If tablets are the future, what’s the future of geeks? [updated]
Farhad Manjoo loves the iPad because it’s beautiful and shiny but also because it’s a giant step towards turning computers into appliances. I was right there with him until a thought struck me: if a generation of kids grows up with computing appliances instead of *computers*, what kind of geeks will they be? Will they even BE geeks in the sense that we currently use that term?
The question comes out of a fundamental difference between computing appliances (CAs from here on out) like the iPad, and personal computers (PCs, by which I mean Wintels, Macs, Linux boxes, etc). A PC is a (sort of) universal computer: theoretically, it can be made to do any processing task with the right program and enough time/memory/whatever. But a CA is a single-purpose or limited-purpose device like any other appliance: a toaster may toast bagels, bread, muffins and pop tarts, but it’s basically meant for one context and one purpose. No one really thinks of “programming” or “hacking” an appliance–or at least not in the evil-genius, “wow, I can make this box do my bidding in all these interesting ways!” way that most of us associate with PC geekery.
I’m a bit out of my element here because I am not a hacker or geek in the usual sense myself–I’ve never re/programmed, hacked or rooted my PC or anything else. But from what I can tell, all the modern titans of tech–from Gates and Jobs and Woz to Page and Brin and The Zuck–they all DID do that kind of stuff in their formative years. And that experience turned them into who they are today. (Right? Am I getting my history correct?)
Now take a kid who’s say, turning 12 in the year 2020. To him, “computing” and “computers” are terms as archaic as ENIAC is to us. Instead, he’s grown up with a ubiquity of CA’s–networked appliances that “do computing” but do it invisibly, in specific contexts for a limited array of tasks. He picks up his touchpad to scan news and social networks and watch some videos over cereal. His smartphone tells him where to be, when, how to get there, and all that stuff. Maybe the dashboard in Mom’s car does some other computery shit on his ride to school, and maybe his desk at school is another specific touch/tablet-like dashboard for school stuff. The point is, at no point in the day does he sit down at his “computer” and think, “what do I want to do/try with this thing today?”
Twitter user @REAS put it succinctly:
The iPad is for consuming media, not producing media — I don’t like that direction.
I think his worry might go even further and apply to geeky creativity in general, because CAs, by their very nature, don’t invite creativity. They are not inspirational. Think of what interests a toddler more: a shiny plastic robot that beeps and whirrs and walks, or the cardboard box it came in? CAs are the robot; PCs are (were?) the box.
Appliances (and, I believe, CAs like the iPad and pre-touch iPods) have very specific “affordances” designed into them–that’s the whole point. You look at a well-designed appliance and think, “I know exactly what that is for, and how to use it.” PCs aren’t like that. The whole point of them was to make you wonder (in a good way) “what can I do with that, and how?”
People are bitching that the iPad doesn’t do Flash, that it’s a closed proprietary system, that it doesn’t have this or be made to do that. Well, what did they expect? They’re complaining that an appliance isn’t a computer. That’s like complaining that your washing machine won’t let you make toast. Or do anything else you might come up with off the top of your head.
Which is fine. I can think of specific contexts that an iPad might be quite useful. But what kind of geekery is it (and its ilk) going to inspire in anyone? When rigorously designed digital appliances are everywhere and powerful, open-ended PCs become quaint tchotchkes, what will digital innovators look like?
Maybe I’m just not enough of a geek myself to tell.
Postscript: Ironically, Apple’s first blockbuster CA–the iPod–has been steadily evolving in the opposite direction as it converged with the iPhone’s touchscreen technology. Now you can pick up an iPhone and actually do think to yourself, “what is this device capable of? What can I make it do?” in that PC-ish, open-ended, associative, inspirational, creative, non-appliancey way. I think this is because the mobile phone IS the new PC. (Not that a jillion other people haven’t already had that thought.)
Updated 1/30/10: Turns out my hunch about a CA-saturated world’s effect on the geek mindset was on the money, at least in a few well-cited instances that were burning up Techmeme yesterday. They said it much better than I did above, so I’ll summarize:
In a post about “the tinkerer’s sunset”, Alex Payne called the iPad “an attractive, thoughtfully designed, deeply cynical thing… that does little to enable creativity… if I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today. I’d never have had the ability to run whatever stupid, potentially harmful, hugely educational programs I could download or write.”
Mark Pilgrim, who says he “became who [he is] by tinkering” with impunity in BASIC on an Apple ][e, is distressed by the fact that in an era of iPads and similar CAs, to tinker means “trespassing” on ONE’S OWN COMPUTER (by cracking DRM or jailbreaking, with the associated consequences) or paying Apple for the privilege of “developing” via an SDK. “And that’s fine for the developers of today, because they already know that they’re developers. But the developers of tomorrow don’t know it yet. And without the freedom to tinker, some of them never will.”
Finally, Annalee Newitz at io9 called the iPad “crap futurism” because in presenting a “convergence device,” the iPad turns a powerful computer into a stunted combination of 1950s television set and shopping mall.
This all crystallizes my own point: the difference between “real computers” and CAs is that you don’t have to break them in order to play with them or control them. If CAs remain “secondary computers” compared to PCs this isn’t a big deal, but that’s the whole point: I don’t really think they will.
Of course, whatever “consequences” there are of this new development in the evolution of computers will likely fall somewhere in between the doomsayers and utopianists. As a secondary computer-as-couchbound-digital-consumption-terminal, I find the iPad very appealing. And as a writer and filmmaker, I get excited by the prospect of the iPad creating new opportunities for my own work to reach readers and viewers.
But my cynical self doesn’t think the iPad, or any CA, is going to inspire the next generation of geek-innovators in any meaningful, world-changing, Cambrian-Explosion type way. Thanks to platforms like Android, the new tinkerers will probably all be focused on their phones, since those are steadily morphing into the new PCs–more personal, in fact, than a PC ever was. Now that’ll be exciting.
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