Fraser Speirs on the iPad: Future Shock


I’ve read a lot of really good analysis in recent days about the iPad. I haven’t seen it said yet, so I’ll say it here: this is what Apple do. The original Mac was the computer “for the rest of us”, meaning that it was less intimidating and counter-intuitive than the then-standard MS-DOS operating system on the IBM PC. What “the rest of us” wanted was a computer that allowed us to do more than play with command lines and learn how to operate DOS. Point-and-click, drag-and-drop, this were things that Apple gave us long before they became standard on the other platform.

iPhoto, iMovie, iTunes: not to overstate things, but these items of software, flawed as they sometimes are, do exactly the same thing. The software that comes with your digital camera is rubbish? Here’s iPhoto – it’s for the rest of us, who can’t be bothered to wrestle with ugly interfaces and crashy software. iTunes usefully replaced the terrible software that came with the early MP3 players. Video editing software was created with a very confusing interface in order to persuade the old hardware boys to switch over (it looks like an old-style editing suite). So iMovie was the video editing for the rest of us: works like software, doesn’t get in the way.

The iPhone was the smartphone for the rest of us – the one that actually worked in a human way and made you want to use it for the things it was designed for. It has massively increased the use of the mobile internet.

And now we have the iPad: it’s still computing for the rest of us, because the old way of doing things, the hierarchical file system, multiple applications open, massive systems designed to meet the needs of professional content creators, the old way is broken. It doesn’t work for consumers, and anyone who knows even the slightest little thing about computers knows this. I can count a dozen or more family members for whom I have to act as tech support. The iPad, thankfully, will start to fix this situation.

Read Fraser Spiers’ take on the iPad here. He argues that what we’re seeing from a lot of the industry is nothing less than future shock. People just can’t get their heads round how the iPad changes things: especially tech journalists who don’t have the kinds of problems that “the rest of us” do. Snip:

I’m often saddened by the infantilising effect of high technology on adults. From being in control of their world, they're thrust back to a childish, mediaeval world in which gremlins appear to torment them and disappear at will and against which magic, spells, and the local witch doctor are their only refuges.

With the iPhone OS as incarnated in the iPad, Apple proposes to do something about this, and I mean really do something about it instead of just talking about doing something about it, and the world is going mental.

Not the entire world, though. The people whose backs have been broken under the weight of technological complexity and failure immediately understand what’s happening here. Those of us who patiently, day after day, explain to a child or colleague that the reason there’s no Print item in the File menu is because, although the Pages document is filling the screen, Finder is actually the frontmost application and it doesn't have any windows open, understand what's happening here.

For what it’s worth, there are parts of my PhD thesis (link at top of page) that cover this subject. It was written in the 90s, but I was making a point then about how complex systems and technology create a kind of superstitious wonder, where people adopt all kinds of ritualistic behaviour not because they know how to make things work, but because they don’t understand how to make things work.

I used the metaphor of the local god to explain this. We interact with systems in a primitive way sometimes, worshipping at the altar of a local god (or saint) who deals with local contingencies. Another way of putting it is to call it the technological sublime.

The great thing about systems is that they both work and do not work at the same time. The more complex the system, the more complex the relationship between working and not working. If you simplify the technology enough (as in the iPhone and iPad), you create a system where the things that don’t work (Flash, multiple applications etc.) aren’t serious enough to spoil the experience of the bits of the system that do work.