Monday, April 5, 2010

Does the iPad Free Us from the Tyranny of Creation?

or: Is the iPad Really the Evolution of the Personal Computer or Is It the Advent of a More Interactive TV Set?

As you all know by now, I'm sort of a tech guy.  Not in the sense that I have to own every new wireless widget to come down the pike.  Far from it, in fact. But I make it my business to know what's going on so I can have an informed opinion on exactly how it's sucking the souls out of our lives...

Of course, I'm just kidding.  (Sort of.)

So over the weekend, the age of the iPad dawned . . . on the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express.  (I don't know that this is significant, but it's worth noting all the same.)  And as usual, I think the press surrounding the thing missed the real story.

This morning's story on NPR made the iPad sound like the death knell of the free internet.  The spark that sets alight a million free-content websites.  As the masses swarm to the "gated community" afforded by Apple's restrictive content controls and the industry adopts its usual posture of chasing Apple... where does that leave us?

That depends upon how you view media.  In other words, are you a creator or a consumer?  Let's face it, Lev Grossman's assessment of the iPad in this Time Magazine article is pretty dead-on: the iPad is purpose-built for consumption of media, not the creation of media.

I take exception to all the many articles and news stories (seriously, could there be more hype?) that call it the evolution of the laptop computer, or even the "end" of the laptop.  This is just a platform for delivery, as many people describe it it's basically just an enormous iPod Touch.  In my view it's the newest incarnation of the television or radio, not the latest evolution of the laptop.  You've spent your entire life with such devices and Apple's new device just makes the things interactive.  I don't know a single author, blogger or other sort of "content creator" (as we are now called) that is ditching his or her Macbook or PC in favor of the iPad.

Why?  Because typing on a big sheet of glass that won't or can't multitask sucks.

But I think that's just fine.  Seriously, there's not a darn thing wrong with that.  Why?  Because without consumers, what are we creating content for?  Whether it's a more interactive e-reader or a delivery system for cleaner HD NetFlix downloads or just a way to read the digital newspaper, this device isn't a disruptive technology.  Far from it.  NPR is right, this is a device that harkens back to the era of hardcopy, a chance to preserve the old paradigm of "We create, you read" that has seen us through the centuries since before Gutenberg went out and MacGyvered a winepress and started printing Bibles.

I know a lot of people see the wild and woolly, freewheeling internet as the height of human social development.  Those are generally the same people who complain about all the "clueless n00bs" clogging the pipeline and generally getting in their way.  The wild west is great as long as you're one of the gunslingers, but all those pesky civilians just get in the way.

The simple fact is, there are too many content creators already.   Andre Codrescue once warned that we are a nation of exhibitionists that is running desperately short of voyeurs.  The iPad is tailor-made for voyeurs.  (As long as the exhibitionist isn't using Flash) and I say more power to it.  The iPad gives content creators the chance to create content and it relieves those who would rather consume than create relief from the tyranny of that keyboard that seems to haunt far too many with the imaginary onus to do something with it.

I posit that there are those in the world who shouldn't have a keyboard handy.  I'm sorry if that sounds elitest or not at all the PC thing to say (pun intended) but there are simply too many people who feel that they HAVE to tell their story and get out there only to find that they don't actually have a story to tell.  These are the people who Tweet their every bowel movement.

The iPad is a gated community.  It takes away the keyboard, along with its implicit exhortation to type something even if you don't have anything to type, and it restricts what you can view to Apple-approved content.  With all the constraints that Apple puts on their devices, don't be surprised if the Federal Trace Commission eventually tells them to knock it off.  The things they got away with when their market share was too small to create waves that way will eventually get them in trouble just as it did Microsoft.

But in the meantime, I think this device is going to ultimately clear the pipeline of a lot of people who would rather not have the QWERTY keyboard staring them in the face, tempting them with all the banality they can Tweet about.  The iPad creates audiences and if you're one of the exhibitionists... more voyeurs is good.

Anyway, this sense of the iPad as either the beginning or end of something new and frightening is nonsensical.  We've had gated communities on the internet before or have we forgotten AOL?

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).