Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. In this post, also posted on Baron’s personal blog The Web of Language, he looks at the release of the iPad.
Launching Apple’s long-awaited iPad, Steve Jobs promised that his “magical” device will not just let us surf the web, play games, videos, and tunes, and check our email, it will also do for reading what the iPod did for listening to music. Like writing, and the printing press, and the personal computer, it will change our lives.
Jobs’ hyperbole isn’t surprising — he’s launching a product, after all, and he’s got stockholders to answer to, so he wants it to sell and sell big.
What is surprising is the profound skepticism of technophiles — including long-time Apple fans — to the announcement of a device that none of them has tried, and that still remains pretty much a mystery.
Here are some of the complaints that surfaced on the day Jobs rolled out the iPad, which won’t actually go on sale for a couple of months:
* it’s too expensive (new technologies are seldom cheap — an original IBM PC, the workhorse of personal computers, went for over $5,000 in 1983);
* it’s just a big iPhone, only with the phone left out (were you really expecting to make phone calls from something that big?);
* it’s a tablet computer, only with the computer left out (in case you didn’t notice, Apple already makes a perfectly good laptop; the iPad must fill a different niche or risk competing with the MacBook);
* it won’t run Linux (or Snow Leopard, or DOS 1.1, for that matter)
* it won’t run Flash apps, and it has no camera (yes, those will be missed)
* the battery isn’t removable (is it a problem for the MacBook? or the iPhone?)
* nobody really knows what it can do, so it probably won’t do anything (that’s pretty pessimistic considering the many unanticipated uses we’ve found for other digital products)
* it’s no Kindle, but even so it will destroy reading, not promote it (reading has always been a technology — and what threatens reading is not a new way to deliver text, it’s people’s reluctance to read widely and critically)
* it’s got a name that cries out for parody.
Technophobes warn that the digital revolution is destroying life as we know it, rotting our brains every time we click. If the widespread adoption of personal computers is any indicator, no one is listening to them. But what are we to think when cutting-edge technophiles warn us off a new device, one they haven’t had a chance to explore but which they already find profoundly disappointing?
Maybe the critics are on to something. And yet, nobody knew what to do with iPods when they first came out, and now they dominate the market for mp3 players. The iPhone didn’t take off, initially, because it didn’t do a lot more than just make calls, and it was just too expensive to tempt users. Now it has an app for everything, and it’s the phone to beat. With that sort of Apple track record, it might be more appropriate to look at the iPad as a blank slate — yes, the pun is intended — a device waiting for users to spin it in new, unanticipated directions.
It’s normal for new communication technologies to deviate from the script, to expand, not limit, communication practices. Writing was developed not to transcribe speech but to keep records of inventory. Pencils were developed by cabinet makers to make cut marks on wood, not for writing words or drawing pictures. Computers were invented to crunch numbers, not process words.
Plus new communication technologies enable new genres of communication: the printing press underwrote the success of novels, newspapers, and paper money (yes, banknotes are a form of symbolic exchange, which makes them valuable as well as important communications). So far, computers have provided the backdrop for the development of email, instant messaging, web pages, blogs, tweets, social networking, and a whole lot more. And mobile phones gave us text messaging — even with a limit of 160 characters, more and more people prefer to text than talk.
Steve Jobs introduced the iPad today as an entertainment device, and with its minimalist approach to storage and connectivity (no more than 64gb of flash memory, a touch-screen keyboard, no dvd drive or usb ports), it may wind up being little more than an iPod with a screen big enough to surf a bit, watch videos, or read books.
And that may be enough. But if that’s all it does, the iPad may not sell a lot of units. Plus, such a device could actually replace laptops and thereby reverse the trend of turning computer users into writers — not copiers of text written by someone else but active creators of stuff that other people read.
But if things break right for Apple, the iPad could also become just what we need to push us into cloud computing big time — a highly portable device with (hopefully) long battery life, allowing us to connect with software on a need-to-use basis, and giving us ready access to off-site data banks where we can store and retrieve our files whenever we need them, sharing them with others or keeping them private as appropriate.
Of course cloud computing itself is in its infancy, with all sorts of privacy, security, and reliability issues that remain to be ironed out. But with a gateway device like the iPad, users might decide they don’t need to squeeze ever-bigger hard drives into their laptops so they can carry around all of their files, and instead move computing into a new direction.
Cloud computing brings its own worries, not the least of which is the fact that users must cede control over their data to third parties, and pay for that privilege. But we could certainly wind up storing our files and accessing our software on our own networked backup drives rather than entrusting them to giants like Google or Microsoft, who already sell information about us as they overdetermine our communication formats and steer our internet browsing from link to link along pathways we think we are blazing for ourselves, but which they actually create for us.
Here are the real worries that the digital age brings, the ones that technophiles should be grappling with: the reconfiguration of our notions of public and private; balancing the need for freedom of expression with concerns over how to preserve security and control the spread of hate, fraud, and exploitation; preserving individuality and innovation in the face of the growing standardization and monopolization of digital resources; protecting intellectual property rights while guaranteeing the widest possible access to information; and reconciling the growing presence of large corporations in a digital world that prefers to see itself as wild and free-wheeling and free from corporate control.
Right now, the iPad is indeed a blank slate. It could wind up a dead end, like 8-track tape or dedicated word processors, or the in-dash phonograph that Chrysler put in cars in the 1950s. But it could also be the start of yet another new way to do things with words, sounds, and images. Most likely, if the iPad succeeds, it will be because it lets us do things that we can’t yet imagine doing.
It’s tempting to make fun of the new Apple roll-out because of all the hype that surrounds it — and yes, the name does invite parody. But before condemning a device that hasn’t hit the stores yet, we should first see how far beyond its limits we can push the iPad, once we actually get hold of it.
In this ad for a 1956 DeSoto, Chrysler features its new in-dash phonograph, a dead-end in automotive music technology that promised “the music you want wherever you go.” The iPad could be such a dead-end, or it could let us do things no phonograph or iPod ever did.