Saturday, April 3, 2010

Roll-Your-Own Technology

I've been reading about the Apple iPad with the mix of skepticism and interest that is my usual response to hot new technologies. Time, not I, will tell how this one pans out.

I'm a reluctant Apple fan girl. Back in the early days of the Mac, I hated its closed architecture and expensive, exclusive hardware. The PC seemed a much more open, flexible platform at the time. If I had to pick a monopoly wannabe to back, I wanted to back the one that gave me more freedom.

As Microsoft tightened its stranglehold on Windows systems (and also totally failed to get the whole Internet thing), I got more uneasy. I jumped to the Mac with 10.2, largely because of the BSD Unix under the hood of OSX.

By and large, I love the Mac. It's stable and easy to use and lets me tinker in the shell when I want to.

I'm not so thrilled with the iPod and the iPhone, however. They signal a return to the old closed-architecture, vertical-monopoly game that I so distrusted in the initial run of the Mac. I don't want to be locked into a gadget that I can't use as I like. I don't want to have to ask permission from the manufacturer to use my gadgets as I please. That just rubs me the wrong way.

I still don't own a cell phone. In January, I decided that I needed a mobile communications device of some sort. After some research, I decided to get an ASUS EeePC. It came with Windows 7, but I soon replaced that with the netbook remix of Ubuntu.

Linux has come a long way, babies.

I am positively delighted with the netbook. I named it ipso-facto because it is ipso-facto a computer, I call it by any of a number of diminutives including ipsy, cutie, and ipsy-doodle. It does most things well, and, to my astonishment, ipsy combined with Python have made programming fun for me again.

When the iPad splash started, I wondered if I'd jumped too soon. Early hype suggested that the iPad would prove to be a netbook-killer, that the masses would go for touch screens over keyboards and a closed architecture over open source that really works.

In my mind, the battle lines were drawn: ipsy-doodle or the iPad? Squinting down the line, the sides look familiar. On one side, I see content providers, copyright holders, broadcast media, centralization, homogenization, industrialization, passive consumption, and captive eyes for advertisements and propaganda. On the other side I see content creators, communicators, amateurs, many-to-many communication, decentralization, diversity, do-it-yourselfness, active participation, new ideas, and personal responsibility.

What are computers for? What is the Internet for?

Since very early days, this technology I love so much, that I have spent so much of my life working on and using, has meant very different things to different people. It's both the latest opiate of the masses and also the key to unlock the chains that bind us.

The iPad is another seductive move by the Powers-that-Would-Drug-Us-Into-Senseless-Consumption. The purpose of the Internet is to sit back, relax, let them do the driving for us, and buy more. Those of us who like to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps will find precious little to hang onto in the iPad.

My children spend a lot of time online. I was listening to another talk about how she doesn't like her children to spend much time online. I wondered why it doesn't bother me that my children are online so much. As she outlined the things that her children do online, I realized the essential difference in what our children were doing. Her children are gaming and clicking on links. My children do that, too, but they also use do a fair amount of content creation. They're writing, drawing, editing photos, communicating with people, designing games, and working on collaborative projects.

The free Internet is an idea that has never really existed in the virtual world, but a lot of us found freedom in the cracks around the online frontier. A small, dedicated band of pioneers has always tried to widen those cracks, to turn this space created by the US military into a global commons where ideas can flow freely. We emerged from the halls of academia and the military and high tech, blinked at this new world around us, and claimed it in the name of freedom.

What a strange alchemy that was and is, and how amazing when it actually works.

So the iPad comes out, makes a strong move for the buttoned-down, proprietary, broadcast side of the equation. It has apps you can buy and content you can rent, and no way to open the thing and get at its guts. Someone will jailbreak it, and soon. Apple will either relax its strictures and make it more open or fight to expand its control over the device and the lives of those who use it.

Meanwhile, I will be typing on my little EeePC, trying to make the world a little more free, a little less controlled, a little more open. One keystroke at a time.

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