Sunday, April 04, 2010

The iPad and the "Geek Civil War"

Just a quick comment on the debate over the socio-political implications of the new Apple iPad currently the matter of some contention.

On one hand, Cory Doctorow warns that the iPad is a dangerously "closed" device that restricts the rights of it users, encouraging them to consume rather than create. He points out that the much lauded Marvel Comics app for the iPad prevents users from sharing or reselling comics, potentially destroying a great deal of fan culture, which has revolved around these activities. At one point he asserts, referring to the sealed nature of the device itself "if you can't open it, you don't own it."

On the other hand, Joel Johnson of Gizmodo attempts to refute Doctorow in an article appropriately titled "Cory Doctorow, You are a Consumer Too." He complains that Doctorow's article purports to "sneer at everyone who is excited about the iPad, warts and all, and explain to us that we're dupes." Ultimately, he suggests, Doctorow's commitment to open systems puts too much of the responsibility for maintaining and repairing computers and software onto users themselves, who would rather be spending their time using computers and software to accomplish other tasks. He concludes that, despite sharing many of Doctorow's concerns about issues like DRM and content lock-ins, "But I don't want to use shitty computers with shitty operating systems, just like I don't want to drive cars that come with their own schematics. Instead I want to drive beautifully engineered machines that scream with precision fury. And if they break, I want to take them to a shop and have them fixed. You keep the 3D printer; I'll take AAA."

These two approaches to the iPad demonstrate fairly common discourses about computers, computer mastery, and computer ownership. Doctorow's anti-iPad critique is typical of a hacker position I call "cyborg individualism," that stresses the need for individuals to master and control the computer hardware that they own. "If you can't open it, you don't own it," is a telling line, as it reveals that the ideal Doctorow wants to defend is that of ownership. Ironically, the desire to own hardware totally leads to various forms of commons systems for managing software, as a means of preventing software owners from establishing "illegitimate" control over devices.

Johnson's rebuttal points out the failure of Doctorow's position to spread beyond a very small elite technical community, but I think it suggests the wrong reasons for this failure. It isn't that people just want to be consumers, and have their needs met by nearly unaccountable corporations, its that the model of self-sufficient individual as an alternative to this consumer relationship is a failure. We should not all be expected to write our own drivers, build our own computers, install our own operating systems, and we are certainly not capable of actually supplying ourselves with the necessary inputs to run a contemporary technological society. However, I don't think that means that we should accept consumerism as a necessary condition. Instead what we need to be doing is exploring and attempting to build new forms of community that might really meet those needs, and that is something the acceptance of individualism and individual property as ideal conditions by Doctorow and others like him too often precludes them from really embarking upon.