The Great Leap Backward

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

The revolution will most certainly not take place on the iPad.  Apple, the hardware, software and electronics mainstream-cum-alternative brand, has bestowed upon the masses yet another spectacle of the box from on high.  The iPad, a tablet computer, represents perhaps the most advanced form of media convergence available as a consumer electronic device.  The question isn’t what it can do, but what it can’t do.  Internet, email, photos, videos, music, books, magazines, newspapers, and although the iPad is not designed to replace a cellphone, a user can pair it with a Bluetooth headset and place phone calls over Wi-Fi or 3G using a VoIP application.

Apple is quick to point out that the device is indeed revolutionary, a one-sheet talking point that more than a few reviewers have been quick to recapitulate.  Walt Mossberg, in his Personal Technology column for the Wall Street Journal, offered a sort of obituary to the laptop with his sparkling testament to the possibilities of an iPad world.  “After spending hours and hours with it, I believe this beautiful new touch-screen device from Apple has the potential to change portable computing profoundly, and to challenge the primacy of the laptop…If you’re mainly a Web surfer, note-taker, social-networker and emailer, and a consumer of photos, videos, books, periodicals and music—this could be for you.” 

Not everyone is so easily sold.  Internet guru, Cory Doctorow, wrote a divisive and biting piece for Boing Boing challenging the ontological and ethical ramifications of the device.  For Doctorow, the problem isn’t about battery life or touch-screen specs, but about something more fundamental about computer technology.  The problem lies in an architecture of closed, proprietary software, a dangerous anachronism considering the potential of the technology.  “It really feels like the second coming of the CD-ROM “revolution” in which “content” people proclaimed that they were going to remake media by producing expensive (to make and to buy) products…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 ][+.”  Not so with the iPad says Doctorow.  “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.”

This concept of constant user-generated innovation and experimentation is one of the reasons the Internet has become such a rich space. It’s the philosophy of Wikipedia over AOL Online. It’s also one of the central reasons information technology was such a radical concept in the first place.  Considering some of the arguments made by early personal computing innovators, it appears the biases of the medium are inherently in opposition to the iPad.

Vannevar Bush, the architect of groundbreaking analog computing projects at MIT in the 1940s and primary organizer of the Manhattan Project, was clearly someone who had a complicated relationship with technology and mankind.  Refusing to let the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagaski comprise his legacy, Bush developed a vision of how technology could lead toward understanding and away from destruction.  His ideas of the “memex” helped inform the field of information technology and personal computing until today.  One of his fundamental visions of new media was the idea of knowledge tools that help us connect, share, and ultimately elevate our understanding of the world.  In his 1945 piece “As We May Think,” Bush’s concept for a proto-PC is a realm somewhere between foresight and prophecy.  “Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associate trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.”  What about dropping new or shared information into the iPad?  No app for that at the iPad Store, but you can watch episodes Big Bang Theory

J.C.R. Licklider framed computing technology as possibly the most efficient and effective form of communication known to man.  He posited and proved it in much of his work at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in the early 1960s.  In “The Computer as Communication Device,” Licklider argued, “In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through the machine than face to face.”  Offices around the world prove this accurate for many tasks on a daily basis.  The article ultimately argued against communication as being a simple one-way process between sender and receiver.  Over forty years later the iPad looks remarkably like a one-way broadcast communication device.  Information as consumption instead of information as communication.

Douglas Engelbart
, a pioneering Stanford Research Institute engineer, is the man responsible for designing many of the interface features we use today including the mouse, the window and the word processor.  His ideas of the future of personal computing design were predicated on a concept of augmenting the human intellect in order to help man approach increasing complex problem situations.  In “Workstation History and the Augmented Knowledge Workshop,” Engelbart lays out his graphic computing vision of innovation:  “Metaphorically, I see the augmented organization or institution of the future changing, not as an organism merely to be a  bigger and faster snail, but to achieve such new levels of sensory capability, speed, power, and coordination as to become a new species.”   The iPad, meanwhile, seems much more like a step back toward a gatekeeper model of broadcast.

A line formed in the wee hours of the morning this past Saturday at the Apple Store in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan.  The crowd was anticipating something that could forever change media and culture.  They were hoping for something that would exceed their wildest expectations.  They were waiting for a revolution.  What they got was the iPad.