Excerpt:
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.
Carr says he actually sympathizes with the geeks who lament what Apple is doing here, 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.
Ouch. That cuts deep. In one of the combox threads yesterday, Conor Dugan pointed out that there’s something weird about Mr. Crunchy Con getting all gooey-eyed over a piece of technology. Guilty! What can I say, I contain multitudes. Seriously, though, I think Nick Carr is on to me just as much as he’s on to Cory Doctorow. The things I like are food and drink, and I don’t consider things that remove people from the creation of good food and good drink to be progress, but rather regress. Yet I don’t really care about being creative with my computer equipment; I just want the thing to work seamlessly, and let me do what I want to do with minimal hassle.
Conversely, it is entirely likely that a geek like Cory Doctorow would see me as a hopeless Luddite for rejecting labor-saving kitchen devices that take away from the pleasure of getting down and dirty with one’s dinner — who, after all, wants to waste time cooking when they could be spending it taking apart a computer and tinkering with it to make it do cool things? If “progress” promotes something I deeply care about — farmer’s markets, say — then I’m all for it. And if not, not. Similarly, if localism promotes things I care about, then up with it, say I; but let localism take away something I care about, and I’m going to whi-i-i-i-ine. As Carr indicates, we’re all reactionaries about the things we really love.
Keep in mind that the cost of an iPad is much less than it costs to subscribe to the New York Times for one year. If I bought an iPad today and cancelled my Times subscription, I could pay for the device by year’s end in the savings. Now, the Times won’t be free forever, but whatever it charges for access, when it finally gets around to doing it, would be something I’d gladly pay. I’d end up saving lots of money over what I pay now.
I would still almost certainly read books the old fashioned way, but it would sure be a pleasure to be able to search books by keyword for the right passage. And as I age and my eyes start to fail, having the ability to easily bump up the size of the typeface would be a lifesaver.
The problem with all this is obvious: it only works as long as the electricity stays on. Leaving aside the apocalyptic possibilities of peak oil and suchlike, my folks were out of power for nine days after a hurricane two years ago. If their entire library were on iPad, they would have had nothing to read for almost all of that time. Nothing to read! That is my ideal of hell, frankly.
Anyway, I think the Amish have a sensible, non-ideological idea of how to judge technology. If it adds to, or at least doesn’t take away from, community life and cohesion, they accept it. If not, they don’t. It’s not immediately clear to me how the iPad would make life less human by these standards. But I do try to be skeptical of techno-utopianism. My favorite example is schools that brag that they have computers in every classroom — as if that were somehow a critical part of contemporary pedagogy! I don’t care if you have computers — those totems of progress — in the classroom. I only want to know if you are managing to teach the children things they need to know.
Anyway x 2, I am highly ambivalent about the word “progress.” To crib from Ambrose Bierce, many people think they’re being progressive when they’re just rearranging their opinions.