Dreams About the iPad

and our current relation to technology

Currently I am working on an article about the technological imaginary surrounding the launch of the iPad. In this post I will share with you parts of the media research. The theoretical framework will follow later.

Topic: Imagining the iPad
For years, rumors were circulating, mainly on online platforms, about the next step in “Apple technology”. Instantiated in imaginings like the McBook Wheel or the iThing -this so-called next step would change the way we relate to the Web, each other, and technology in general. In January this year, Apple launched the iPad, the device that seems to fill the gap between the personal computer and the mobile phone. Arguably, the iPad is the tipping point in the way we imagine our relation to the virtual and the Internet and it also promises to reorganise aspects of networked culture like copy-right, commercialization, and the digital divide: The iPad seems to be different from the devices we are used to. The iPad it is not just another gadget, its launch seems to promise a new way of life. It is more than a large iPod touch, it is a computer that is expected to impact people sociologically and will introduce a significant new category (Chen 2010).

The paper’s focus is not on the iPad itself but on its ideological construction and its surrounding clouds of discourse. By following these surroundings, I will survey what the dreams about the iPad can tell us about our current relation to digital technology. What can our expectations of technology tell us about the way we want to relate to each other and society? How is democracy influenced by a new technology like this?

The time frame under scrutiny is from the beginning of January this year, when the iPad’s launch was announced, to the moment the iPad is actually available in the stores in the US, in April. This particular interval creates a useful vacuum in which discussions are not biased by factual knowledge and experience but rather are induced by expectations and imaginations.

Methodology: Through the Actor Network Theory to the Technological Imaginary and Democracy
In order to investigate the discourses, expectations and developments surrounding the iPad, and to make meaningful observations concerning our relation to technology in general, we need to lose the notion of a technical ideological object as a matter of fact and start to approach it as a matter of concern (Latour 87-121). In this case, the iPad is not considered a stand-alone gadget, but rather a device shaped by its surrounding discourses. By following Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory (ANT), I will focus mainly on the hyperbolic clouds surrounding the expectations and developments of the iPad. This sociotechnique network approach as developed by Latour, can be distinguished from a linear perspective of technical development in which the original idea is crucial (Flichy 2007:2). Latour’s method “opposes a model in which innovation can start at any point and not necessarily in the fertile brain of a brilliant inventor (Flichy 2007: 3). From this perspective, Latour argues for a new form of sociology, which feeds off five specific uncertainties; that groups are not fixed, that original goals can be interrupted, that non-human actors have agency, and that matters of concern are hegemonic over matters of fact. To elaborate on these uncertainties is to create several perspectives on problems or inquiries in their relation to socio-technical fields. When using ANT as a methodology, no ‘network’ already exists, but rather is constructed, followed and explored by its traces.

One of the most important hubs in the online discussion network surrounding the iPad, is the Wired website. Since the early rumors, Wired has and continues to publish, on a regularly basis, articles that address the iPad from various perspectives and link to other, related discussions. With the use of ANT, I will trace the discourses as published at Wired.com, and trace the influence of the technological imaginary as shaping force on technology in general. Subsequently, I will elaborate on how technology is used and experienced as a shaping force on democracy. Utilizing Jodi Dean’s conceptualization of democracy, I will develop a notion of the agency of the iPad in relation to online democracy.

Case Study on iPad

The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Invent it
The Wired page Apple’s iPad Tablet: Full Coverage is an archive, and one in which the whole recent history of articles published in relation to the iPad can be located. Together with comments and links, the almost 40 articles a month form a rich base for research. As Latour suggests, I will plunge in, and start “in medias res”, in the middle of things (Latour 123).

“It is about time, tech observers have been anticipating the Apple tablet for several years, churning out report after report of rumors and speculations”(Chen 2010). And, not only speculations were the only predecessors of its launch, there have been some rather precise designs in the history of digital development: One of the first imaginations about a tablet PC, was developed in 1968 by the Xerox PARC pioneer and computer scientist Alan Kay. His notion of the child friendly, lightweight, highly dynamic device can be considered the inspiration for contemporary developments. The Dynabook, the first sketch of Kay’s laptop, is a meditation on “portability” (Chen 2010). He conceptualized “portability” as “being able to carry something else too” and “hand portability” as “ being able to grab something else, too”. Eventually, Kay thinks that mankind, or the industry, will end up with head-mounted displays instead of clumsy flat-screens. They are easier to make, we just have to start researching this.

Obviously the idea of a small portable screen is not new, but neither are the separate parts of the iPad. The usually tight-lipped Apple company developed the new gadget over the last couple of years seemingly in full knowledge of the world and thereby managed the user’s appetitive very carefully (Sorrel 2). All the recently launched Apple products (like the iPod, the iPhone, etc) were merely used as testing grounds: The unicase body (2008), core animation (2007), multitouch glass screen (2008), Snow Leopard (2009), and the non-removable Battery (2008). Accordingly, the iPad has been viewed by some “little more than a rehash of features found in half a dozen previous products” (Sorrel 2).

Evidently, the iPad did not “pop up” out of the blue; bits and pieces were ‘tested’ on a community of users, who provided useful feedback through their comments and responses in the blogosphere and as techniques and software were tested and refined. To conclude on this point, it would be possible to argue the technical imaginary of Kay’s portable Dynabook has been shattered into other products. This shows how the technical imaginary is not just a mental exercise, living in the minds of users and developers, but simultaneously can be tested and implemented physically. The iPad has emerged in this field of imaginations and instantiations, is planned, conceptualized, in a discourse between technological developers and the user.

Apple Tactics and Strategies
In discussions surrounding the iPad, also Apple as a singular company is often the topic of contemplation and debate. The launch of the iPad is not just seen as the launch of a new product, as matter of fact. Users are aware of the relation between Apple politics, other players in the game (Microsoft, Google), the media landscape in general, and more accurately could be said to approach the gadget as a matter of concern, in its relation to company policy.

As John C Abell of Wired wrote: “Trouble now is that Apple, having raised the game with the iPhone, has to do even better with the iPad, which will not have telephone functionality to fall back on and will compete instead with netbooks, tablets, e-readers and even laptops” (Bell 2010). Obviously, we can see that the audience is not just eager to see what the new tool is about, or what it does, but also anxious to see if, and how, Steve Jobs (as Apple’s driving CEO) is going to succeed, again.

In the Wired coverage, there is generally an amazement expressed at the notion that Apple had dared to introduce a whole new gadget or device. This puzzledness partly derives from the notion that the iPad is “expensive and doesn’t obviously replace anything you already have” (Abell 2010). How can Apple sell something to an audience that does not know it needs it? On top of this, the audience is stunned, or thrilled, by two other strong Apple statements or standpoints that obviously will have influences beyond the iPad: The first one is that the iPad does not support Flash which will render many sites unreadable for the iPad users, and if the gadget turns into a success, developer will have to adapt. The second standpoint is that the iPad does not support multitasking. Some future users are rather disturbed by this, since it will strongly influence the way they work, or behave online.

If the iPad succeeds in gathering a big user-group, it will shape the online. This probability is the reason why its launch caused such heated discussions. Especially in the comment-space of the blogosphere we can find highly emotional exclamations. “Apple are nothing more than a fascist design company with an ego surplus. When they finally get something simple like multitasking down, you’ll claim they invented that too (HansGruber 2010). Actually, this kind of shaping is exactly what Apple is aiming at, and has done before, for example with the elimination of the floppy-disk.

Technology is more and more entwined with political and commercial strategies. It is not just something we use, but it is shaping and being shaped. Technology is imagined to disclose a new world to us, as argued by Abell: “For me, a successful iPad will alter my habits and refine preferences I may not be able to exactly articulate. It will drive me into media consumption I have avoided, and reveal to me those things in a full-fledged computer I have had to accept but need infrequently or not at all” (Abell 2010). In other words, it would shape our relation to society in general. Simultaneously, the iPad also seems to be a choice of lifestyle (are you PC or are you Mac? What group do you want to belong to?) This shows how close technology entered our personal sphere. Technology is used to express our “true self” and to create the perfect level of connectedness with the other and makes us vulnerable to its effects.

iPad and Change
While Apple is “blazing a path to the future of computing” (Levy 2010), Google has a different vision on the Internet. They are convinced that desktop software is about to perish in favor of advanced web apps (Levy 2010). This means that the web is taking over an increasingly amount of the organizational structure of data. For a growing group of users, applications like Facebook, Flickr, or YouTube are used for different forms of communication, sharing, and even storage. Problems arise, when the user perceives this personal account as his personal property, while actually all the content is stored in databases owned and managed by the corporation. These corporations can change their policies and this can cause propriety and privacy problems. A clear example is Facebook’s eroding privacy policies. In their initial settings, they offered the user quite some control over their personal information. When Facebook expanded, they abandoned this open, user-friendly policy and—in favor of their advertising and business partners— limited the users’ options to control their own information (Opsahl 2010).
Clearly, Apple’s perspective is a different one than Microsoft. They feel that their UI (User Interface) should not look like a Web page at all and they obviously prefer “the pristine orderliness of autocracy to the messy freedom of an open system” (Levy 2010). Apple introduces its new approach rather harsh, and within their development, they leave little space for other vision: They offer the world a closed system with multiple restrictions but with a seemingly supple workflow.
Nevertheless, the sudden break in digital culture, as announced by the introduction of the iPad, seems to be the only way real progress can be made: When Microsoft tried ten years ago to start an incremental change, with the introduction of a tablet computer that ran a modified version of Windows, this did not lead to change or discussion. Today, Steve Jobs confronts us with his rather new vision on computing, wrapped in a shiny and sexy cover. Whether people like it or not, it turns out to be food for thought. It makes us re-assess our values and needs towards technology, the Internet, democracy, and the position of corporations in general.

The iPad and its Disappearing Abilities
Where on the one hand the iPad stands for rupture and change, on the other hand it is simply a next step in an old tradition: It can be considered mankind’s new phase in its quest for transparency in technology. The iPad is by excellence designed to push the delivery system to the background, leaving space for immersion, transparency, and immediacy. In short: The interface, “it disappears!” (Tweeney 2010).

The device shows websites the way we are used to, besides one major difference, they fill the screen: “Instead of living inside a box with a URL bar and a bunch of buttons alongside other boxes and applications, content takes over the device. There is almost no noticeable interface” (Tweeney 2010). This lack of interface and its instant responsiveness fades the distinction between the representation and the actual thing: “You are not just looking at Wired.com through a browser, you are holding Wired.com in your hands” (Tweeney 2010).

The desire for transparency, or immediacy in relation to technology is an old one. Virtual Reality was once seen as the best way to achieve transparency, which occurred when a representation was seen as the real thing and a certain feeling of “presence” was experienced . Today, Apple’s iPad seems to be the latest step in this human quest for transparency. With respect to our relation to technology, Tweeney’s phrase that we are “living inside a box” is telling. When referring to computer-use, he replaces the literal “looking at” with “living inside”. This is an indication that the longing for the disappearance of the medium—which has been a topic of contemplation for decades—already, has been implemented, at least metaphorically.

The iPad and its Influence
The iPad is expected to have a shaping effect in several areas. The media industry is one of them. Besides that it is supposed to make print sexier than on a regular computer monitor (Buskirk 2010), the iPad is supposed to narrow the gap between the Big Screen-movies and the Small Screen-television. It makes buying and renting movies easier, it enables bookmarking with the new Netfix app , and you can stream movies directly to your iPad (Sorell 2010). But not only the piracy tortured movie-industry is considered a possible benefactor of the new tool, also book and magazine publishers, newspapers, the music industry, television studios and game developers do need some form of lifeline, some desperately: “Each have a place at the iPad table” (Buskirk 2010).

While the iPad has many opportunities for corporations, its effects on the media finances is depending on how the media companies will connect to it. The wide variety of distractions that come with the iPad, as with any computer, makes it necessary that the online content must be carefully designed with specific interactive features and automatic updates when necessary. Despite the high hopes, the degree of success of the iPad within the media landscape is still dependent on the publisher’s strategy and has to be designed and conquered.

Nicholas Negroponte imagines a different form of change induced by the tablet-pc’s, on the level of the digital divide. “They are the new book, the new newspaper, the new magazine, the new TV screen, and potentially the new laptop” (Negroponte 2010). In his opinion, especially the children in the developing world will benefit from the tablets -as he calls them- probably in an attempt to move beyond Apple as company and indicate that there is a whole new market awaiting. Schoolchildren that have no access to books or libraries can potentially all be connected to the world of information and knowledge. Besides, the iPad is also considered to be the first computer that takes into consideration children and the elderly, it is the first computer that attempts to eliminate as well the social divide (Chen 2010): It is tearing down cultural, ageist, and technical barriers as never before (Abell 2010).

Even first-world universities like Seton Hill University, George Fox University, and Abilene Christian University , dream of a paperless, iPad-centric education. They provide their students with iPads and train teachers to integrate mobile web software, and the iPad into their curricula in an attempt to render printed textbooks obsolete (Chen2 2010). They hope this will lead to a better learning environment caused by a wider textbook variety.

However, in 2009, a Princeton experiment on the e-reader Kindle learned that for some the replacement of paper by digits is not possible: “Much of my learning comes from a physical interaction with the text: bookmarks, highlights, page-tearing, sticky notes and other marks representing the importance of certain passages — not to mention margin notes, where most of my paper ideas come from and interaction with the material occurs […]all these things have been lost, and if not lost they’re too slow to keep up with my thinking, and the ‘features’ have been rendered useless” (Aaron Horvath quoted by Hyung Lee 2009).

Understandably, in their expectations concerning the E-readers, users take as base-line their experiences with books and paper and are mainly focusing on those features they are used to. Generally speaking, as Marshall McLuhan already argued, judging new cultural systems on their own terms is difficult because the presence of the recent past colors the vision on the new form. (Johnson 2005). Typically, in the case of the Kindle research, new possibilities and advantages of electronic reading are not further commented on. They miss the opportunity to re-imagine what books look like, which is “something that hasn’t really been re-imagined in about 550 years” (Bill Rankin quoted by Chen2 2010). E-readers not only change the way we read, but also the way content is being written and edited: The way we relate to information and how this is distributed and presented is changing.

iPad as the New World
Through the iPad we can also detect what the dreams of Apple are: “becoming a giant news, entertainment and communications network with Googlilian ambitions” (Vogelstein 2010). The fact that Apple is not only delivering the hardware but also facilitates the software and has a share in content-sales is a new approach in the media landscape: This construction creates a powerful platform, which is expected to be profoundly different than all media-developments we have seen.

The main problem, as experienced before by portals like Yahoo for example, is the distinction between the lean forward devices like the computers (which are not typical entertainment machines) and the lean back machines like the television (great for watching movies but hard to use as interface for online use). By design, the iPhone and the iPad both make serious attempts for media convergence and try to overcome this distinction. Obviously, there are many pros and cons to Apple’s vision on proprietary standards, and whether you like them or not, they make things work. For Vogelstein this results in mix feelings: “ as a matter of principal I don’t like them [proprietary standards]. Practically they make things so easy that I’m not sure I care” (Vogelstein 2010). Arguably, the level of dependence on digital technology in our personal and professional lives, has become that high, that our standards about how the world is ‘supposed to be’ is getting shaped and downplayed by our desire for digital comfort and flawlessness.

In short, on the one hand, the iPad makes the access to the Internet more intuitive and therefore easier. The iPad (as some sort of an “un-computer) seems to be for those people that just want to be online, the non-programmers, which are in fact 80% of the target population (Tenner 2010). On the other hand, the iPad critics argue that it is a gadget that deliberately favors Apple software and therefore obstructs free software development. This last group, is worried about the closed nature of the iPad as a consumption machine, as a device that does little to enable creativity, and is not able to conceive the future of personal computing that is both elegant and open, usable, and free (Payne 2010). The birth of the iPad is feared to lead to a “tinkerer’s sunset” and will become the end of the hacker era of digital history. Apple’s decision for making the iPad a closed device is an artificial one and the sole reason of its close-ness, is seen as greed and will to power- as being twittered by Christian Neukirchen in january this year .

Steven Frank elaborates on this difference in viewpoints by introducing a new terminology: Old World and New World computing. The Old World computer is based on Windows, Linux and Mac Os X, and is build for several purposes (browsing, up -and downloading, viewing, editing, building, recording, programming, etc), is very open (tinker-friendly), and delivers therefore a high degree of instability, performance degradation, viruses etc. It is the result of “30 years of rapid, unplanned change” (Frank 2010). On the other hand, the New World computers (like the iPhone, iPod, and the Ipad), are much more user-friendly, and even unskilled persons can manage.

Frank claims that in order to move to a next level in technological development, we need clean breaks. The New World computer, is not “an offend” to (the relatively small) hacker community, but rather a huge step forward for those on the other side of the digital divide. It is a huge step forward to those who actually do not need a computer, but just need certain features, like using Skype, browsing, or writing a letter.
In this perspective, the iPad is imagined as a tool of inclusion. In relation to this, the iPad’s relation to democracy is janus-faced because on the one end it restricts users to have personal input while on the other end it tries to include as many people as possible.

to be continued


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