POST BY PADDY JOHNSON
Brian Eno lectures against an Apple-esque aesthetic backdrop
Earlier this week Nicholas Carr singled out Boing Boing blogger Cory Doctorow, Google’s Tim Bray as “Luddites”, labeling their mourning for the loss of creative ends on the iPad as a dislike of progress. Carr puts it a little more eloquently, but the point as I understand it is that technological development doesn’t always bring change we like.
He puts together a compelling argument, but Carr uses the term progress interchangeably with technological development, and they’re not the same thing. I suppose we could debate the merits of whether progress exists at all, but the term implies change that will benefit society, so it’s not entirely accurate to draw luddite conclusions through the loose application of a word.
To be fair, I mostly agree with Carr’s ideological stance even if I’m quibbling over the language he used to express it. Past being an improvement over a laptop in bed, the iPad does seem like a step back, and what feels grating about all the Doctorow/Bray talk is the idea that the business of R&D was ever run with altruistic ends. To quote Carr, “…I’m not under any illusion that progress gives a damn about what I want.”
I’d add to these thoughts, that while I’m not particularly interested in purchasing the iMall iPad, (I don’t need yet another way to spend my money), I’m also not a fan of the if-I-can’t-manipulate-the-hardware-in-my-computer-so-I-can’t-be-as-creative line of logic Doctorow subscribes to. I don’t see why my creativity has to follow the same narrow path as his.
Coincidentally, the sentiments expressed above came out of a conversation I had with a friend yesterday who also reminded me of Brian Eno’s comments on why engineers tended to make products that didn’t match the way he worked. From a 1979 interview with Lester Bangs,
You can either take the attitude that [technology] has a function and you can learn how to do it, or you can take an attitude that it’s just a black box that you can manipulate any way you want. And that’s always been the attitude I’ve taken, which is why I had a lot of trouble with engineers, because their whole background is learning it from a functional point of view, and then learning how to perform that function.
Eno goes on to say that this method didn’t work for him because he knew he’d simply repeat the good sounds he’d saved after he’d figured out how to execute the program. The truth of the matter though, is that most people never even get that far. Sadly, I’m one of them which is why adding a gadget to the pool of stuff I can’t manipulate myself isn’t a huge pain to me. I’ve got social media, a blog, and flickr crap tapping my creative resources already. I don’t need or want anything else on that the list and resist the notion that my “agency” will be lost as a result (see Carr’s comments section).
As for Tim Bray’s thoughts that the iPad points to a future in which “there are “normal” computers, and then “special” computers for creative people” and price points to match — I don’t buy it. The conversation reminds me an awful lot of postulation in the 90’s that the technology industry had removed recording capabilities from portable stereos as a means of forcing people to buy the expensive professional recording equipment. Those worries turned out to be unfounded though because consumers wanted a means of creating their own music, and there were affordable ways of making that happen. Ultimately this suggests Carr’s claim that technology doesn’t care about what we want is only partially true, because the market certainly does care.
What’s really behind this conversation, to my mind, is the rightful fear that change governed by consumer groups that aren’t concerned with what’s good for them, doesn’t always yield positive results. This is a concern that can be addressed, but that’s another post.