Much has been written about the iPad in the few days since it was announced, and most of what I have read has been negative. Many commentators have rushed to depict it as a solution looking for a problem, disappointing in comparison to the wild rumors before it’s release, and not something for serious computer users.
That was my initial reaction, but I think I initially missed the point. After all, those of us who blog, comment and generally use the internet to create with are not the target market for this device any more than serious musicians are the target market for iPods. This is a device designed for passive consumption of content, and this is something it apparently does very well. However, the use of a version of the restrictive iPhone operating system means that it in many ways actively discourages users from doing anything else. Let’s be honest, you might be able to type with it, but who is going to type much whilst holding the thing in one hand? The lack of a camera or microphone also seriously limits user input of original content. The OS also means that Apple has control of everything that happens on it, a control they have demonstrated they will exercise when developers challenge the accepted view of what their hardware should do, or simply because they don’t like the name of an app. On a phone these kinds of restrictions were annoying, but on some level understandable, on a device that is meant to be a computer replacement they are harder to deal with.
I worry about this because I really believe that one of the biggest strengths of the internet is it’s interactivity and they way it enables sharing and development of ideas. Certainly there are many people who do not give much back, but devices like this actually frame the users experience of the internet as something that they simply consume rather than get involved in. Will a young person whose early experience of the internet is through such devices see it as something they are a participant in, or will their view be more akin to how my generation saw magazines?
Apple’s attempt to mediate (and siphon off revenue from) content supplied to iPads (and iPhones) through the iTunes store, and the new iBooks, only further supports this notion of the device as a supplier of content in the old fashioned model of the entertainment industry. Could such a precedent put an end to the ‘all is free’ era of the internet? It will likely make users more accepting of companies charging for content they used to get for free, as Rupert Murdoch plans to do with online versions of his newspapers. It also seems that the announcement of the product has caused Macmillan to make Amazon increase prices for their digital books.
Maybe content shouldn’t always be free, but comment should be. I wonder if devices like this could begin to define users’ (especially childrens’) experience of the internet as a passive one, therefore eroding their motivation to get involved and contribute. Last week I saw a powerful presentation from John Davitt where he mashed up clips from Lord of The Rings with a talking sheep. With this he showed how in less than a minute, students could “reframe their understanding of their relationship with the dominant media of their time”. The ability to exercise such creativity is so important, but I worry about the effect of children brought up with ubiquitous access to content on devices that are too locked down to creatively engage with it.
It would be going to far to suggest that one device portends an Orwellian/Huxleyan world of totally subjugated consumers- but there are some interesting parallels.