Apple vs the iPad Bedwetters
The iPad? It's the end of the world as we know it!
Apple's new iPad has caused an amazing outbreak of Chicken Little-ism. If the iPad is successful, it's curtains for the internet, for freedom and for humanity as we know it. Have you felt a piece of this fall on your head?
Permit me to introduce you to the Professional Bedwetter. It's someone who doesn't like what they see, doesn't understand what people like - but nevertheless, wants to ban it all anyway.
The Puritans once imagined wickedness in every corner, and there's certainly a strong whiff of Puritanism about this latest iPad. I would have thought the Observer veteran John Naughton would have a more sophisticated and Catholic view of sin, but he too has found comfort in a simplified world.
For Naughton, the iPad puts mankind in danger of being led astray by pleasure, and cites Huxley, who "thought that we would be undone by the things we love." You'll recall it's HL Mencken who ably defined the Puritan as someone "haunted by the thought that somebody, somewhere might be enjoying themselves". Apple devices are fun, his argument goes. Well, let's be afraid of them.
Why does he say so? After several hundred words he delivers his justification, and that it's: "a single US company renowned for control-freakery will have become the gatekeeper to the online world." A fair point, - only he doesn't mean Microsoft or Google. He means Apple. And er, that's it. The assertion provides its own justification.
Brewster Kahle has also raised the spectre that the iPad will kill the internet, but he doesn't have much more justification to offer us.
"They really control the horizontal and the vertical by going with the iPhone platform," says Brewster. Cripes - both? Apparently. "I think it's discouraging... the future is controlled, and it's controlled by Apple."
That's some prediction. Wait a second. Apple has just shown off a fancy $500 picture frame. Or $900 if you want 3G. And this apparently crushes all creativity, killing the internet? Please. What are these guys smoking? Who's spiking their latte?
Threats real and imagined
As someone who broke the story of a genuine and significant threat to the open computing infrastructure almost a decade ago, I'm in a particularly good position to judge a real threat from a phoney fright. It's still the benchmark by which to measure all the others, implanting total control over the personal computer in quite an insidious way. This time it's much more tame.
Apparently, appliances will kill innovation. AOL, the argument goes, would never in a million years have thought of inventing Twitter. Now what a source of riches that is for everybody. Programmers will toil at the coal face of fart apps, sold for 99 cents a time - when they could be programming them in Java or Flash and giving them away for free!
We're going off a cliff!
There's a glimmer of seriousness behind this. Apple controls the legitimate applications market via App Store today - until you jailbreak it, that is. But that's no justification for the Bedwetters to raise the alarm, for a number of reasons - most of which should be understandable to everyone, even campaigning law professors.
If successful, it may be able to dictate the wholesale price for content, as it does with the music business. The copyright businesses are facing a bleak future where the wholesale price is zero, or two beans, so that's another story. The iPad is not an open computing device at present, that's for sure.
But the iPad, even if it succeeds in shifting a few copies, will become the fourth or fifth, or even sixth computer in the household. If Apple is to become "the gatekeeper" that these Bedwetters fear, then we must get rid of all the others - including MacBooks and MacPros - those work laptops, the kids' school laptop, the home PC in the corner with the photos on it - all must go on the scrapheap. These are computers that run iPhoto, or Pro Tools, and the rest. That's about a billion computers we'll need to discard overnight. The world's biggest garage sale is about to take place. All because we're mesmerized by Steve, and his magic picture frame!
Please. This reveals a view of us citizens as such witless zombies I wonder how often they stray beyond the LCD screen. They must think we're yokels. I can explain where this comes from, and why.
I birthed, therefore I am
The fear that everyone will access the internet through appliances, killing the "open internet", was enshrined in a book a couple of years ago by the Berkman Center's Jonathan Zittrain. I have a theory about this, based on some years in the techno utopian wilderness of Silicon Valley.
Often with people with a very simplified view of the world - as these Berkmanites do - is that they "birthed" at a particular time. They had very little sense of identity or self worth before this great moment, and so they're left imprinted with the world as their birthed self first took the blotter, I mean, opened their eyes. And they want things to be exactly as they were then.
It's like a duckling that thinks "Mother" is a pair of yellow Wellington Boots, because it's the first thing it sees that provides nourishment. They're imprisoned a static view of the world and inevitably regress further and further into infantilism - doomed to follow a pair yellow Wellies for the rest of their lives.
Zittrain "birthed" in the mid to early 1990s, when AOL and Compuserve were offering metered information services, and this left a lasting impression on him. I don't recall anyone back then who thought the Compuserves would survive, the Web was always going to win. But seeing off AOL was evidently some coming-of-age ritual that must be celebrated, and so re-living one's adolescent battles is something they insist on imposing upon the rest of us. At regular intervals.
It's strange to present the "future of the internet" as one of threats, rather than a set of technical challenges - that's the Puritanism I think, and no one at Berkman is noted for their tech savvy, or engineering credentials. They just talk about the web a lot, which is not the same thing. Environmentalists have already proved that scaremongering is a great way to get in the papers, and the Berkmanites like to get into the papers. It's a rejection of politics, and an implicit assumption that we're thick, to approach a subject in this way.
But even if you're going to look at threats coolly and rationally, which is quite legitimate, then this is a very selective view of the world. The internet has one choke point, and it's called Google. Computer networks are now so rich and diverse and cherished by us, that nobody can ultimately dominate. But what Google can do, that a Verizon or BT can't, is come quite close, by setting the economic parameters for others. So by reducing the ability of access networks to make a profit, it aggregates value in its own data centres. By reducing the value of copyright to zero, it bolsters its primary business, which is advertising.
Naturally, you will not hear more than a token squeak about this from Zittrain and chums, because Google is still the Mother in Yellow Wellington Boots. Oh, and it splashes the cash around readily amongst the cyberlaw schools, so they can fight the good fight.
I'd also have more faith in the Berkmanites if they didn't cosy up to some of the creepiest cults going. - from ICANN (the unaccountable domain name quango birthed at Berkman) via Google, to the cult of Wikipedia, another shrine to top-down control and the world's most bureaucratic disinformation factory. (Fact: Jimmy Wales once played house-sitter for Lawrence Lessig, which is surely the oddest couple since Harold and Maude).
Zittrain once threw a hissy fit when he discovered a panel discussion planned by the prestigious Institute of Contemporary Arts in London would include Professor Richard Barbrook - author of The Californian Ideology - and myself. He demanded the panel instead include fawning acolytes, mini-Zitts, that he could hand pick. To its credit, the ICA cancelled the event rather than let this overgrown schoolboy take the Mick.
Control-freakery? They've heard of it!
The Preznit and your iPhone
It's not the last you'll hear of the Berkmanites, but their influence is waning faster than anyone could have imagined.
A year ago you could find many a top law school professor boasting they were just a phone call away from the Preznit himself. Barack Obama, you'll recall, was straight outta Harvard Law. He was one of "us". The cyberlaw crowd were his policy angels. So you might expect Berkman to be running tech policy by now - but they seem more remote than ever. Obama told them to get busy studying "Net Neutrality" - another of their manufactured scares - but dumped their proposals in the bin. When Google execs sponsor the
coronation inauguration, why need the Gofer inbetween?
This latest Bedwetting campaign is doomed because the President may be a dull bureaucrat, but he is not stupid. Goading large telcos is one thing, but he'll not be the President who breaks up the love affair between Americans and their iPhones. ®