Wednesday, June 20, 2007

IPod and the death of creativity

Ok, this title is purposefully over-the-top, but bear with me. I held out on buying an IPod for years. I was ridiculed by friends, perhaps more because of the fact that I still don’t have cable even though I write about Second Life. Part of the reason for my IPod less-ness was philosophical; part that I don’t like to listen to music while walking, still have vinyl records and was too cheap. I finally gave in and bought the IPod, but my conscience kept bothering me, and I continue to have major issues with the IPod, and also with TiVo and some other gadgets that most people think are the second coming.

Why? Because they defy the possibilities inherent in new technologies, and actually make computers more like toasters – something good at a certain function, but not good at experimental, user-generated upgrade. I think this also has serious implications for the net, for our society and most of all for creativity. I think filmmakers should care about it, but to most people it is counterintuitive to give these products any negativity, so I’m sure this view won’t be popular.

While in Sonoma for a conference, I read a great article called “Saving the Internet,” by Jonathan Zittrain in the Harvard Business Review on the subject, and it got me thinking about this some more. (Note - HBR isn't very generative, so you may have to sign in, but the article is free). Zittrain argues that what makes the internet interesting, innovative and creative is its generativity. As he describes it:

The expediently selected, almost accidentally generative properties of the Internet—its technical openness, ease of access and mastery, and adaptability—have combined, especially when coupled with those of the PC, to produce an unsurpassed environment for innovative experiment.

In other words, the ability for anyone to make new applications, to build new systems, to adapt old models into new models – to create, to innovate – is precisely what has been important about the PC and the web. These technologies are created to “generate” new ideas and new platforms. Yes, it may be easier for someone to develop a computer that only lets you do certain things – like find music, buy it and play it – but this is much less interesting than a computer that one could adapt to also do other things, or do these same things better.

Zittrain goes on to show that the same things that make generative computing work so well are precisely the same things that allow for mischief, such as hacking and piracy. As he describes it:

Those same properties, however, also make the Internet hospitable to various forms of wickedness: hacking, porn, spam, fraud, theft, predation, and attacks on the network itself. As these undesirable phenomena proliferate, business, government, and many users find common cause for locking down Internet and PC architecture in the interests of security and order.

So, because someone could create a malicious hack that would cripple the IPod, or because of piracy concerns, Apple says “we’re taking away these properties which could confuse you or be harmful.” I’m not exaggerating. Like everyone else, I can’t wait for the IPhone, but Steve Jobs has already been quoted saying that the IPhone will not be an open platform, similar to the IPod because people don’t need or want this. Who is he to day, and why does this matter? Think about how cellphones are today - As Zittrain puts it, “Most mobile phones are similarly constrained: They are smart, and many can access the Internet, but the access is channeled through browsers provided and controlled by the phone-service vendor.” Cellphones are usually locked so that you can’t use them on networks other than your provider (a big problem for travelers), not open to reprogramming – not generative. Imagine what great things could be made for the IPod or the IPhone if they were more open – like Firefox, for example, or like other open platforms.

The IPhone will not be a generative device. Why? One, so that they can control the experience – they don’t want you to download music from outside their system where someone else makes money, but they also don’t want you to download a program that could harm your phone. Most consumers don’t want this either, and we want a cool phone, so we accept this trade off pretty readily. In doing so, however, we perpetuate the move towards making our generative computers more like appliances - less innovative and less room for actual creativity.

Zittrain isn’t saying anything new – lots of tech people talk about this, and Larry Lessig has covered similar ground quite well in discussions about the difference between the Read/Write and Read Only paradigms. He too aligns the IPod with this problem. To Lessig, the Read/Write paradigm is quite similar to generative computing – technology that you can use to both read and write – to be a passive consumer or an active creator – whatever floats your boat. Read Only technology – the IPod – just lets you consume, not create. Read-Write encourages creativity, innovation and, he argues – actually encourages more economic growth, due to this constant innovation. In essence, by embracing read-only, less generative models, we are killing the goose that laid the golden egg – and early in this technology’s development.

Both authors are getting at this for different reasons, but both note the possible effects on creativity. This is what I’d like to explore further in my next post, as I think it merits more thought. Other technologies started as more “Read/Write” and became more “Read Only” over time – cinema, radio, television all moved from systems for which people could easily create content to ones in which most people just received content. The creative possibilities for filmmakers –and the distribution possibilities – will become less as we move away from generative computing to the internet and the computer as an appliance. I’m not saying to throw away your IPod, but I do think that as creative types, filmmakers should pay attention to this change and push for more open models.


Abhishek Krishnan said...

Hi, your blog seems to be really nice!! Are you interested in exchanging links? My blog is at and it’s about the latest gadgets and the technology used. Do let me know if you are interested. I too will put up a link to your blog on mine. Thanks.

BNewmanSBoard said...

Done, feel free to link

Anonymous said...

I got a replacement battery at and replaced the ipod battery myself. Their instructions and videos were really easy to use. I checked and thier prices were really inexpensive and their quality seems to be great.