The iPad and dystopia

Very thoughtful essay by Alex Payne.

The thing that bothers me most about the iPad is this: 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. I wouldn’t have been able to fire up ResEdit and edit out the Mac startup sound so I could tinker on the computer at all hours without waking my parents. The iPad may be a boon to traditional eduction, insofar as it allows for multimedia textbooks and such, but in its current form, it’s a detriment to the sort of hacker culture that has propelled the digital economy.

Perhaps the iPad signals an end to the “hacker era” of digital history. Now that consumers and traditional media understand the digital world, maybe there’s proportionally less need for freewheeling technological experimentation and platforms that allow for the same. Maybe the hypothetical mom doesn’t need a real computer. As long as real computers stick around for people who do need them, maybe there’s no harm in that.

Wherever we stand in digital history, the iPad leaves me with the feeling that Apple’s interests and values going forward are deeply divergent from my own. There’s nothing wrong with that; people make consumer decisions every day based on their values. If I don’t like the product that the iPad turns out to be once released, I’m free to simply not buy it. These things have a way of evolving, and I won’t preclude the possibility that Apple eventually addresses concerns about the openness of the device.

For now, though, I remain disturbed. The future of personal computing that the iPad shows us is both seductive and dystopian. It’s not a future I want to bring into my home…

This is a lovely essay — and it attracted some interesting comments. What it illustrates is the gulf between the ‘consumer’ view of computing and the programmer’s perspective, where ‘freedom to tinker’ is of paramount importance.

One of the comments also makes an important point, namely that the dichotomy between ‘closed=safe’ and ‘open=vulnerable’ is a false one. The most insidious thing of all is a closed system that isn’t secure but which users believe is secure, because that leaves them open to hacking in a particularly unpleasant way. A bit like the false confidence that comes from using a bike-lock which you are told is unbreakable but which is, in fact, vulnerable to those who know how to break it.

FOOTNOTE: I found Alex’s essay via dive into mark, which has an equally thoughtful post about the iPad.