What does the iPad mean for the future of the Internet? I’ll leave aside how cool the screen is (I am sure it is) and how crisp the colors are (I am sure they are). The iPad strengthens two worrisome trends: the move towards a closed platform and the consumptive turn. (The closed platform has been discussed at length by Jonathan Zittrain: Read it here, or watch him make the argument here.
I’d like to instead talk about the consumptive turn. The key here is that the iPad has no functional, integrated keyboard and it has a great crisp large screen optimized for media consumption. A keyboard can be added (or the on-screen keyboard can be used) but that is not what the device is for. It is for reading, not writing. It is for watching, not typing. As the NY Times writer noted:
“The iPad’s promise was hinted at before Mr. Jobs hit the stage. The set was dominated by a large, comfy chair. Since the birth of the personal computer, we have been hunched over, squinting at screens — great big terminals, laptop displays, tiny screens on PDAs. With the iPad, the screen has come to us as we lean back in ease.”
If the iPad becomes the primary means of accessing the Internet, many people’s participation channel will become narrower and shallower. The interface matters.
That, to me, is the core peril of the iPad. Hunched back and squinting, and uncomfortable, indeed. That’s how Wikipedia was created. That’s how millions of people post on their blogs and write their comments on others; compose emails and go down in flame wars; all do all the things that make the Internet such a great, messy, unhinged place for exchange of ideas, opinions and rants. That’s how it works: hunched backed, squinting, a tad uncomfortable … and typing.
Devices such as the iPad discourage participation through writing. With an iPad, you can tweet a tweet, send an “call me when you arrive” text, and look up the price of an item with ease. Those are very important and useful functions, sure. If the iPad becomes the primary means of accessing the Internet, many people’s participation channel will become narrower and shallower.
The interface matters. Lack of a keyboard has consequences beyond aesthetics.
I am not advocating bad ergonomics. I like to sink into a comfy chair with a book (or an e-book device) as much as the next book-lover, and you will occasionally find me slouched in a couch, watching television with a rapidly diminishing bowl of snacks on the side. That is a consumptive mindset and before the Internet, that was the most easily available way of spending free time. Over the years, as the Internet has taken over my world, I have done less and less of that and I suspect that is true for many people. I find it hard to just consume without being able to say something. I want a keyboard nearby.
A large part of what made the Internet such a breakthrough for the public sphere that was previously dominated by one-way conversation from the powerful, the rich and the slickly-produced is the fact that interactivity through writing was built into the device that we used to access it. Computers came with keyboards, not touchscreens and not speech recognition . So, the issue is not just that typing on a screen is clunky. And I suspect soon these devices will come with speech and natural language recognition. That’s fine if you want to tell your mobile device to call home or pull up recipes for oatmeal-raisin cookies. Not so fine if you want to comment on a blog post, fire off a tirade, or write a lengthy email. Very few people can dictate as if they were writing — and often those rare types are professional writers.
Writing, especially writing at length is a different modality of thought than talking and it also allows a different kind of exchange and discourse. (I refer specially to the scholarship of Neil Postman and Walter Ong.) As Postman argues, writing and the spread of the printed word through literacy and the printing press created a culture in which it is possible to debate ideas at length and produce analytic thought which can be produced, advanced, discussed, refuted, rejected, improved and otherwise churned through the public sphere. As Postman writes in Amusing Ourselves to Death: “almost all of the characteristics we associate with the mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively, and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; and abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.” (p.63).
I’ll grant you Postman is exaggerating somewhat and all is not rosy in print-world. I’ll also grant that privileging written literacy devalues and hides the value and knowledge in the spoken domain that is often produced by the less-powerful. And, yes, there is great visual creativity on the Internet. It has been wonderful to see the world of visual talent break free from the corporate-controlled bottleneck. True, a lot of the material out there is lacking in brilliance, but as far as I’m concerned, mass-produced mediocrity is actually a sign of democratic participation, so, hurray.
However, as great as it is to see increased participation in visual means of exchange, a visual public sphere is a lacking public sphere. The visual will always be evocative, emotional and visceral compared to writing. A visual-only channel cannot sustain the kind of public sphere that could match the complexity of our world.
Besides, the iPad does not even have a camera which is really interesting. While they might add one in the future, I think this is not just an accident that they left that off when faced with space constraints. I think the concept is not to do anything with the iPad. The iPad is an immobilizing mobile device. You sit and watch; you slouch and read; and at most, you tweet and go. It is for consuming the world through a crisp, clear screen.
As it stands, the iPad is another big step in the bookification and televisionification of the Internet. I say, let’s hang on to our keyboards.