Aldous Huxley and the iPad

This morning’s Observer column.

WATCHING STEVE JOBS unveil the Apple iPad, what came to mind was something that Neil Postman, the most influential media critic since Marshall McLuhan, once said. Our future possibilities, Postman thought, lay on a spectrum bounded by George Orwell at one end, and by Aldous Huxley at the other: Orwell because he believed that we would be destroyed by the things we fear; Huxley because he thought that we would be undone by the things we love.

As the internet went mainstream, the Orwellian nightmare has evolved into a realistic possibility, because of the facilities the network offers for the comprehensive surveillance so vividly evoked in 1984. Governments everywhere have helped themselves to powers to read every email or text you've ever sent. And that's just the democracies; authoritarian regimes are far more intrusive.

Until recently, the Huxleian nightmare seemed a more distant prospect…

The nice thing about the iPad is that it has ignited this closed v. open argument across the net. Here, for example, is an impassioned piece by Fraser Speirs:

The people whose backs have been broken under the weight of technological complexity and failure immediately understand what’s happening here. Those of us who patiently, day after day, explain to a child or colleague that the reason there’s no Print item in the File menu is because, although the Pages document is filling the screen, Finder is actually the frontmost application and it doesn’t have any windows open, understand what’s happening here.

The visigoths are at the gate of the city. They’re demanding access to software. they’re demanding to be in control of their own experience of information. They may not like our high art and culture, they may be really into OpenGL boob-jiggling apps and they may not always share our sense of aesthetics, but they are the people we have claimed to serve for 30 years whilst screwing them over in innumerable ways. There are also many, many more of them than us.

People talk about Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field, and I don’t disagree that the man has a quasi-hypnotic ability to convince. There’s another reality distortion field at work, though, and everyone that makes a living from the tech industry is within its tractor-beam. That RDF tells us that computers are awesome, they work great and only those too stupid to live can’t work them.

The tech industry will be in paroxysms of future shock for some time to come. Many will cling to their January-26th notions of what it takes to get “real work” done; cling to the idea that the computer-based part of it is the “real work.”

It’s not. The Real Work is not formatting the margins, installing the printer driver, uploading the document, finishing the PowerPoint slides, running the software update or reinstalling the OS.

The Real Work is teaching the child, healing the patient, selling the house, logging the road defects, fixing the car at the roadside, capturing the table’s order, designing the house and organizing the party.

Think of the millions of hours of human effort spent on preventing and recovering from the problems caused by completely open computer systems. Think of the lengths that people have gone to in order to acquire skills that are orthogonal to their core interests and their job, just so they can get their job done.

If the iPad and its successor devices free these people to focus on what they do best, it will dramatically change people’s perceptions of computing from something to fear to something to engage enthusiastically with. I find it hard to believe that the loss of background processing isn’t a price worth paying to have a computer that isn’t frightening anymore.

And here’s John Murrell of Good Morning Silicon Valley

So I was chatting with my buddy and loyal Apple customer JP yesterday, and he asked me if I would be buying an iPad, and I said … wait, let me check the log … I said, “Oh, heavens no. Maybe some sort of slate, someday, but on an open system.” And it struck me that we’d had essentially the same exchange a few years back about the iPhone. Lovely as it may be, I just don’t want to confine myself to Apple’s walled garden. This is partly a philosophical thing, partly a preference for having the maximum number of options, and partly because I’m a tweaker by nature, and Apple products have never lent themselves to tweaking. No knock on Apple and no arguing with the success of its integrated approach. But for my purposes, Apple’s big contribution is to keep driving new ideas into the marketplace so they can find their way into gadgets for the rest of us.

In the case of the phone, I had a long wait before the arrival of the right handset with the right operating system on the right network (and by right, I of course mean right for me). Then the Droid showed up, and I became the very happy owner of a powerful, versatile pocket computer with an open operating system, a beautiful display and apps for everything I need. In the case of the tablet … well, it’s not a pressing issue for me due to certain constraints regarding disposable income, but the wait for worthy non-Apple contenders won’t be nearly as long. In its form factor and niche targeting, the iPad may be a bold business move for Apple, but it’s not the leap in technology and interface that the iPod and iPhone were. This time around, Apple doesn’t have any secret sauce. Competitive processors, touchscreens, operating systems and content services are already out there, and manufacturers have the pieces to start pushing iPad alternatives out the pipeline almost immediately — devices that will come equipped with the features missing from the Apple tablet and will let you roam outside the garden. But, I can hear the Apple fans saying, you’ll never have the cool design and elegant integration that comes out of a tightly controlled environment. Yep, that’s true … and that’s just fine with me. I have no trouble accepting that life outside the wall can be grittier than life inside. The freedom to choose is worth it.

Thanks to Andrew Laird for the link to Speirs.