Last week two opposing editorials appeared on TechCrunch representing the two oppositional poles of a discussion on reading and the iPad. On the side of the iPad killing reading was Paul Carr’s NSFW: I Admit It, The iPad Is A Kindle Killer. I Just Wish It Weren’t Going To Kill Reading Too . In opposition to Carr, stating the iPad is going to fundamentally change reading and we need to rethink books is Dear Authors, Your Next Book Should be an App, Not an iBook, written by 21 year old1 Cody Brown.
On the weekend of its launch Cory Doctorow and others (like myself) critiqued the closed nature of the iPad development platform and its relationship to innovation. Others have written in support of it.
What is it about the iPad that activates discussions like these? I mean, it’s a wonderfully engineered device, but it’s not all that and the proverbial bag of chips. Though it may replace some people’s “traditional” computers2 , neither the desktop, nor the notebook, will be going away anytime soon. And, while Apple will probably capture the slate tablet market, there are tons of competing tablet devices on the way. However, if the iPad had “just” been a tablet (like upcoming models from HP, Dell, or Google), I doubt that we’d be been having such focused conversations.
Having been witness to lots of debates on the iPad and its potential effects on publishing by pragmatic folks who, though technologists, are excellent at getting beyond the spin, I don’t think most of these discussions can be dismissed as simply buying into hype .
Nor is it necessarily the given reality of the situation, though transformations within the marketplace, like the move in publishing to agency model pricing is most definitely based in the immediate real. For the most part these conversations, take for example Carr and Brown, are fixated on the future.
So what’s driving all the churn?
I propose that the iPad is the metaphor3 that has allowed/enabled existing ideas to be developed in new (and potentially more productive) ways.
The iPad’s promise of a tight “device” (versus computer) experience, able to be “infinity” expanded through apps, creates just enough space of ideation to activate all the debates that we’ve seen (open v. closed, book v. app, etc). What the iPad adds to this discussion is a common understand of interaction and experience that allows us to greatly refine the discussion.
Beyond the specifics (like app store pricing and agency models), the iPad offers an “open bounded” experience — neither as single purpose as an “eReader” or as open as a “computer” (or perhaps even a “website) — with an easily understood interface (emphasizing the immediacy of touch) and platform (the easy availability of apps). If you’re in a ‘modern’4 country and within a general age/demographic grouping, you don’t need to have held an iPad to participate in the discussion — we can easily conceptualize the experience from interactions with other technologies (computers and cell phones being obvious examples, but also think about interactions with touch screen interfaces in retail and other locations).
The brilliance of Apple, for better or worse, is the iPad’s intuitiveness5 — using an iPad is far easier to imagine and explain than any other type of computer (including Macs).
If we take the iPad as both the subject of and a metaphor for the arguments, we can try and “step outside” the discussions to see what’s actually being argued. And the answer is, “the future.” Each of the debates, and positions held there in, encapsulate a specific ideology/imagination of a future (for publishing, for software, for users) which have been going on for quite a while. Should devices (with the iPad standing in for all) be open (democratic) or closed (authoritarian)? Will literacy fail or be irrevocably transformed? Is all development positive? And what is lost when, with the move to digital production and distribution, “all that is solid melts into air?” 6
From this perspective, the increasing heat of these reactivated debates should not be a surprise. Previous discussions about future7 suffered from lack of a shared conceptualization of computing. We might have conceptualized unfettered computers with transparent interfaces, “elegantly” fitting into our lives, but I don’t think that most of us were truly able to imagine them, at least in a shared way. Turning Marx’s quote on its head, Apple has taken the conceptual and given it a material form. And it doing that, it’s (momentarily at least) reshaped the discussion.
- The only reason I called out the authors age is that it was invoked twice within the article, once by TechCrunch and once by the author himself. I’m assuming that being 21 years old is important to understand his right to comment on these issues (as opposed to the fact that he’s a Reynolds Scholar in Social Entrepreneurship at NYU, and on the board of CoPress). For the record, as of presstime, Mr. Carr is 30 and I’m 35. Hopefully our ages are as important to our messages as Mr. Brown’s is to his). [↩]
- in particular folks who use a computer primarily for eMail, web surfing, & light word processing [↩]
- I’m thinking about a metaphor in terms of Wittensteinian categorization, and not necessarily as Lakoff and Johnson do. [↩]
- I admit that Modern is a deeply problematic term. I had initially “first-world”, but that is equally, if not more, problematic. Any suggestions? [↩]
- Intuitiveness should be thought of as a mediation between intangible individual and cultural expectations about how a device should work and its material functioning. It emerges in dialog with an ever emerging total social experience of technology, and is therefore a constantly moving target. [↩]
- Marx and Engles, The Manifesto of the Communist Party [↩]
- I’d go so far as to say every discussion of the future, as like technology, the discussions around it are in an ever emergent state. Thus categories and concepts are always being created and modified [↩]