If tablets are the future, what’s the future of geeks? [updated]


now HERE was an inspirational tablet.

[UPDATED below.]

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.

7 Responses to “If tablets are the future, what’s the future of geeks? [updated]”

  1. you need to stop thinking of the iPad REPLACING the PC and more of supplementing it. And consuming media IS inspirational, as reading this blog inspired me to comment, looking at pretty pictures makes people want to create more pictures, etc.

    And besides, people have always hacked closed stuff, I mean shit, the iPhone was hacked and running apps before there was an app store. I have a hacked 3Com Audrey, and a hacked tivo. People hack iPods and Androids. In fact, one could argue that if it isn’t locked, then you can’t hack it.

    A kid can’t hack legos because one could view it as entirely open.

    The iPad is all about consuming, but people consuming is not mutually exclusive to producing. And I would argue there always has and always will be more consumers than producers.

  2. 2 Me

    I just updated the post after reading your own post, and a bunch of others in the past few days.

    The history of the “hack” term and concept is interesting to me. Has it changed over time? My sense (which may be incorrect) is that it used to just mean “tinkering”, like you would with an Erector set. While now it has definitely acquired a somewhat negatively aggressive, rogue quality, more akin to “commandeering.” This is not surprising since the things that you mention hacking (iPods, TiVo, etc) are all CAs that by their very design discourage tinkering and therefore must be broken into, trespassed upon, commandeered. Which is a fundamentally higher energy barrier to overcome than mere tinkering. (Right?)

    The point of my post was simply to wonder this: if almost all computers require that higher energy barrier to creatively interact with–that is, if CAs come to effectively replace PCs except in specialized, professionalized contexts–what effect will that “selection pressure” have on the next generation of geeks?

    • 3 skabaru

      I am working through this now. I too started programming on an Apple IIc, somewhere around 9 years old. And while the point is valid, it completely ignores the fact that EVERYTHING on a computer has changed since I was 9. I played with BASIC because there was nothing else to do. Computers didn’t come with anything. There was no internet. You had no other options. And you were exploring.

      My son Mason is 4, and he is sitting at the computer now, playing some flash games at nick jr. com. He can do it all himself aside from type in nickjr.com. He can navigate the site, get bored, close the browser, open iPhoto, find the family vacation photos, and start a slide show. I didn’t show him that. I don’t even really use iPhoto. The view that me in 1987 and Mason in 2010 face the same computer experience is absurd.

      I think the root here is tinkering is a movement, an experience. The tools will forever change, but the emotion and desire morphs through time. On the one hand, computers are way more complex, protected, locked down, etc now today compared to 1987. However, I came to an Apple IIc with nothing. Mason comes to a MacBook Pro with a completely different digital foundation. Mason grew up in a world where you pulled a tiny phone out of a pocket and watched youtube videos anywhere.

      The technology pinnacle of my life is the very basis of his.

      For Mark’s logic to really stand up, there should be a decline of tinkerers correlating to the rise of complexity of personal computing devices, and I just don’t see it. To pretend that the iPad is a the turning point on this scene of locked down computing is silly.

      Why no complaints about this in the past? The Wii has a browser, WebTV, 3Com Audrey, any of the mobile devices, I could do on. These appliances have come and gone. And name one that hasn’t been hacked/rooted/jailbroken.

      The Tinkerer’s Sunset came along time ago, but the party has been awesome and no one noticed.

      • 4 skabaru

        (these concepts are currently being fleshed out in a forth coming post on my end as well, but I love the back and forth).

  3. 5 Me

    You do make a good point about your son growing up with effortless computing ubiquity all around him. I was never a hacker/tinkerer although I was intrigued by computers as a kid. But it’s only NOW — having been immersed in the sea of increasingly easy/invisible computing that is the last decade — that I’m actually getting interested in learning how to hack and tinker and code. Basically, I’ve taken so much of this power for granted that it has encouraged me to think, “I know there’s much more potential here. How can I access it?”

    So maybe the evolution away from PCs and toward CAs will amplify that effect going forward for the next generation. It’s a different kind of/genesis for geekdom, but maybe even more empowering… ?

    • 6 skabaru

      I think more empowering. The internet at your finger tips is insane. Mason can google ‘write an iphone app’ and aside from getting me to pony up the $99 dev license, he is can get everything he needs from the internet. If he wants to dev on OSX, it is a free account with http://developer.apple.com/tools/ and he has a complete toolkit, reference library, and countless blogs, examples, etc all accessible in seconds.

      When I was playing with basic, I couldn’t figure out how to save my programs, so I would WRITE THEM ON PAPER. Sheets and sheets of paper. Then I would have to TYPE THEM BACK INTO the computer if anyone else wanted to use the machine, it got turned off, etc. If I could have googled ‘save BASIC program’ it would have been awesome.

      It might be more locked down, but the wealth of information available, the sharing, the community, that far eclipses any benefits I had as a child.

  4. If you can turn this into an “ought,” it would make a good Start essay. Just that line “if the iPad is the future of computing, then what’s the future of geeks?” is quite compelling.

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