Friday, April 02, 2010

Have iPad critics fallen into an echo-chambered trap like the news industry?

The self-referential nature of most “future of journalism” discussions is evidence of the very problems they lament. Reading much of the pre-iPad criticism, I’ve realized that’s often true of the open-as-religion crowd, as well.

The iPad is bad, they say, because it’s closed. There are things you can’t do on it that they sometimes want to do. It’s not a “real computer” because you can’t open it up (actually or metaphorically, I presume). Cory Doctorow’s jeremiad is a particularly pointed example, much praised and linked to by CPU curmudgeons.

If you can’t open it, you don’t own it, he declares, certainly implying that he doesn’t own a modern car, which no shade-tree mechanic or home hobbyist can open up and tinker with any more. In fact, many of the arguments about the iPad are well mirrored in that analogy.

"Without the open Apple II or Commodore or whatever, I’d have never learned to program," some complain. Well, doubtful. The world saw its last generation of tinkerable autos some time ago, yet today’s cars are safer, more reliable and less environmentally destructive than their predecessors. They’re better for everybody, really, except the guys who want to tinker.

Yes, there are plenty of folks who wish they could still pop the hood and fix things. As the owner of a 1967 Jeepster, I understand. But "closed" automobiles didn't signal the end of mechanics or car designers.

BTW, the iPad isn’t going to take away your Dell or MacBook, is it? Go ahead, program there, all you like. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

The other consistent criticism is that the iPad is designed mainly for consuming content, not creating it. Even if I thought that was fair (I don’t), I’d have to ask, “So what?”

People who protest that it’s simply a beautiful device for reading/viewing/playing prepackaged media must think there’s something wrong with enjoying a beautiful packaged book or song or video.

Cory recalls that he gave away or traded comic books he bought as a kid, and that such fan interaction helped create an appetite and market for comics. I was a comics fan and trader as well, but mentioning that by way of criticizing Marvel because you can’t freely give away its iPad comic is preposterous. As a kid, Cory could give away only the comic books he purchased, and he could give each away once. Online we can (and do) give away hundreds of thousands of individual content units: books, songs, comics, whatever. (This is usually called “sharing” rather than "giving away,” but whatever). I fully understand the digital duplication jinni is long since out of the bottle and I’m not asking to have that debate again. But why insult our intelligence by comparing comix-as-atoms with comix-as-bits?

Cory also sets up a preposterous straw man by defining those who like prepackaged media as one of Wm Gibson’s consumers: “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.”

This is the place where this brand of critics fall most deeply into the same kind of echo-chambered trap as the news industry — by thinking that most people should think and behave like themselves. But most people are not and will not ever become creators of sophisticated media. Instead they’re working in bakeries and insurance offices and having babies and teaching people to play the fiddle.

They don’t want to make a lot of “content” and they don’t need to. They do want to “consume media.”

The People Formerly Known As the Audience — as Jay Rosen brilliantly characterized them — have a lot more clout and choices and opportunity nowadays. Yes, hierarchical relationships like the one between editors and readers have changed forever. That's a good thing.

But you know what? We’re still audiences a lot of the time — by choice. Cory & Co. think that makes us sweaty, colorless and and covered with eyes. I don’t.


Caveat: I have reservations and questions myself about the “iPad ecology” about which Cory and others complain. Reflecting my particular bias, I’m worried about the relationship of news publishers and the iPad application gatekeepers. I’m guessing it will end working something like a bookstore — owners decide which books to carry, but don’t edit the ones they sell. They can decline pornography if they want to, or other subjects but will pay a heavy price for every subject they chose to exclude. But I don’t know that, and it’s a central question news companies need to answer.

1 comment:

  1. Your hed begs the question: Have iPad fan(boys) fallen into an echo-chambered trap like the news industry?

    Time will tell, I suppose.