Essentially, Cory doesn’t like the iPad because it’s a closed platform. He takes several different common objections and twists them (in an intelligent way, not a stupid Peter Mandelson way) to support this view. But it is, ultimately, just a view, not an argument.
Cory is a literal geek: he likes to take things apart and put them back together and tweak them. But not just metaphorically, like most of us who work with technology. He really has to physically dismantle stuff. As he says:
I believe – really believe – in the stirring words of the Maker Manifesto: if you can’t open it, you don’t own it. Screws not glue. 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
aconfident, 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 ][+
Well, now. Although the Apple II was on the wane by the time I got my first computer, my reasoning was similar to the above: my friends had Sinclair Spectrums, and liked playing Jet Set Willie but weren’t doing much else with them. The Commodore 64 seemed to offer more possibilities for programming, and it was this that helped persuade my dad to stump up the extra cash (more than double).
But, like the Speccie, the C64 came in a sealed plastic case, and it never occurred to me to prise this open and dive in with a soldering iron. POKEing machine code instructions into memory was geeky enough. I designed a UI to turn the excellent sound chip into a usable polyphonic synth, wrote software to create my own fonts and download them to a Star dot matrix printer (through computer mags, my free app spread as far afield as Denmark and Thailand), wibbled about endlessly with cardioids and lissajous on the CBM pen plotter, and wrestled with random access file management on the revolutionary 5.25in floppy disk drive. See? I owned my C64. In fact, I would go so far as to say I pwned it. Without opening it.
This isn’t good enough for Cory.
it seems like Apple's model customer is that same stupid stereotype of a technophobic, timid, scatterbrained mother as appears in a billion renditions of “that’s too complicated for my mom” (listen to the pundits extol the virtues of the iPad and time how long it takes for them to explain that here, finally, is something that isn't too complicated for their poor old mothers)
Actually, my example was a grandmother, but yes, it’s true: some of us tech writers, when we write about what the rest of the world wants, do stop to consider that maybe the average person isn’t as geeky as us. Is that patronising? No. Is it accurate? Yes.
This is patronising:
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.
Now, hang on a cotton-pickin’ minute. When I buy my kids a book, I don’t expect them to cut it up and paste it onto a breadboard with some other bits they picked up in Maplin’s. I expect them to learn something about the world just by passively consuming it. (‘Passively’ in terms of their physical, not their intellectual engagement; I find my kids’ energy saving settings are such that their brains can remain active even while their soldering irons are idle.)
This is anathema to Cory:
The model of interaction with the iPad is to be a ‘consumer’, what William Gibson memorably described as ‘something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It's covered with eyes and it sweats constantly...’
Gibson goes on, but you get the point. The complaint is that we’re not supposed to ‘improve’ our iPad (why would that be a thing?) by ‘figur[ing] out how it works and making it better’; we’re just supposed ‘to buy iApps’ – that is, use our iPad to access content, the thing it’s designed for. This is what makes us couch potato trailer trash, says Cory. I say: no more than books do.
It’s true, of course, that I won’t be able to write apps on my iPad and hand them out to other users like I could on my C64. But I have a Mac for that. And, I have to confess, I don’t really do that any more. I’m too busy using tools made by better coders than me to do other kinds of creative work. On the other hand, I’m looking seriously at making iPad apps. It’s not that hard (I’m told), the vast majority of apps get accepted into the App Store, and if anyone’s willing to pay for them it’s simple to get paid. That matters to me, since I have three kids, a mortgage the size of Iceland and no leisure time. Much as creativity rules my soul, I can’t actually devote many hours to it unless it pays. (It doesn’t have to pay millions.)
Cory makes some correct points about the way Apple restricts the iPad (like the iPhone) to running pre-approved apps. He doesn’t stop to discuss what would happen if it didn’t. When my son asks if he can download an app to his iPod touch, I look at the price; I don’t have to think about whether it’s going to spew malware all over the system. His brother’s laptop is currently unusable because one of his friends ‘got something off the internet’ which is now redirecting both browsers to phishing websites. Being restrictive is what it takes, in the current world, to make the iPad ‘just work’. That’s not evil, it’s a sensible trade-off.
Unless, of course, you hate things that ‘just work’, and really want to buy a carrier bag full of transistors from which you can build your own thing. Most of us don’t. I don’t see how that makes us wide-eyed, narrow-minded receptors of corporate bullshit. Interestingly, Cory notes that
the gadget press is full of devices that gadget bloggers need (and that no one else cares about)
Yes, it’s always misleading to assume everyone else shares your own criteria.
Over the wall
This leads us into a warning that the iPad won’t save the publishing industry, contrary to the hopes of the mainstream media, which
has been all over the iPad because… everyone in journalism-land is looking for a daddy figure who’ll promise them that their audience will go back to paying for their stuff
In satirising publishers as ‘yesterday’s empires’ who think themselves ‘grown up’ and look down on the web’s ‘amateur content’, Cory betrays another prejudice: that intermediation is a capitalist plot to hijack the means of distribution. In one sense, of course, it is (don’t get me started on the notion that copyright came into existence to protect authors). But in a more important sense, it’s not. If newspapers and magazines and academic journals merely distributed content, the arrival of free distribution via the web* would mean we no longer needed them. But they don’t merely distribute content; they create content. That’s why, as we’re all very keenly aware, we need to make sure we continue to do so, not fall into reformatting press releases – a tendency that’s largely arisen since the advent of the net, and partly in response to the resulting fall in revenues, not a valid historical criticism of the press.
Cory isn’t comfortable with the idea of ‘walled gardens’, by which he seems not only to mean paywalled websites but any form of professionally created content at all. Or maybe he does mean paywalls. Or maybe he’s conflating lots of overlapping phenomena. His objections don’t seem to distinguish clearly between ‘closed’ meaning copy-protected; ‘closed’ meaning socially excluding; ‘closed’ meaning not cross-platform; ‘closed’ meaning technically intermediated; ‘closed’ meaning intellectually intermediated; ‘closed’ meaning subject to any kind of property rights; ‘closed’ meaning not free of political interference; ‘closed’ meaning not free of charge; ‘closed’ meaning eliminating creativity; and ‘closed’ meaning designed and made by a discrete set of people and released as a finished product.
I think those are important distinctions. And so is the distinction between a device beautifully designed for a limited range of purposes and a big oily box of tools.
*Of course, building and hosting a website, formatting content and uploading it is little closer to ‘free’ than making a magazine is ‘free’; it takes a certain amount of money, and it takes skills that don’t seem to me to be much easier to acquire than the skills of print production. But because Cory has those skills, he presumably thinks it would be patronising to assume anyone else didn’t.