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iPads, “Hackers” and the Death of Computing

Inevitably, amongst the rest of the inane wailing about the iPad in the last 48 hours, the old “closed system” meme has reared its tired head. The particular form of that meme that I want to focus on is a particularly annoying variant and one that is best expressed by Alex Payne in his blog post On the iPad. In yonder post Alex makes the assertion:

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, but let me counter with a bit of my own history. My first computer was a Mac Plus. The Mac Plus was as closed a box as the iPad ever will be. At that time there were no freely available development tools like Xcode (you know, the tool that let’s you develop for the horribly closed iPad). Development tools cost hundreds of dollars. There was no Apple Developer Connection website, fuck Alex, there was no web. This idea that Apple has morphed from some hippy-dippy hacker-friendly love-fest into a dystopian corporate juggernaut is plain wrong. Continuing, Alex writes:

Wherever we stand in digital history, the iPad leaves me with the feeling that Apple’s interests and values going forward are deeply divergent with 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 the dilemma that Alex presents us with. Moving forward we can either have a world of hacker-friendly general purpose computers, or a dystopian nightmare of “closed” products. I would argue that this is a false dilemma. The first way in which Alex’s argument fails is that he confuses the iPad, as well as the iPhone and iPod Touch with general purpose computers, and then attempts to draw conclusions about the future of computing in general from how Apple treats them. It is true that these devices are in essence computers. Hell, the first generation iPhone had specifications that, in every way, are superior to that of my old Mac Plus. However, Apple obviously doesn’t see them in that way. To try and discern Apple’s motives in regards to the very future of computing based on the iGadgets is foolish.

The other way in which Alex misses the boat is the time-honored new media generation Y standard of ignoring all of recorded history prior to the year 2000. Here’s a hint for those unaware: “hackers” are not some mystical new phenomenon of the computer age. They didn’t spring, Athena-like, from the forehead of Zeus with the introduction of the personal computer. There have always been tinkerers, “hackers” if you will, and they always manage to work around whatever road-blocks the purveyors of their particular hobby put in their path.

It’s considered bad form to use car analogies in reference to computing, but this is a case where I think an exception can be made. Once upon a time the internal combustion engine was simplicity itself. Mainly mechanical parts, with a smattering of electrical (not electronic, there is a difference) components. Anyone with the time and inclination could disassemble and tinker with the engine in their vehicle. One might say that they could even “hack” them. Shade-tree mechanics were legion, and many the youth learned the skills that would lead them to careers in mechanical engineering. Does any of this sound familiar?

Over time, though, the nature of the automotive industry changed. Automobiles became more and more complicated and “closed.” Pundits bemoaned the death of the shade-tree mechanic. And yet, tinkerer’s still exist. Communities of enthusiasts who share their knowledge and love of the IC engine still exist. The world didn’t end, it merely changed.

A far more rational take on this situation, but one that I still have some disagreements with was posted by Steven Frank. Steven sees the iPad as an example of the difference between what he dubs “Old World” and “New World” computing. I think that this is a fascinating idea and I largely agree with it. My dissention is with Steven’s belief that the “New World” will necessarily supplant the “Old World.” I don’t see that as a foregone conclusion. I think that both models of computing can coexist, just as consumer friendly automobiles coexist with “hacker” friendly customs.

In either case, the iPad is hardly the herald of our new dystopian future—-that’s Skynet, get it straight.